Kids for sale: The commercialization of children's online spaces
Some of the most successful of these sites are "branded environments" such as the popular Barbie.com where children can engage in a variety of different activities – games, chat, virtual shopping and so on – in the constant presence of Barbie and Barbie-related products. Branded sites often have “advergames," games which use branded characters and background images to keep players engaged on the site and build brand loyalty.
Kids also receive more subtle advertising on sites like Procter & Gamble’s “Being Girl” site, which mimics the form and content of teen magazines through a mix of articles, fashion tips and advice columns – all of which make frequent references to Tampax, Always and other P&G products. Companies also use popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to reach this demographic. Alcohol companies, for instance, use events and fan pages on Facebook to reach youth as well as online videos featuring musicians and performers popular with young people. While tobacco companies claim not to do any marketing online, researchers such as George Thomson and Nick Wilson of the University of Otago, New Zealand believe that “indirect marketing activity by tobacco companies or their proxies” can be found on YouTube and other online video sites.
The most sought-after market, however, is not children, tweens or teens but toddlers. Thanks to the arrival of touch screen devices like the iPad, along with the “pass-back” phenomenon that sees the old model turned into a toy when parents buy the latest version, marketers have begun aggressively marketing to children too young to control any spending or ask for a particular product but not too young to develop lifelong brand preferences. (In the fall of 2012, one-fifth of the top 25 free children’s games in the Apple App Store were made by a single advergame company that produces simple games that allow kids to assemble, wiggle and consume various junk food brands: one of their apps, Icee Maker, was downloaded eight million times in the year after it was released.) Research has found that children as young as six months can recognize branded material such as mascots and logos, and that this brand awareness persists as they get older. One study using MRIs found that just looking at logos for fast food companies caused parts of kids’ brains associated with pleasure to light up.
Think critically about commercial websites. Kids need to be educated about online marketing and how to recognize when they're being sold to. Teach them that while commercial sites may be fun to visit, they exist to make money. The contests, quizzes and surveys are there for a reason: to collect personal information from kids and use it to create marketing strategies to reach other kids.
Be willing to say no. Children on virtual worlds are subject to constant "upselling." Decidebefore you allow your child to visit a virtual world how much you're willing to invest in it and stick to your guns.