Guidance on Digital Advertising and Children
June 24, 2020
Advertising to children and teenagers is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and research has shown that children are uniquely vulnerable to it. A policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics offers evidence-based recommendations to protect children from the rapidly changing and sometimes exploitative digital marketing strategies that are part of the online world families use every day.
The AAP policy statement, "Digital Advertising to Children," published in the July 2020 issue of Pediatrics is an update of a 2006 policy statement and recommends new legislation and industry reforms to protect children from digital ads.
"Lawmakers, media producers, tech companies all have a duty to start developing a digital environment in which families can navigate to educational and entertaining games, shows and other content that provides opportunities for children, rather than focusing on profits and data collection." said Nusheen Ameenuddin, MD, MPH, MPA, FAAP, co-author of the policy and chair of the AAP Council on Communications and Media.
"Parents can be very effective in teaching children and teenagers about digital media by making a family media use plan, teaching and applying media literacy and by being good role models for their children, but it's no longer acceptable to simply continue to blame parents for a digital advertising environment that is largely out of their control."
Advertising is ubiquitous in children's media and digital environments. An analysis of the most-downloaded free apps for children under age 5 found that 96% contained commercial content, including hidden ads and ads that provide incentives such as game tokens or gameplay advantages. In addition, app characters sometimes encourage in-app purchases in games aimed at children. According to the AAP, children are particularly vulnerable to this marketing tactic.
Gaps in privacy protection
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), enacted in 1998, offers some protection to children online, but the Act has many gaps and is not reliably enforced. App and game designers can easily sidestep COPPA guidelines by claiming a game or app is for "general audiences" even when it is clearly aimed at children, and COPPA only protects children younger than age 13. AAP recommends COPPA protections be expanded to age 17.
In addition to violating children's privacy through data collection, online marketing campaigns directly impact children's health, according to the AAP. Research shows that children who are exposed to ads for alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy foods and drinks, and marijuana are more likely to consume these products. In some cases, internet ads have become a loophole for companies banned from traditional advertising. For example, tanning salons are banned from advertising on television, radio or other traditional media because indoor tanning is a class 2 carcinogen. Instead tanning salons actively use social media as a strategy to reach teens and young adults.
"The internet should not be a place where advertising for unhealthy products can reach children," said Dr. Ameenuddin. "There are also concerns that poorer and marginalized communities are exposed to more health misinformation, which could negatively impact the health of these children who already face many challenges."
Teenagers also need protection from online ads, which impact the self-image of teens. Online ads communicate "ideals" of body appearance in weight loss ads, and can impart cultural or racial biases in products like skin lightening or hair straightening aids.
The AAP recommends parents talk with children about the ads they see from an early age and continue conversations throughout childhood.
The AAP recommendations include:
1. Lawmakers must ban all commercial advertising to children younger than age 7, and limit advertising to older children and teenagers. All advertising should be clearly labeled as "sponsored content."
2. New laws are needed to reduce advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages to children and teenagers and ban depictions of tobacco products (including e-cigarettes). Internet sales of tobacco products should be banned because they are easily accessed by minors.
3. Families should create a Family Media Use Plan to guide children toward high-quality media content with fewer ads. Families can use this plan to talk to children about data collection and how to be media savvy. Pediatricians should be available to families as a resource of information and advice.
4. Parents should monitor privacy settings on personal devices, apps, social media, virtual assistants, and wireless networks.
5. Families and pediatricians should talk to school administrators and teachers about the digital privacy settings on the education technology tools they use.
6. More funding is needed for research on digital advertising and its impacts on children, and for digital literacy programs in schools.
"Policy makers and technology companies should adopt stricter privacy regulations for all users, but most especially for children and teenagers, who face privacy and data collection surfing the web at home, streaming videos and television shows, and even at school while using ed tech," Dr. Ameenuddin said.