Nan Austin

‘Pokémon Go’ going where parents may not want it to

From left, Krystal Azevedo, David Huang and Steven Azevedo, all of Ceres, play “Pokémon Go” on Monday, July 11, 2016, on 14th Street near A&W in downtown Modesto.
From left, Krystal Azevedo, David Huang and Steven Azevedo, all of Ceres, play “Pokémon Go” on Monday, July 11, 2016, on 14th Street near A&W in downtown Modesto.

“Pokémon Go,” the adorable extension of the 1990s animated show into real time and real places, is raising real concerns for children blithely skipping down the Pikachu path.

A letter from nonprofit Common Sense Media, which reviews technology, television shows and videos for family use, includes gasp-worthy red flags.

“Distracted players have broken bones, gotten into car accidents, and two even walked off of a cliff,” says the letter from CEO James P. Steyer to John Hanke, CEO of Niantic Inc., developer and distributor of the game.

Children have been sent to wrong addresses, including private homes where in at least one case they were shot at, a home for sex offenders and a flop house full of drug addicts, notes the letter. Also of concern are the Pokémon appearing in firehouses and otherwise tying up first responders now responding to game players instead of real emergencies.

Nearly 10 million people were using the app by July 13, estimates.

Finding Pokémon is not enough, by the way; it takes hatching eggs to get the rarest ones, according to a BBC article on the topic. It takes 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of walking to hatch Snorlax, Jynx, Electabuzz and 14 other characters. Jigglypuff, Weedle, Squirtle and friends only take 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).

Modesto folks have joined in the fun, seen with phone-to-nose profiles at various local landmarks. Dozens were spotted playing the game earlier this month at Acacia Cemetery at 10 p.m. In at least one case, a thriving drug trade reportedly took flight from a city park when families moved in trailing the elusive virtual characters.

In Turlock, the most Pokémon can be found at California State University, Stanislaus, where university police posted a tongue-in-cheek safety video on Facebook asking folks to please stay out of locked areas and be aware of their surroundings. Favorite visual: an officer pretend-scrambling over a fence.

The app has topped Twitter use on Android phones, notes the BBC story, headlined “How Pokémon took over the web.” Players use “Pokémon Go” for an average of 43 minutes a day, enough to burn 1,500 calories a week for women, the equivalent of 6 small chocolate doughnuts, a graphic in the article shows.

But behind the gleeful banter on doughnuts and baleful tales of wayfarers, Steyer warns about data collection on and marketing to young users.

Early iterations of the game required iPhone and iPad users to give the app full access to their Google account, allowing the app to see and modify Gmail and Google Drive documents. On its “Pokémon Go” website, Niantic assures users the app only needs the user ID and email address, and work is ongoing to lower permissions to only this.

Not good enough, says Styers. “Given the game’s popularity and rich data collection capabilities, it is sure to be a prime target for hackers and bad performers,” he comments, urging the company to up its game on security.

He also wants parents to be able to turn off “lures” added by other players and in-app targeted advertising. “It can be particularly confusing for kids – and frustrating for parents – when games don’t clearly distinguish in-app play money from real dollar purchases,” Steyer writes.

He asks the company to not share location data about players under 13 with advertisers, and to better inform parents about how the company is using data it collects on their kids.

“Don’t treat children as a business asset. Given the popularity of the game and its appeal to children, there exists an unprecedented opportunity to accumulate broad swaths of personal data on millions of children,” he says.

Against the backdrop of bombs, mass killings and political upheaval, a summer walk to hatch a Meowth, Tentacool or Psyduck has real appeal. Sadly, it seems even lighthearted fun has a dark side.