Children and Online Advertising: A Potentially Damaging Mix

Apart from the general opinion that every member of a modern-day family is likely to be overexposed to commercials and unsolicited sales pitches across nearly every form of media, it’s also reasonable to say that a world without advertising would be a very strange one indeed. On the flip side, it is not a stretch to say that the impact of advertising and the associated information overload it brings can have far-reaching effects on many individuals, a significant percentage of whom are youngsters.

The question inevitably arises as to what is the inherent price we as a society pay for all of this media exposure. The price that any society pays for the daily barrage of advertising and media exposure can, of course, be measured in economic terms; but more importantly, for parents and guardians is the psychological impact of such as incessant stream of information when it is directed squarely at our children.

While most people would probably be happier if there wasn’t any advertising to intrude into the daily lives of families across the country, retail and commercial advertising will likely play a continuing economic role in modern society for a long time to come.

Are Websites Required to Protect Children from Online Advertising?

In the U.S., websites are required by law to protect children under 13 years of age from online advertising; businesses that run apps on smartphones and tablets also have a legal responsibility to protect kids. The legal provisions that govern advertising to minors on websites and apps are contained in what is known as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which lays out specific rules and requirements for businesses providing online services directed toward children under 13 years old. (Similar laws exist elsewhere, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union, which provides protection for a child’s personal data and restricts the profiling and certain advertising practices aimed at kids.)

Under the provisions of COPPA, businesses that are aware a user of their website or app is under 13 years old are required by law to obtain verifiable parental consent prior to the collection of any personal information from that minor. COPPA defines “personal information” as including not only typical identifying information, such as a child’s name and address, but also any personal data collected via online tracking, such as website cookies and advertising IDs.

These regulations also restrict advertising that is targeted at children; specifically, COPPA prohibits the targeted delivery of ads based on a child’s personal information unless there has been “verifiable parental consent.” Additionally, any website or app that falls under the scope of the COPPA regulations must include clear and prominently displayed privacy policies detailing what data that website (or app) collects from children and the way in which the collected information is used.

COPPA also requires owners of online services to provide features that let a parent prevent further maintenance, use, or future collection of their child’s personal data, as well as provide a parent the ability to access their child’s personal information. Failure to comply with COPPA can result in penalties and legal consequences for the website or app operator. Still, with all these legal protections in place, kids constantly find ways to access the internet and, therefore, be exposed to at least some kind of internet advertising or online marketing. Because of this, parents must recognize the risks of targeted advertising and try as best they can to shield their kids from potentially harmful online content.

What is Targeted Advertising and What Harm Can it Cause to Young Children?

Targeted advertising is a form of online marketing that tailors ad content to match the interests of the target audience; in the case of harm to children, such advertising techniques can have a negative effect on youngsters by exposing them to inappropriate or adult content, promoting false or unrealistic body image, and the fostering of materialism at a very young age.

Online advertising can impact kids in potentially harmful ways such as exposing them to violent or sexualized situations not suitable for their age or current stage of development. Exposure to this type of age-inappropriate content can be emotionally disturbing for a child and may eventually result in desensitization to violence and other socially unacceptable behaviors.

Certain kinds of advertising can have a negative impact on youngsters’ self-esteem, resulting in a sense of poor body image. Historically, fashion marketing and beauty product advertisements are known to promote unrealistic body image and in doing so, encourage some young children and teens to adopt an idealized standard of physical beauty. In fact, studies have shown a link between ads that feature thin and stereotypically attractive models and a subject’s dissatisfaction with his or her own body.

Parents of children who are affected by this type of advertising may notice a change in their child’s eating habits as he or she attempts to emulate the models appearing in these ads. In more severe cases, a youngster may begin to exhibit a harmful psychological condition known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder or BDD, which can have a very profound and long-lasting impact on an individual.

How Serious is Body Dysmorphic Disorder in Kids?

The seriousness of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) in children cannot be understated; it is not uncommon for kids exposed to certain types of online advertising to develop BDD, which if left untreated could negatively affect them for years, if not for the rest of their adult lives. In the early stages of BDD, a young child will begin to show excessive concern over his or her physical appearance, sometimes becoming very upset over a seemingly minor flaw in the way they look; occasionally, these flaws or imperfections may be totally imagined.

