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In-App Messaging: What is it, and What Are the Dangers for Kids?

Words by
Morgan Wilcock

NOV 27, 2023

In-App Messaging: What is it, and What Are the Dangers for Kids?

If you’ve ever downloaded and opened up a new mobile app, you’ve probably seen a pop-up box with a message like this: “Hey there! Thanks for downloading this app. Let’s get started with an account!” 

Or maybe a banner slides over the top of the page saying, “Whoo hoo! You just got 30% off your first purchase.” 

Or maybe your screen is overwhelmed by a flipbook of onboarding information like, “Let’s get started with some instructions. Swipe to see more.” 

These are in-app messages and they appear on almost every app available for download. They usually appear every time a user opens an app, whether they’re new to the app, or a returning user.

In some cases, the sheer amount of information delivered during these first few moments of app use can be overwhelming. Other times, it can be helpful. In this article, we’ll break down what this messaging is, why it’s used, and how you can help your children navigate in-app messaging. 

cellphone with downloading image

What is in-app messaging? 

In-app messaging is when developers of apps send messages to currently active users. These are one-way messages that offer promotions, instructions, tips, and more to users. 

In-app messages are not push notifications. In fact, unlike push notifications, app developers don’t need your permission to send in-app messages to you since they only appear while the app is in use. They are often sent to users based on the way that the user interacts with the app.

In-app messaging vs. in-app chatting

In-app messaging is not the same as an in-app chat function. An in-app chat function allows players and users to connect and chat back and forth via private or public messaging

In-app messaging is simply a tool employed by developers to enhance user experience by increasing customer conversion to their product, which in this case is their app. 

Examples of in-app messages

There are many different types of in app messages, but they all have the same goal of connecting with their consumers to increase engagement. Below is a list of the most common reasons for in-app messages. 


Examples of In-App Messages

  1. Onboarding. A short tutorial on app functions gives users a brief introduction before they start using the app.
  2. Promotions. Pop-ups or banners with sales and other promotions to encourage the user to buy things within the app at a discounted price, whether that be physical retail items or microtransactions for virtual gaming.
  3. Achievements. These are messages based on certain behaviors within the app that are instantly rewarded with prizes. For a game, an achievement for 5 hours spent playing could be rewarded by an extra life. For a shopping app, you could receive a promo code for making your first purchase.
  4. Invite friends. After completing a difficult puzzle, a gaming app may invite you to tell your friends. A shopping app could offer a discount if you refer a friend.
row of young kids smiling at phones

How Does In-App Messaging Work?

To put it simply, app developers track consumer app activity—such as time spent playing a gaming app or purchases made—to tailor marketing or customer experience messages that encourage longer use of the app.

For example, if the app developers learn that you spent 20 minutes playing a game yesterday, they’ll bring that up today and offer you a reward if you exceed that time spent playing. 

App messaging works by making the experience on an app seem personalized and catered to the individual. In reality, these messages are often sent out to the entire audience of app users to inspire that feeling across the board.

User Segmentation

To make it easier for an app’s marketing team, users are segmented into certain groups based on in-app behaviors. These groups are then catered and advertised to based on shared interests.

While a company may start by addressing all app users with one simple message, they eventually have users segment into different categories in order to make messages feel personal.

three colorful arrows pointing up

Why do App Developers Use In-App Messaging?

For most developers, in-app messaging is simply a way to connect on a more personal level with a user. Some developers hope to make more money off of the user, while others simply want to provide tips and discounts for the betterment of their consumers. 

In-app messaging is extremely effective in increasing consumer engagement on apps. 

In our latest Mobile Engagement Benchmark Survey, we found that in-app messaging typically receives 8x the direct response rates of push notifications.

—Explainer

When customers are responding positively to these in-app messages, it increases app retention and app use.

A service, not an ad

Most commonly, in-app messages are supposed to look like app developers are offering services, not utilizing tools for increasing engagement. This builds rapport and increases response rates among customers. 

For example, the onboarding process that features tips and instructions for app use can be quite helpful. When you know how to use an app, it’s going to be much more helpful to you.  

In video game apps, offering hints and tips during gameplay isn’t just helpful, but it also boosts app ratings and encourages customer engagement. 

And giving out promotions and discounts on merchandise right off the bat helps users trust the app because it feels like the developers have you covered and want you to have a positive experience. 

It’s easy to see that these messages can be truly helpful to the customer experience, but there are a few cases where the sole purpose of in-app messaging is to increase app ratings through personalized messaging. When this messaging genuinely improves the app experience, there’s not much to worry about. But what dangers can in-app messaging pose?

teen boy looks concerned at his phone

It’s important to be aware of in-app messaging as a parent so you know how to discuss this with your children. 

Luckily, most apps are not sending out overtly dangerous or sexual in-app messages (although that may vary for apps rated 17+). Most apps that are appropriate for kids won’t send out inappropriate in-app messages since that would risk retention. 

However, these in-app messages and the rewards they often come with keep kids on apps for longer and make being on the app a rewarding experience. When kids get a consistent and reliable prize every time they do something in an app, like dunk a virtual basketball or complete a puzzle, they feel accomplished and desire to play longer. 

Let’s remember that with any system that rewards behavior, there’s always potential for good and bad. If it’s a language-learning app that gives rewards based on the number of memorized vocabulary words, kids are encouraged to keep learning. But if it’s a violent or mind-numbing game, you may consider whether it’s one that you want your kid to feel rewarded for playing.

concerned mom talks to her son

How to Teach Kids About In-App Messaging

In-app messaging isn’t all bad. Beyond the benefit for developers, there are benefits of in-app messages, like encouragement for learning more or helpful promotions for those on a budget.

The important thing to remember is that rewarding desirable behavior is a tried and true trick used by advertisers. You can find tactics like in-app messaging being used by companies everywhere, from punch cards that lead to a free sandwich, to coupons given to frequent shoppers at a grocery store.

Kids are thrown advertisements everywhere every day. Consider sitting down with your child today to talk about what advertisers do to sell their product. When kids are educated on how advertising works, they are more likely to make wiser decisions with their money and time.

Advertisements aren’t all bad, but empowering kids with knowledge on the world they live in will equip them to make responsible decisions later on in life.  

Maybe you could sit down together and watch them play some of their favorite mobile games. When an in-app message arises, open up a conversation about what the message is saying and what the app developers may want from your child. 

If you feel like your child isn’t quite ready to navigate apps with in-app messaging, consider a device that doesn’t allow those types of apps. 

For kids that are ready to start learning about in-app messaging but may still need some safety guardrails, Gabb Phone 3 Pro comes with safe, parent-approved 3rd party-apps that may be the right fit for kids dipping their toes into navigating the digital world. And our App Guide clearly outlines the features and potential risks of any app available on Gabb Phone 3 Pro so you can make intentional decisions for your child.

What do you think about in-app messages? Did we miss anything? What did you talk with your kids about? Let us know in the comments!

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