If you’re a parent with a Facebook or Instagram account, you’ve no doubt seen ads for the online early learning program ABCmouse. Big, bubbly letters in primary colors. A bunch of happy-looking cartoon children. Promises of easy-breezy lessons during the pandemic for stranded kids and frazzled parents. The ads might look slightly homemade, but ABCmouse is no fringe player. This is a huge program, run by a parent company, Age of Learning, that was at one point valued by potential investors at $1 billion.
I first started seeing the online ads for ABCmouse in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and soon the ads were following me everywhere I went online. I couldn’t sign on to Facebook or Instagram without seeing one, two, three, even four ads pop up in my feeds during a single scrolling session. They dropped off for a while but as back-to-school time crept closer in August and September, the ads started showing up again—in force.
I found myself wanting to know more. Even though so many other well-loved education outlets have been offering their resources for free during the pandemic, ABCmouse ads always seem to have lots of positive comments from other social users. Perhaps there is something special about ABCmouse that would make a $10 a month subscription worth it? So I finally clicked through to look at more comments and reviews. And promptly freaked out.
“They wouldn’t stop charging me.”
“I had to cancel my credit card.”
But those are just internet reviews, I thought. And possibly left by horrible trolls—we all know how “trustworthy” social media is these days! So, I did my own homework. Sure enough, ABCmouse has a one-star average customer review on the Better Business Bureau’s website, and there have been more than three dozen complaints filed with the BBB in the six months since the coronavirus shut down schools across the US. These customer complaints read exactly like those nasty social media comments had.
With a few more clicks, here’s what else I found out: ABCmouse is in schools. ABCmouse is in the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. ABCmouse is in public libraries. And now, ABCmouse is in big trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for alleged “illegal marketing and billing practices.”
Wait, what?! Why hasn’t this popped up in my Apple News or Facebook feeds? ABCmouse’s paid advertising certainly did.
Here’s what went down: ABCmouse is poised to pay $10 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that the company unfairly billed tens of thousands of customers and made it too hard to cancel memberships. In a public statement about the situation, FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra said that ABCmouse “scammed millions of dollars from families.” And then Chopra, a Fulbright scholar and Wharton School MBA, described in detail the use of unethical and illegal online sales tactics that use sleight of hand and confusing design to trick people into buying things or consenting to things they do not actually want. Such tactics are sometimes described as “roach motels”—easy to get into, but really hard to escape. And ABCmouse, wrote Chopra, “was undoubtedly a roach motel.”
I reached out to Age of Learning via email, in order to verify some facts and ask for a comment. And the company doesn’t admit to any purposeful, or even accidental, wrongdoing. “The facts do not support the FTC’s broad allegations,” the spokesperson told me. “The vast majority of ABCmouse customers have been highly satisfied with their memberships, and our subscription and cancellation flows were enhanced almost three years ago and have been in full compliance with all regulatory requirements. We want every family to have a great experience with ABCmouse and regret any confusion that any subscriber may have had. We are committed to continuing providing parents and caregivers clear and simple processes for managing their subscriptions.”
The spokesperson also explained to me that, “although the facts do not support the FTC’s allegations, we settled this matter to avoid a prolonged legal dispute and focus on our work of helping educate children. The settlement amount is not a fine or penalty but rather a payment to benefit consumers.” That’s true—a settlement is not a fine, and settling doesn’t equal admitting guilt.
But back to something else the spokesperson told me: that Age of Learning fixed up their subscription and cancellation processes three years ago. It seems as if the FTC—and some recent customers—didn’t get the memo. Like one mom, who filed an online BBB complaint against ABCmouse in June 2020: “Age of Learning, Inc. has continued to charge me $9.95 monthly for the last 3-4 years, even after I asked for the account to be canceled in writing…I feel like this company is stealing from me, because they refuse to cancel…I also feel like they purposefully make it difficult for customers to cancel their subscriptions. They must be doing this to other parents who were just trying to prepare their children for school.” Sure, she could be a liar, but based off of the FTC charges and other similar complaints, I’m inclined to believe her.
I could end this rant right here.
But I learned something during my deep dive into ABCmouse that made me uncomfortable: In addition to being a successful online innovator and entrepreneur, Age of Learning’s founder and executive chairman, Doug Dohring, is also a longtime Scientologist. And so is Chief Technology Officer Bill McCaffrey. According to not-fact-checked-wouldn’t-bet-my-reputation-on-them ex-Scientologist online sources, both Chief Operating Officer Lee Borth and the President of Greater China for the company, Jerry Chen, might be, too. (I asked the Age of Learning spokesperson if she could confirm that for me. She told me, “We don’t ask any of our employees about their religious beliefs or affiliations.” Fair enough.)
Now, hear me out: My issue here isn’t some tinfoil-hat fear that “they’re indoctrinating our children!” There’s zero evidence that Scientology’s religious or so-called “study tech” beliefs have found their way into ABCmouse programming. The company’s curriculum board is packed with child psychologists, teachers and other education pros! But, as anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock since Leah Remini’s Emmy-winning docuseries Scientology and the Aftermath launched in 2016—or since Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright’s documentary Going Clear hit HBO the year before—it’s well-known that wealthy Scientologists give a lot of money to their church.
In this moment in time, when more of us are being conscientious about the social and ideological practices of the companies we support with our dollars, do I want to even indirectly support a religious group that ex-members, whistleblowers, and investigative journalists allege has historically anti-gay policies, questionable ethical practices, and a very public partnership with what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls an anti-semitic hate group? According to multiple Redditors, at least one home-school blogger, and a lady quoted in the British tabloid the Sun, I’m not the only potential ABCmouse customer asking themselves this question.
I was nervous about asking the Age of Learning spokesperson about the Scientology thing—in part because I’m a nice person who doesn’t like conflict, and in part because, in the course of writing this piece, I also learned that the Church of Scientology has a nasty reputation for attacking writers who say anything bad about it, including Paulette Cooper, Lawrence Wright, Rich Behar, and Louis Theroux. (FWIW, Scientology maintains that it isn’t hostile to the press.)
But I did ask, and she answered: “Age of Learning is not affiliated with any religious organization, nor does religion have any influence on our products. Our 600-person team includes professionals from a diverse range of backgrounds who share a single purpose: to provide families and educators with quality, standards-based digital learning programs that help children build academic skills.” Furthermore, she added, executive chairman Dohring became wealthy long before founding Age of Learning and is “a minority shareholder of Age of Learning. Age of Learning reinvests its revenues back into the business and to date has never distributed profits to shareholders.”
So here, at long last, is my bottom line: There are likely scores of excellent, brilliant and well-meaning people who work at ABCmouse and Age of Learning, including the polite, prompt and professional company spokesperson I talked to. I don’t think Age of Learning and ABCmouse are trying to indoctrinate anyone’s kids with Scientology. And I’m even willing to entertain the spokesperson’s assertion that the Church of Scientology might not benefit financially from the success or salaries of its executive leadership. Because, hey, I’m no forensic accountant.
But I’m also not dumb. I think that the FTC got it right when they charged the company with dirty-dealing its customers—both during the pandemic and long before. And after doing my own due diligence, this working mom doesn’t feel comfortable giving ABCmouse my money, no matter how many stars their apps have online. Do you?