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Kids for Sale? Children & Digital Advertising

Frequently Asked Questions

 

One of the biggest challenges in holding online advertising to account is its complexity and the dizzying speed with which new capabilities evolve. Below is, therefore, an attempt to summarise some of the key principles and methods of targeted online advertising. We make no claim that this is comprehensive, but hopefully it will be helpful in grasping the core facets of this murky world.

What is 'targeted advertising'?

 

Targeted or ‘behavioural’ ads relate to the online behaviour of the person viewing them rather than the context in which they appear. For example, if you watch a YouTube video of someone reviewing a child’s toy, you are likely to be served ads for that toy or other products likely to be of interest to the sort of person who watches toy unboxing videos.

 

The theory goes that this level of ‘personalisation’ leads to greater engagement and greater sales. A large amount of data is collected about users to inform which ads they see, often without informed consent.

 

The sheer complexity of the behavioural advertising ecosystem means it is poorly understood, barely regulated, and vulnerable to fraud.

Why is this relevant to kids?

 

Everybody’s activity is tracked on the internet to some extent. Most popular sites and apps are funded to some extent by behavioural advertising (as well as other forms of advertising). But these sites, overwhelmingly designed for and by adults, are accessed by large and growing numbers of children. One in three internet users world-wide are children. Children rarely restrict their online activity to content designed ‘for kids’ – 43% of UK 11-year-olds who go online say they have a social media profile, despite sites requiring users to be at least 13.

 

There is no meaningful attempt to treat child internet users differently to adults. Like adults, children are tracked, profiled and targeted with ads such that their attention can be most effectively monetised. In this way behavioural advertising fundamentally undermines children’s privacy.

What is the problem with advertising to kids?

 

Children of all ages are more susceptible to the pressures of marketing, less likely to recognise paid-for content, and less likely to understand how and what kinds of data are used for these purposes than adults.

 

Advertising almost always promotes and reinforces materialistic values and goals, which decades of research have proven are associated with negative outcomes for well-being.

 

“All these adverts that are showing I should buy something or do something to make me perfect. It does make people feel weird. Me – I look at it, I know it’s not real, but there’s still, in the back of my head I’m thinking “What if?”Mariam, aged 14.

Why is this relevant to the planet?

 

Advertising is the act of “contriving human wants in order to achieve on-going demand for things once basic needs have been adequately met”.[i] Its role is to keep us consuming goods when we already have more than enough to keep us warm, fed, safe and well. And it is very effective.

 

The success of advertising has led to a consume and throwaway culture which is having a devastating impact on our planet, driving the overuse of resources, exacerbating climate change, accelerating the extinction of wildlife, and creating unnecessary pollution and waste. Creating a new generation of hyper-consumers puts children at odds with what will increasingly be required of them in a climate constrained world.

 

[i] ”An idea first articulated by J.K. Galbraith in The Affluent Society, and as summarised here in Think of Me as Evil?

Why is this relevant to GAP's compassion not consumerism movement?

 

We cannot begin to turn the tide on consumerism – a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts – without addressing advertising’s role.

What change is GAP calling for?

 

Global Action Plan is calling on websites and apps popular with kids to:

  • Comply with existing laws prohibiting behavioural advertising to under 13s and demonstrate what additional measures they will take to do so
  • Switch off behavioural advertising to children under 18
  • Cap ads to 10% of social media content for children under 18

 

Is GAP working on this campaign alone?

 

GAP is working with a coalition of lawyers, academics, clinicians, privacy campaigners, children’s rights advocates and environment groups.

 

For more details see the joint letter signed by our diverse coalition, demanding major tech firms turn off targeted advertising to under 18s.

 

If you are interested in joining the campaign please sign up to our campaign newsletter here.

 

To learn more about our campaign, please contact [email protected]

Can you be sure that advertising actually harms children? Where's your evidence?

 

A large body of evidence demonstrates that a broader harm of advertising is that it promotes the value of materialism by encouraging children to place high importance on possessions, image and status. Advertising requires us to buy into the idea that owning more possessions is an important goal to aspire to, and that spending money on more material things will improve our lives. Yet decades of research have demonstrated that the more we aspire towards materialistic goals, the more likely we are to have lower wellbeing, including higher rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, lower self-esteem and higher levels of debt.[i]

 

It’s a huge pressure for people my age to have to afford new clothes, shoes cosmetics and it really affects the mentally, because they think “I won’t be popular if I don’t have this”, Samuel, age 14, Lewisham

 

[i] Dittmar, H., Bond, R., Hurst, M., & Kasser, T. (2014). The relationship between materialism and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 107, 879–924.