Sometimes referred to as “imagined ugliness,” body dysmorphic disorder affects boys and girls equally and typically begins at 12 or 13 years of age. Often accompanied by overwhelming feelings of shame and loss of self-confidence, children who are affected by BDD will try to avoid going to school and may even shrink away from interactions with friends and relatives. To disguise an often perceived flaw in their appearance, kids who suffer from this disorder may start to wear bulky clothing or apply make-up in an effort to “hide” the imperfection. In extreme cases, a child may begin to ask parents or other adults about the possibility of getting surgery to correct the “problem.”

It is important to note that children who have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to develop body dysmorphic disorder. Parents should also remember that BDD is not like an eating disorder and those youngsters who are affected may not necessarily be focused on their weight or body fat. Symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder can include one or more of the following:

  • Worrying excessively about or seeming ashamed of the way they look
  • Obsessing over some minor physical flaw that “makes them ugly”
  • Fixation with a specific body part, such as their teeth or nose
  • Spending an excessive amount of time looking in the mirror, or
  • Going out of their way to avoid mirrors altogether
  • Constantly seeking reassurance from parents about their appearance
  • Actively avoiding having their photo taken
  • Talking about and/or doing research online about cosmetic surgery
  • Displaying signs of depression
  • Heightened anxiety related to attending family gatherings or social events
  • Sense of worry that begins to interfere with the child’s everyday activities

What are Some Other Examples of the Negative Effects of Online Advertising?

Some other examples of the negative effects of online advertising on kids include ads that promote the importance of material possessions and economic status; those that draw comparisons between social groups; and marketing that perpetuates negative stereotypes based on race, gender, or other demographic characteristics. The corrosive effects brought on by online advertising should concern parents raising young and often impressionable children.

Online marketing that emphasizes materialism and the accumulation of personal possessions can cause a child to feel inadequate if he doesn’t have the latest toys, clothes, or electronic devices that his peers may have. This kind of targeted advertising — with its promotion of materialistic ideals — can instill within a child potentially destructive feelings of low self-worth while increasing the psychological pressure on the youngster to live up to societal “standards” portrayed in advertisements.

Some targeted ads employ a form of social comparison that can be emotionally damaging to young children by suggesting that other kids may be more popular, academically more successful, or simply happier because they use a particular product or service; this can cause children to look at themselves as inferior and feel they are, or will be left out. Being told one doesn’t fit in can result in feelings of isolation and lead to a child becoming withdrawn from their friends and family.

Certain online advertising can promote negative stereotypes, which may include false or inaccurate portrayals of different groups based on gender, race, or some other characteristic. Depending on the age, ethnicity, or socio-economic level of the viewer, such ad content can be harmful to a young person’s self-esteem. Children who identify with a group that is portrayed negatively in online advertisements may begin to internalize those negative messages, potentially instilling feelings of not being good enough, being shut out, or being isolated from the world in general.

Last, but not least, is the concern over a child’s (and even their parent’s) privacy via data collection and potential future discrimination. These privacy concerns can affect the entire family when a youngster becomes the focus of targeted marketing online. Since most children do not necessarily understand the implications of sharing their (or their parents’) personal information online, they can unwittingly reveal sensitive information about themself and their family that could be used by unscrupulous individuals. If only because of this potentially dangerous privacy issue, parents should pay close attention to what their kids are doing online.

How Do Online Advertisers Target Kids?

Online advertisers often target children because a younger audience is usually much less sophisticated or emotionally mature than an older demographic. By using data collected from apps and other websites, advertisers can more easily focus their advertisements on kids who may be too young to understand such manipulative marketing techniques and less able to resist the appeal of their products or messaging.

In the Internet Age, advertisers have developed many tools to identify, target, and influence younger online users of apps and web content. There is much greater profitability for businesses when they have the ability to deliver an ad tailored to a specific audience — an audience that will almost certainly be interested in a particular product or service. Targeted advertising involves the collection and analysis of data on browsing behaviors, demographic information, personal interests, and online activity. Once collected and digested, advertisers can act on that information to create what is best described as a highly personalized advertising campaign.

Marketing agencies and online advertisers use various methods to achieve their goal of targeting their ads on younger audiences in a focused and effective manner; these can include the following:

  1. Behavioral — This type of targeted marketing involves tracking a young person’s online activity. By analyzing a potential customer’s behaviors — such as what apps they use, the websites they visit, and the informational content they most interact with — an advertiser can determine the type of ad, as well as the best approach to reach the specific audience based on their interests and previous buying behavior
  2. Contextual — Marketing methods that employ contextual data analysis use information gathered from the web pages that a child visits, and through examination of that data determine a likely topic of interest that can then be used as a basis to create an effective ad
  3. Demographic — Information gathered from a child’s browsing activity is analyzed to best determine the most likely groups that the youngster may belong or best relate to; typical categories for kids may include their age, gender, household income bracket, or grade level
  4. Geographic — This method of ad targeting is based on mapping data, which is used to determine where a child is located. By analyzing the hostname and IP address, a geo-targeting algorithm can determine the location; the accuracy can range from very general, such as the country or region where the youngster (and his or her family) reside, to more specific, such as the county, city or township in which they live

