How Adult Ads In Online Games Impact Young Pakistani Children

In a posh neighbourhood of Karachi, seven-year-old Farid Waqas* seemed to be engrossed in the video game he was playing on his mother’s mobile phone as his father Waqas, who had just entered the house, watched him from the drawing-room window. The young boy suddenly cried in an irritated tone, “What is this ugly thing!” 

It was an animation of a scantily clad girl crying for help, which was possible only if the game user installed another game and played that to rescue her. The in-app game ad appeared inappropriate to Waqas but much to his surprise, Farid showed no interest in it and wanted to return to the car-racing game he was playing. He clicked on the screen to close the ad and resumed his car race.

Waqas is not the only parent to see their children encounter adult ads in mobile video games. And while some Pakistani children would show no interest in sexually suggestive advertisements, others do interact with them.

Yousaf, 41, is a single parent of two boys aged 9 and 11. He bought his elder son a mobile phone so that kids could contact their father whenever he was away for work. Soon he had to buy another phone for the younger boy as well because the brothers would quarrel over playing mobile phone games.

Lately, Yousaf has been noticing changes in the behaviour of his kids that he first attributed to the absence of their mother. They have grown irritable and shy at the same time. They would avoid their cousins whenever someone visited. He believes the change the boys underwent has something to do with the mobile phones as well, yet he could not immediately pinpoint exactly what went wrong.

Clinical psychologists Kunza Tariq and Narmeen Askari, in recent years, have seen “a lot” of children with social anxiety and attention deficit issues that were traced to extremely high screen time.

However, high screen time is a broader term and would not distinguish between educational activities and leisure time spent on handheld devices, let alone provide a further breakdown of leisure time. 

For children adult ads have invaded these otherwise beneficial leisure hours which may help unburden information load. The problem is almost universal and has already been flagged in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

It is imperative to explore how the problem has come to affect Pakistani children and what consequences it might have. But since the problem appears to be global, a context of how adult ads in online games set the alarm bells ringing for parents in the west also helps in understanding the issue.

Why Western Parents Feel Alarmed by Adult Ads in Online Games

In April 2022, the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that game developers were showing sexually obscene ads on a game rated PEGI 3, or considered suited for all age groups. Many parents had filed complaints against the advertisements, which included animated characters spanking each other, among other things.

The in-app ad for “Brain Story: Tricky Puzzle” featured cropped close-ups of a character’s breasts and backside. In another ad, two female characters were shown slapping each other’s rear while a voiceover croons “play now.”

According to the European marketing website, The Drum, “Clicking on the link brought up an animation of a woman with her arms tied to the ceiling and feet resting on a table, giggling with a partially exposed bra while her feet are tickled by a paintbrush.”

The game developers, of course, contest the decision, and new description added to the game’s Google Play page claim that “it’s not a sexual game.”

The reviews under the game on Google Play blamed people for having poor taste saying, “If you think it’s sexual then you probably have a boner for bad graphics and animation.”

Across the Atlantic, in the United States, thousands of concerned parents raised voices against a game called “LUV”, which was advertised to young children using in-app ads.

“The game, which holds a 17-plus mature rating, involves a young player navigating through a sexual encounter, having to choose whether to undress his scantily-dressed step-sister in her sleep, or wake her up,” reported 3TV/CBS5 in September 2021.

Although the game itself was Rated 17-plus, its ad appeared in games for young children. A complaint filed to Google read, “My 10-year old saw this ad,” according to 3TV/CBS5.

Parents in the west have been complaining about sexually explicit ads on kids’ games for years, with The Washington Post reporting as early as October 2021 that inappropriate content was making its way to mobile apps and that maturity ratings were unreliable. In the western context, explicit ads appearing in online games is an extension of the problem parents faced before the smartphone revolution when violent and sexually suggestive material was marketed to a young TV audience.

But controlling what your children watched on the TV was way easier than controlling their smartphone experience, at least this is how some Pakistani parents feel.

Explicit Ads and Gaming Experience of Young Pakistani Children

Seven-year old Farid’s* father, Waqas, having silently watched his son’s encounter with a sexually explicit in-app ad, decided to scan what games his son was playing and what bearing they had on Farid’s formative years.

