Kids for sale: The commercialization of children's online spaces

Matthew Johnson (Director of Education - MediaSmarts)
Of all the issues relating to young people’s use of the Internet, the one that parents are least likely to be aware of is how aggressively children are marketed to online. Studies have consistently shown that more than 90 per cent of children's websites include advertising or marketing material of one kind or another. Marketers target kids not just because they control a significant amount of spending – according to the 2013 report “Tweens R Shoppers: a Look at the Tween Market and Shopping Behavior,” children aged 8 to 12 in the U.S. are thought to spend around $43 billion a year of their own money, in addition to the roughly $150 billion they influence through “pester power” – but also because they’re particularly vulnerable to advertising. For example, kids under six have trouble understanding the concept of advertising, and even older children often have trouble telling the difference between ads and programming: instead of looking at something’s purpose, they’ll look at surface features such as the presence of characters or a story.
Online marketers take advantage of this fact by blurring the distinction between content and advertising on kids’ sites. While some sites contain notices that identify ads – such as the notice on McDonald’s site that says “Hey kids, this is advertising!” – it’s unclear how effective these notices are because even when material is marked as advertising, research has found that often kids still don’t recognize it for what it is. In addition, these warnings are more than counterbalanced by the wholesale integration of advertising into the entertainment content on popular kids’ sites.

Some of the most successful of these sites are "branded environments" such as the popular 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.
Constant exposure to advertising and marketing images can also make kids more likely to embrace consumerism: one study found that exposure to TV ads make children more likely to agree with statements like “It’s important to own expensive things” and “Buying expensive things makes you happy.” Many of the virtual worlds popular with kids foster consumerism through what's called the "freemium" strategy where basic content is offered for free but you have to pay to access other content. For instance, in Club Penguin it costs nothing to play the basic game but if you want to have your own igloo to decorate you need to subscribe. In other cases the added content comes as fee-for-service: for example, some free online games charge you for special weapons or items. In these sites the pressure of socializing and competition can be very powerful and make it hard to resist paying for what was supposed to be a free experience.
What’s most striking about the commercialization of kids' online lives is how we’ve come to accept it as normal. One reason may be the near-total absence of public non-commercial spaces online – for children or adults. Instead, the Internet is dominated by “pseudo-public” spaces like Facebook and Club Penguin, which often bill themselves as communities and are generally treated as such by their users. In each case, though, their true nature is much more akin to a theme park than a public park. Both are privately owned, and their continued existence is not guaranteed: aside from its contracts with advertisers, there is nothing preventing a site from going permanently offline tomorrow. Similarly, to participate in Club Penguin or any similar kids’ site users must agree to the Terms of Service, which often involve giving up rights to privacy, intellectual property and freedom of expression.
Like many digital issues, online marketing has no easy solution. Increased awareness and more – and better informed – parental supervision of young children would definitely be an improvement, especially when it comes to apps and spaces where content and advertising are fully integrated. But the fact is that even if we steer our kids away from the most overt form of advertising, it’s almost impossible to avoid marketing and consumerism in online spaces for kids or adults. Unless as a society we are willing to invest in high quality, non-commercial online spaces for kids – ones that can compete, in terms of entertainment and production quality, with the commercial spaces that exist – the majority of kids’ online experiences will continue to be spaces where marketing is the main imperative. In the meantime, teaching children media literacy skills for recognizing and decoding advertising is one way to mitigate the effects of advertising: for instance, one study found that children who recognized the commercial purpose of advergames were much less likely to be persuaded by them. This is just one more reason why traditional media literacy skills are more important than ever as kids’ media experiences are increasingly happening in unregulated, unmediated and unsupervised environments.
Tips for taking action
At the end of the day, very little can be done to prevent kids from encountering online advertising. The best approach is to teach them, from an early age, the purpose of advergames, branded characters and commercial websites. Here are some suggestions for what parents and teachers can do to help.
Take a tour. Spend some time exploring the online worlds your children use. If you're not satisfied this is a good place for your children, look for another site that offers a similar experience without the issues you find concerning.
Ask questions. Children generally can't tell the difference between programming and advertising, and online advertisers take advantage of this. If a site is free, ask your children how they think the site's owner stays in business; ask them why an imaginary world would have ads or surveys for real products.
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.


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