The overarching goal of any targeted marketing effort is to increase the effectiveness of every advertising dollar by placing content in front of the advertiser’s most relevant audience; with the desired result being higher “click-through” rates and eventually an improved return on investment for the advertiser. Unfortunately, when it comes to children’s safety and well-being there are often unintended consequences associated with these methods, such as the very real chance that certain advertising campaigns may present a danger to younger kids who find themselves the unwitting targets of internet commerce.

How can Parents Protect Youngsters from the Effects of Online Advertising?

While it is sometimes difficult for parents to protect youngsters from the effects of online advertising, it is not impossible. In general, parents and grandparents should try to monitor the types of websites and apps their kids are visiting and be aware of the associated marketing that children are being exposed to on those sites. Take time to speak frankly with your children about what they may encounter online. Explain the reasons for advertising and why they shouldn’t let an advertisement influence or bother them.

Although some younger children may not be able to comprehend everything you tell them, starting a dialogue should help most kids as they begin to understand the nature of advertising and, as they mature, to be better able to view online marketing more objectively. In this way, kids will learn that not all advertising is factual or based on an accurate portrayal of the world; thereby hopefully becoming less susceptible emotionally and psychologically to online marketing.

Encouraging kids early on to begin thinking critically about the ads they may see online can go a long way toward helping them understand — and hopefully be less impacted by — targeted advertising and other potentially harmful online content. For parents looking to help kids avoid the negative effects of online advertising on their self-esteem, here are some ideas:

  1. Limiting Screen Time — Reducing the impact of online advertising can be as simple as limiting the amount of time a child spends on apps and websites that display ads. Taking an active role in limiting your child’s screen time can go a long way toward reducing the amount of negative exposure to potentially harmful content online
  2. Block Sites with Questionable Advertising — If possible, find out what websites or apps feature ads that cause a negative impact on your child and block them using the browser settings on home computers and other devices, such as tablets and cell phones. If you know what sites your child is visiting, take a look yourself to understand what kind of ad content is being presented to your child. This type of proactive approach is also more respectful of your child’s privacy than constantly watching over his or her shoulder
  3. Use Ad-Blocking Software — While not every online advertisement is bad for children (some ads can actually provide valuable information), some parents may still prefer to eliminate the threat of potentially damaging content. For those instances, there are a number of effective ad-blocking tools that parents can install to help stop on-screen ads from appearing on a youngster’s smartphone or tablet while browsing the Web or using certain apps. While not completely foolproof, ad-blocking software packages can be effective in blocking a great deal of advertising targeted specifically at youngsters
  4. Engage with Your Kids — Consider having a conversation with your children about the ads they encounter online and ask them how they feel when they see certain advertisements. Use the opportunity to encourage youngsters to think critically about the ads they watch. For more mature kids, help them to look deeper, below the surface of those ads in order to gain a better understanding of the messages being presented
  5. Encourage Positive Self-Talk — If an ad has had a negative effect on a child’s self-esteem, try to help that youngster to build a more positive self-image of him- or herself by using self-talk and focusing on their personal strengths and individual achievements. This approach can be used to help counteract the effects of ads that cause children to compare themselves to idealized or stereotyped images presented in those advertisements
  6. Introduce Positive Role Models — Share with your kids some positive role models that represent real-world individuals and social situations. Presenting your children with examples of healthy body image, positive family and social values, as well as self-confidence can help kids stay grounded the next time they experience unrealistic portrayals of individuals, groups, or social situations online
  7. Suggest Alternate Activities — Instead of spending all their free time online, suggest to your kids that there are other interesting and enjoyable pursuits. These can include reading a book, taking up a creative hobby or craft, and playing with other kids outside in the fresh air. These alternate activities can help to reduce your children’s exposure to online advertising and may even lead to more balanced and thoughtful screen-time habits

Overall, parents can take steps to address and counteract the often destructive effects experienced by kids whose self-esteem has been negatively affected by online ads. By limiting exposure, encouraging open discussion, and offering a range of positive role models, parents, and grandparents can help youngsters to develop a more healthy and realistic sense of themselves and to more effectively resist the potentially damaging effects of advertising on their young minds.