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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Child advocate 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 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.

  • 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."

Go deeper: What we overlooked in the switch to remote learning

Go deeper

Feb 18, 2021 - World

New Zealand schools to provide free period products

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health director-deneral Ashley Bloomfield arrive for a news conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Monday. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

All New Zealand schools will from June provide students with access to free menstrual products following a successful trial, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Thursday.

Why it matters: It's the latest sign a global push to stamp out period poverty by providing menstrual products at no cost or tax-free is gaining momentum.

2 hours ago - Health

WHO: Not yet known whether Omicron leads to more severe disease

Photo illustration: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Sunday said that it is not yet clear whether the newly discovered Omicron variant is more transmissible than other strains of the COVID-19 virus.

Why it matters: The agency's statement comes as the variant, discovered in South Africa, has already been detected in European and Asian countries.

7 hours ago - Health

Fauci: Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in U.S.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned on Sunday that the COVID-19 Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in the United States.

Driving the news: Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that U.S. officials will meet with colleagues from South Africa later on Sunday to try to determine the severity of the cases, as countries scramble to learn more about the variant.