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Kids’ online math game criticized by watchdogs

WASHINGTON (Axios): Child advocates ar22 groups led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood leveled a complaint Friday with the Federal Trade Commission against Prodigy Education, accusing the math game company of deceiving teachers and parents into believing the program is free while aggressively marketing a $59 premium membership to children.

Why it matters: As children’s screentime has skyrocketed during the pandemic, educational online programs are especially appealing to parents who are more concerned about how kids are spending time online.

“Kids are more dependent than ever on remote learning, and spending more time than ever on digital devices. Educators and parents are struggling to make the right choices about which platforms will truly aid children’s education — essentially what is a good use of students’ time?”

— David Monahan, spokesperson for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Driving the news: 22 groups led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood leveled at complaint Friday with the Federal Trade Commission against Prodigy Education, accusing the math game company of deceiving teachers and parents into believing the program is free while aggressively marketing a $59 premium membership to children.

Prodigy, which raised $125 million in funding last month and has more than 100 million users worldwide, lets kids explore a fantasy world and battle opponents by answering math questions.

The company offers a free in-school version, but the at-home version advertises a premium membership that tempts children with virtual rewards like sparkly treasure boxes available only to members, according to the complaint shared with Axios.

The groups say this creates inequities in that are visible in the classroom version where “bejeweled members sail around on a cloud, while non-members literally tromp in the dirt.”

The big picture: Federal enforcers already are scrutinizing how children use and interact with online companies.

The FTC in December launched a sweeping probe into the privacy and data collection practices of nine major social media and streaming companies, including seeking information on how their practices affect children and teens.

What they’re saying: “Prodigy’s insidious business model is creating a new form of inequality in classrooms,” CCFC executive director Josh Golin said in a statement. “Parents are trying to make the most of the educational tools at their disposal during this unprecedented time, and many are struggling to make ends meet.”

The other side: The majority of Prodigy users have the free subscription, and no payment is required for students to receive access to the educational content in the game, a company spokesperson told Axios.

“We’re proud to provide millions of students, families, and schools with completely free access to standards-aligned educational tools to support in-class and at home learning,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “To support us in offering all of this educational content for free, we also provide optional memberships for families for use outside of school.”

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