He learned that his son had been installing almost every new game for which an ad appeared as he played, provided the game offered a thrill. A snapshot of games installed by Farid listed the following: Call Scary, Fake Call Scary, Killer Jason Store, Monster Hero, Talk with Granny, The World at Arms, US Army Truck, City Coach Bus, Grand Snow, Modern bus, Trash Truck, HTD Weapons, Terzo Millenium, Titanic, Anti-Terrorist, Tank Warfare, Mini Race, Off-road SUV, Mega Ramps, Mega Ramp, Top Drivers, Top Speed 2, and Traffic Rules.

Waqas says the age-inappropriate ad appeared on a Roblox game, which he immediately removed. Roblox is an online gaming platform offering over 40 million games as of May 2022.

Waqas said he also found inappropriate in-app ads on Killer Jason, Free Fire, and Craft Vegas, and removed these games as well. 

Farid’s mother says their only son instals around 20 games a month and she regularly removes some of them to preserve storage on the device.

While Farid is not drawn toward sexually explicit ads, his cousin Ismail*, six, was found playing the notorious “Brain Story: Tricky Puzzle.” His parents removed the game immediately.

Preschool Children

Interviews with Furqan, father of two children as young as three years old, and Umme Maria, mother of 5 year-old Zarmeen*, revealed that the gaming experience for young kids is different than the older ones.

According to the parents, preschool children (2-7 years old) in the preoperational stage of cognitive development do not click on ads to install a new game, which is unlike the ones aged between 7 and 11 years old.

Furqan says his three-year-old daughter Anila* has only learnt to skip ads by clicking the “X” button to close the popup window. She would not ask her parents to install a new game for her very often and remains content with the two or three games already installed on her mother’s phone.

His other child, 1.5 year-old Zahid*, does not play games yet and only watches YouTube videos for kids.

Similarly, five-year-old Zarmeen has never installed a new game on her own, but she would sometimes tell her mother to get her a new one. “Whenever she sees someone play a new game, she asks me to install it,” says Umme Maria, who said she once had to tell the child that the new game she demanded contained viruses.

Umme Maria says she noticed that her child appeared interested in ads but would not click them. 

School-going Children

Rabia Shehzad is mother of two pre-teen children Maham*, 12, and Suleiman*, 10. She closely supervises their mobile gaming experience, which is slightly different from Farid’s loosely monitored gaming life.

Rabia says Suleiman* likes to play action games, similar to the ones that Farid* plays, and adds that he becomes extremely irritated whenever an inappropriate ad shows up, obstructing his game. “Who is this [expletive]!” he once shouted.

Instead of following such an explicit ad leading to a new game, he prefers to restart the game, says Suleiman’s mother.

His sister, Maham*, used to play several games when she was younger, but when an explicit ad appeared in a game, her gaming life ended then and there – Rabia banned her from playing online games, though she is still allowed to log on to the internet for education.

Whereas, Suleiman is allowed only 10 minutes twice a day with smartphones. On the other hand, Yousaf’s sons, 9-year-old Fahad and 11-year-old Faheem, enjoy a completely unsupervised gaming experience.

Faheem* says they regularly install and uninstall new games and would try everything they could. He recalled seeing an ad showing a scantily dressed cartoon girl but insisted that he did not click it. However, he said that whenever an ad for a new and promising game popped up, he would click on it.

Fahad*, the younger son of Yousaf, was hesitant to respond to questions and only said that he would install a new game if it promised thrill. He never came across a “dirty ad,” he said.

Yousaf, however, feels alarmed over his sons becoming reclusive and is planning to consult psychologists. But he is afraid of the stigma attached to therapy in Pakistan.

Expert Advice – Signs Indicating Your Child is Bombarded with Explicit Material

How in-app sexually explicit ads affect young children can only be determined through a full-scale study, but conversations with parents suggest that such content irritated underage children and promoted either aggression or reclusiveness. 

Psychologist Tariq says, “Adult material can leave children with anxiety and distress, resulting in psychic personality damage. It will have a detrimental impact on children’s self-esteem.”

