Linn's group alleges that the companies violate truth-in-advertising laws when they claim to "teach" babies skills. For example, Fisher-Price claims that its Laugh & Learn "Where's Puppy's Nose?" app can teach a baby about body parts and language, while its "Learning Letters Puppy" app educates babies on the alphabet and counting to 10. Open Solutions says its mobile apps offer a "new and innovative form of education" by allowing babies to "practice logic and motor skills."
"Given that there's no evidence that (mobile apps are) beneficial, and some evidence that it may actually be harmful, that's concerning," Linn said.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, more than half of American adults own a smartphone while about one-third of adults own a tablet. With the number of mobile devices on the rise, mobile software applications have become lucrative money makers. Even apps that are downloaded for free will often collect personal information from a consumer that can then be sold to marketers.
Most of the Fisher-Price apps, for example, are free but warn in their privacy policies that "third parties" can collect information about a person's device for possible marketing purposes.
Federal law says advertising can't mislead consumers and, in some cases, must be backed by scientific evidence. In 2012, the FTC -- which enforces truth-in-advertising laws -- agreed with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood that the developer of "Your Baby Can Read" lied when it promised consumers it could teach babies as young as 9 months to read. That business shuttered after the FTC imposed a $185 million settlement.
In 2006, the group asked the FTC to prohibit the makers of Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos from making claims about educational benefits. The FTC eventually declined to act after the companies, owned by the Walt Disney Co., agreed to remove some marketing promises from its packages and took down testimonials that claimed educational benefits. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood still pressed a group of lawyers to threaten a class-action lawsuit, and Disney began offering cash refunds for videos purchased.
Linn said her organization targeted Fisher-Price and Open Solutions because their baby apps were among the most popular and because they represented an overall trend of deceptive marketing practices by app developers, both big and small.