How is *targeted* advertising hurting children's wellbeing, as opposed to non-targeted advertising?

 

Targeted advertising is by its nature inherently more manipulative and exploits children’s desires and insecurities for commercial gain  Marketing to children is easy and lucrative, but inherently manipulative of an audience who do not have the full mental capacity to understand or resist the techniques used to sell to them. This manipulation is intensified when the marketing is based on large quantities of information already known about that individual child.

Isn't it already against the law to target under 13s?

 

Targeting young children with ads is, in theory, illegal: The Data Protection Act (DPA) transcribed the rules and principles set out in the EU’s General Data Protection Act (GDPR) into UK law, including the provision that websites must not capture data about users under the age of 13 without prior parental consent. This is, of course, the data on which behavioural advertising depends. However, the practice is commonplace; there is chronic failure of compliance with and enforcement of existing laws.

Why stop at targeted advertising - isn't all online advertising to children problematic?

 

Our campaign focuses on targeted advertising, because it is the practice most manipulative of children and because it gives rise to so many other online concerns. However, we are also considering solutions to the problem of the unlimited volume of online ads –targeted or otherwise – given the clear links with hyper-consumption. Some countries have gone so far as to ban all marketing aimed at children (Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Quebec in Canada) and we too would welcome moves towards this in the UK.

No-one pays any attention to advertising anyway, children just ignore it. Aren't there more important things to worry about online?

 

Behavioural advertising is not an isolated problem. Its central role in the business model of much of the web’s content links it to a myriad of well-documented harms experienced online, including shortening attention spans, loss of privacy, election engineering, fake news, and increased polarisation.

 

An unlimited volume of ads, and targeted advertising more broadly, are also strongly connected with negative environmental and wellbeing trends that urgently need reversing.

If it's as bad as you say it is, shouldn't you be campaigning for targeted advertising to *all* children to be banned, not just under 13s?

 

The regulatory cut-off at 12 years of age is arbitrary – there is no good reason why a 13-year-old should be exposed to a barrage of targeted ads but a 12-year-old should not. This is why we are calling on websites and apps popular with kids to switch off behavioural advertising to children under 18 and cap ads to 10% of social media content for children under 18.

How in practice are you proposing this change should be enacted and policed?

 

The simplest and most effective way to end young children’s exposure to targeted online advertising would be for advertisers to stop the practice of serving targeted ads, full stop.

 

This would solve the knotty problem of how to accurately identify children online, for the purposes of shielding them from advertising or for any other purpose, without gathering yet more data about them and further infringing their privacy.[i]

 

Specifically, we recommend that:

  • Advertisers consider ending the use of targeted ads altogether
  • Websites switch off behavioural advertising to children under 18 and cap ads at 10% of social media content for under 18s
  • Regulators draw on international precedence to hold websites to account regarding the illegal collection of under 13s data

 

For more details see the ‘Solution’s section in our position paper

 

[i] See debate re age-gating porn sites

Shouldn't you be more worried about the type of products kids are being advertised - like gambling apps, alcohol etc. what is the harm in them being sold kids products?

 

The promotion of certain products to children have obvious harms attached to them, for example, junk food, gambling, alcohol and tobacco-related products. But the harms of marketing other products to children (and indeed all of us) are even broader when seen through lens of the development of more materialistic value orientations. Advertising requires us to buy into the idea that owning more possessions is an important goal to aspire to, and that spending money on more material things will improve our lives.  Yet decades of research have demonstrated that the more we aspire towards materialistic goals, the more likely we are to have lower wellbeing, including higher rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, lower self-esteem and higher levels of debt.[i]

 

The promotion of materialistic values and goals are also harmful to the planet – as we strive to acquire more to chase false promises of happiness, we are relying on the illusion of infinite resources that the planet simply cannot sustain

 

Therefore, we do not advocate for the restriction of advertising to children of only certain obviously harmful products, but for the total reduction of the volume of advertising that children are exposed to.

 

[i] Dittmar, H., Bond, R., Hurst, M., & Kasser, T. (2014). The relationship between materialism and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 107, 879–924.

To get involved with our work around Stopping Digital Advertising to Kids, email Oliver Hayes

Stop Digital Advertising to Kids, email Oliver Hayes