Her colleague at Karachi’s Psychological Help Centre, Narmeen Askari, says since explicit content increases anxiety, it could also adversely affect children’s education, causing them to lose focus.

The psychologists said that during the Covid-19 pandemic smartphone usage skyrocketed, leading to a rise in gaming addiction among minors, and pre-teens being subjected to not just cyberbullying, but also a threat to their mental wellbeing.

Tariq recalled a case involving a young child with gaming addiction. He used to play games all day long, developing a revulsion for school and classes. 

“When the child’s education suffered he internalised the guilt for having bad grades, and that affected his self-esteem. This slowly progressed into depression from addiction,” said the psychologist. 

He was enabled to recover via behaviour and routine management, as well as other cognitive-behavioural treatments. Parents were also psycho-educated in preparation for the future when his actions would be controlled to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Is Banning Access to Smartphone the Solution? 

Both Umme Maria and Rabia Shahzad, like many other parents, have improvised a line of defence against unwanted in-app ads. They routinely turn off the device’s Wi-Fi before handing their phones to children in their free time. This would effectively block popup ads. 

However, both mothers say they cannot think of completely shutting down the internet or imposing a blanket ban on children playing online games. “The kids have become completely dependent on the internet for their education,” says Rabia, adding, “they do not explore their books but go straight to the internet to find study material.”

According to her, turning off the internet would deprive them of a valuable source of learning and education.

Umme Maria says switching off the phone’s Wi-Fi is the only extent she could go as the internet has helped her with Zarmeen’s development who would be using the online resource in a few years as well.

Child psychologists Kunza and Narmeen also agree that banning the internet is not a workable solution given its increased use for education in Pakistan.

The mental health experts also underscored that offering “free-time” or “play time” to children was as important for their cognitive development as sending them to school. “It enables individuals to unburden their minds of the everyday informational load and produce their own new ideas,” said Askari. 

“It will allow children to digest past knowledge and encourage creativity through experimentation. As a result, their mental growth will be enhanced,” added Tariq.

She also urged parents to promote outdoor activities for children as physical activity “releases feel-good chemicals while also keeping them fit.”

Tariq says, “Online games cannot fulfil the requirements of physical play. Play promotes not only a healthy body but a healthy mind as well, which when combined in a positive way may stimulate growth. Children spend the majority of their time playing online games in a seated position, which is detrimental to their health.”

Yousaf says that he attempted to engage his sons in a badminton game because he wanted them to leave their mobile phones and interact with him in one way or the other. As elaborate as his plans were, they failed miserably. 

His 9 year-old son Fahad said, “There is no excitement in playing badminton. It sounds boring,” almost protesting within half an hour after the game began. Whereas the 11 year-old Faheem would not even hold the racket in the first place. “I looked stupid,” says Yousaf.

Can Parental Control Apps Serve as a Bulwark Against Explicit Game Ads?

Although the parents interviewed for this report were all well-educated with university degrees, they said they never used parental control apps or device profiles to monitor the online experience of their children.

Rabia said a couple of times she reported inappropriate ads to Google but did not observe any change afterwards and the same ads reappeared. She said she had heard about setting up parental control on smartphones but did not know how to set up the mechanism.

Umme Maria believes active monitoring in physical settings was a better alternative to software-controlled monitoring. 

Waqas, who works in the IT-related industry, says, “Software-based parental control could only help restrict apps and games on Android devices by allowing parents to choose the highest content rating, but ads appearing in games rated for young children [are] the real menace.”

Yousaf, however, did look up for effective software-based parental-control solutions to monitor his kids, who spend over three hours on their own after school. 

Yousaf says that he has already installed security cameras in his house to see what the kids were doing, but now he does not want to look like an obnoxious father by installing apps on his kids’ phones. 

He believes online stores offering games should adopt and effectively deploy more strict rules. 

Meanwhile, his only best bet is to become as friendly as possible with his sons. “It remains an uphill task,” he says.

Yousaf adds, “In a rapidly changing world, parents cannot confine their children to a limited space, especially when it is cyberspace. We need to adapt and perhaps battle with regulators and game creators instead of fighting our own.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy


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