Learning apps for toddlers could face a harsh lesson



Outrageous claims are a hallmark of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store. A small sampling of the storefront's most ludicrous applications include Cry Translator (which purports to diagnose the wailing of fussy babies and offers solutions to their problems), Ghost Radar (which allegedly detects paranormal activity) and Passion (which leverages the iPhone microphone, accelerometer and other core features to assess your, um, romantic prowess). Most of these apps are sold for entertainment purposes only--in other words, buyer beware. But a complaint filed this week with the Federal Trade Commission by a children's advocacy group could signal a new push to hold app developers accountable for their marketing proclamations.

The complaint from Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood alleges that seven iOS apps marketed by toy maker Fisher-Price and another eight built by Slovakian developer Open Solutions falsely claim to teach infants spatial skills, numbers, language or motor skills, arguing that there is no conclusive scientific evidence to substantiate those assertions. The CCFC complaint also contends that using these apps "may be detrimental to very young children" by taking away time from hands-on creative play or interactions with adult caregivers. Susan Linn, the advocacy group's director, also reminded The New York Times that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents avoid exposing children two and under to screen media of any kind.

This is not the first time the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has taken on the electronic education segment. In 2006, the group filed a similar complaint with the FTC against videos marketed by Walt Disney Company-owned Baby Einstein--the interactive media firm later amended its educational claims and in 2009 agreed to offer refunds to consumers who purchased its videos. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood again made headlines in 2011 with a complaint filed against Your Baby Can, the marketers of the Your Baby Can Read videos, whose ads suggested their products could teach infants as young as nine months old to begin reading. Last year, Your Baby Can agreed to settle an FTC false advertising judgment totaling $185 million, equal to the company's gross sales since 2008.

"The baby genius industry is notorious for marketing products as educational, when in fact there is no evidence that they are," Linn said. "Parents deserve honest information about the educational value of the activities they choose for their children and they are not getting it from these companies."

Fisher-Price and Open Solutions definitely make some bold statements in their respective App Store marketing efforts. Fisher-Price's Laugh & Learn Let's Count Animals for Baby vows to teach "numbers and counting, 1-10, animals, first words and action/reaction," while Open Solutions' Baby Hear and Read Verbs goes even further, stating: "Here comes a new and innovative form of kids' education. The application provides learning opportunity to learn how to read, pronounce and spell basic verbs. We have tested this app and the kids and parents simply love it!"

In a statement provided to The Associated Press, Open Solutions said it agrees with the CCFC that electronic media is no substitute for human interaction, but also noted positive reviews written by App Store customers. "We also don't say 'Get this game and let it teach your child everything,'" Open Solutions said. "We assume [the] child is playing the game with [a] parent/sister/babysitter. We think we have apps that can help parents with babies, either by entertaining babies or help them see new things, animals, hear their sounds, etc." Fisher-Price did not respond to requests for comment.

If the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood's track record is any indication, its FTC complaint could significantly change how educational mobile applications are promoted to parents. But could Apple also institute more sweeping changes impacting all App Store marketing efforts? External pressures have prompted App Store changes in the past: Earlier this year, Apple agreed to pay out more than $100 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed by parents whose children purchased virtual goods and enhancements sold inside iPhone and iPad applications without permission. The settlement also prompted Apple to add a line of text to freemium App Store download pages, alerting users when an iOS title supports in-app purchases. From there Apple additionally introduced age-rating notification boxes below each iOS app's developer credits, a move to assuage consumers and watchdog groups calling for greater transparency around the App Store shopping experience. Expect more changes to come: It isn't only parents who deserve honest information about the apps they download.--Jason