Children are tracked and monitored in their daily lives and are also targeted on the basis of their location. This is a form of real-world behavioural targeting. How marketing to children in the digital era works and what impact may it have on their rights?
The 2022 Ofcom report titled ‘ Children and parents: media use and attitudes’ brings us some powerful insights about children's online behaviour in the past year. Nearly all children went online with a majority of 72 percent using their mobile phones. The most popular online activity among children aged 3-17 was using video-sharing platforms such as YouTube or TikTok. Children might watch TV as well, but it is more likely that they will watch paid-for-on-demand streaming services. When it comes to playing games online, six in ten children aged 3-17 played games online in 2021.
Since internet use comes with ads that are constantly showing up on web pages, children, just like adults, are increasingly exposed to online advertising. Therefore, advertising and marketing represent an important domain in which children's rights are reconfigured by internet use. According to Gunter and Furnham, through targeting, children are transformed into child consumers and starting from the age of two, they display a certain level of brand consciousness.
Targeting children and collecting personal data Marketing functions almost the same with any customer: collecting personal data online and then targeting customers with personalised ads. There is no difference in marketing that targets children. Profiles of children ought to be very valuable since the knowledge about their behaviour and interests enables companies to send targeted advertising and offer personalised products. Hereby, consumer relationships are built from a very young age. Nowadays, in the digital environment this can be seen through the presence of YouTube Kids, Facebook Messenger Kids, Amazon Echo Dot Kids, Google accounts for children and so on.
There are various ways to collect children’s personal data, from the promise to get access to free games to the possibility to earn virtual money. With a click on one of these pop-up messages, businesses get access to children and their profiles. They get information regarding their age, hometown, gender, favourite cartoons, parents’ occupations, etc., and thus profile them as consumers.
The risks of marketing to children In such a new reality, where most of the play, communication, education, and information is online, even the youngest ones are included in the new technologies. Accordingly, certain measures against possible forms of economic exploitation of children in the digital world are required. As Simone van der Hof (2018) acknowledged, children's online behaviour is continuously recorded, often sold, analysed, and acted upon.
Therefore, children are exposed to a lot of risks online. Risks range from security issues such as data leaks and identity theft, to the occurrence of errors such as false positives or false negatives, bias and discrimination and black box decisions.
Transactions and exploitative practices, such as profiling and automated decision-making, commercialization of play, and digital child labour, have a significant impact on children’s well-being and rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Their data might be manipulated and transferred into algorithms that will be used in the creation of personalised ads that nudge children to buy something or try to win some prizes. Models that create value for companies by saving children’s data in such a way are used later for personalised ads. The practice of unconscious manipulation of individuals with an intentionally deceptive user interface is so-called ‘dark patterns’ and has become more sophisticated and present in the digital environment.
Notably, the 2019 discussion paper written by Carly Nyst for UNICEF states that there are three possible areas where children’s rights are affected: privacy and protection of personal information, freedom of expression and access to diverse information, and protection from economic exploitation and adverse effects on children’s development. In particular, children’s right to privacy (Article 16 of the CRC) is mostly violated due to the collection, analysis, storage and sale of their personal data, which maintain the digital marketing ecosystem. Numerous data collection practices happen without children’s awareness or consent, often leaving them unable to comprehend or regulate the utilisation of their personal information. However, the pervasive presence of advertising can disturb the children’s enjoyment of their right to express themselves or to have access to high-quality, age-appropriate content (Articles 13 and 14 of the CRC). The same research emphasises how ‘advertising crowds media spaces, making it difficult for individuals to access information and develop thoughts and opinion without being subjected to undue influence’. Considering that children may be not adequately equipped with the cognitive abilities to seek out a diversity of media sources (Article 17 of the CRC) or they may lack the media literacy to identify advertising, the outcome for children’s rights may be serious. One of the fair advertising practices is to include that people have the right to know when and where they are being advertised to.
Children may also face the risk of being manipulated when it is not clear to them that certain information, content or entertainment is in fact a persuasive commercial message. An example can be found in children’s changing food choices, as Montgomery and Chester reveal: children who played advergames – an online video game that promotes a particular brand, product, or marketing message by integrating it into the game – that encouraged a less healthy diet were more likely to select less healthy food options than those who played advergames that promoted healthier food options. This is a rather long-term risk and concern that may lead to children’s obesity.
