Data Collection Practices of Mobile Applications Played by Preschool-Aged Children

JAMA Pediatr. 2020 Dec 1;174(12):e203345. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.3345. Epub 2020 Dec 7.


Importance: Child-directed mobile applications (apps) have been found to collect digital identifiers and transmit them to third-party companies, a potential violation of federal privacy rules. This study seeks to examine the differences in app data collection and sharing practices by evaluating the sociodemographic characteristics of the children who play them.

Objective: To examine data collection and sharing practices of 451 apps played by young children and to test associations with child sociodemographic characteristics.

Design, setting, and participants: This study used data from the baseline phase of the Preschooler Tablet Study, a prospective cohort study conducted from August 2018 to January 2020. This study used a population-based sample. A convenience sample of the parents of preschool-aged children was recruited from pediatric offices, childcare centers, social media posts, and an online participant registry. Eligibility criteria included (1) parent or guardian of a child aged 3 to 5 years, (2) parent or guardian who lived with the child at least 5 days per week, (3) participants who spoke English, and (4) a child who used an Android (Google LLC) device. All interactions with participants were through email, online surveys, and mobile device sampling.

Exposures: Sociodemographic characteristics were assessed by parental report.

Main outcomes and measures: This study tested the hypothesis that data transmissions to third-party domains are more common in apps played by children from low-socioeconomic-status homes. Child app usage was assessed via a mobile sampling app for an average of 9 days. Persistent identifier data transmissions to third-party domains were quantified for each app using an instrumented Android environment with monitoring of network traffic; for each child, the counts of total data transmissions were calculated, and the total third-party domains were detected for the apps they played.

Results: Our sample comprised 124 children who used Android devices (35 tablets, 89 smartphones; 65 girls [52%]; mean [SD] age, 3.85 [0.57] years; 87 non-Hispanic White [71%]). One hundred twenty of participating parents (97%) were women. Of 451 apps tested, 303 (67%) transmitted persistent identifiers to 1 to 33 third-party domains. Child data transmission counts ranged from 0 to 614 (median [interquartile range], 5.0 [1-17.5]) and third-party domain counts from 0 to 399 (4.0 [1-12.5]). In multivariable negative binomial regression models, higher transmission and third-party domain rates per app were positively associated with older age (rate ratio, 1.67 [95% CI, 1.20-2.33]; P = .002 and 1.69 [95% CI, 1.26-2.27]; P < .001, respectively) and lower parent educational attainment (eg, high school or General Educational Development or less rate ratio, 2.29 [95% CI, 1.20-4.39]; P = .003 and 2.05 [95% CI, 1.13-3.70]; P < .02, respectively), but not with household income.

Conclusions and relevance: This study found that apps used by young children had a high frequency of persistent identifier transmissions to third-party companies, suggesting that federal privacy rules are not being enforced. Older children, those with their own devices, or those from lower-education households may be at higher risk of potential privacy violations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Welfare / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Computers, Handheld / statistics & numerical data*
  • Confidentiality / standards*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mobile Applications / statistics & numerical data*
  • Play and Playthings*
  • Prospective Studies