Online personal data collected from children is increasing and this creates a challenge: how to protect children’s right to privacy under Article 16 of the CRC without interfering with their online activities? Businesses are allowed to collect private data for targeting purposes, but they must be very careful when doing so with children. They must be aware of the aforementioned potential risks and the crucial protection of children's data.
Ads' analysis The most popular app among children is YouTube. As most children watch regular YouTube and not YouTube Kids, they are faced with many ads. While searching content for children on YouTube, it has become clear that, before every video, approximately two ads were displayed. The ads were promoting either certain games (suitable both for children and adults) or other tech products like mobile phones and computers. Usually, the ads contained a call to action such as ‘buy’ or ‘play online’.
On the most visited games website Coolmathgames.com, the most common ads are those promoting online shops such as eBay and Amazon. The latent message behind such ads is the encouragement of money spending and increasing site visits.
The platforms such as PrimaryGames and FreeGames contained the greatest number of ads. They are mostly advertising other gaming platforms where, after clicking ‘play’, they will show you and lead to other gaming platforms and so forth. The ads were adequate for children and their preferences.
Slogans such as ‘learn more’ or ‘shop now’ might lead children to online shopping for which they will need their parents’ credit card information. However, the other popular websites and apps were visited as well, but not many ads were found, due to the used web browser recognising the user as an adult. Platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and Instagram use different kinds of advertisements where ads are being shown based on past liked content and user’s preferences.
The examples of ads shown in the previous section, confirm the fact that children are an attractive target group for advertisers. Verdoodt argues that children do not only represent the primary market (they are able to purchase certain products with their pocket money), but also the secondary market as they can influence their parents’ purchasing behaviour. Respectively, children represent the so-called future market – themselves as adults with full commercial decision-making capacities.
Looking ahead Contemporary marketing does not separate children from other customers when speaking of advertising practices and marketers target children regularly, based on the personal data previously collected. However, the challenge is how to protect the children's rights and well-being without violating their rights to online content and fun.
In 2014 the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has recommended legislation that would
prohibit all forms of advertising to children under 12 years of age, regardless of the medium, support or means used, with the possible extension of such prohibition to 16 years of age and to ban the practice of child brand ambassadors.
However, earlier Jane Fortin has argued that if children are not given opportunities to practise their decision-making skills they will be unable to make a successful transition to adulthood. This perspective suggests that banning all forms of advertising aimed at children would not be compatible with their right to development under Article 6 of the CRC.
Nonetheless, as stipulated in the EU directive 2005/29/EC concerning unfair business-to-consumer commercial practices in the internal market, children need to be protected against possible harmful practices or aggressive or misleading advertising.
Notably, in 2022 the European Commission published five, non-exhaustive, key principles of fair advertising to children, which were established by the consumer and data protection authorities:
specific vulnerabilities of children should be taken into account when designing advertisement or marketing techniques that are likely to be seen by children;
children's particular vulnerability because of their age or credulity is not to be exploited;
when general marketing content is addressed to children or is likely to be seen by them, the marketing purpose should be indicated in a manner that is appropriate and clear for children;
children are not to be targeted, urged, or otherwise prompted to purchase in-app or in-game content, and games marketed for free should not require in-app or in-game purchases to play them in a satisfactory manner; and
children should not be profited for advertisement purposes.
Therefore, children need and have the right to be present in an online world, yet authorities and legal institutions have to guarantee children's rights in relation to data protection. With nowadays popular apps having separate apps for children, children's online behaviour is easier to track and regulate.
Written by Mediha Arnaut Smajlović
Mediha Arnaut Smajlović, MA, is a Teaching Assistant at the Marketing Department of the School of Economics and Business in Sarajevo, where she completed both her undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Through her work and activism, she has participated in and coordinated many extracurricular activities and projects, held trainings and mentored young volunteers.
Cite as: Arnaut Smajlović, Mediha. "Marketing to children in the digital era", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 25 September 2023, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness-children/article-detail/marketing-to-children-in-the-digital-era.html
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