When it comes to advertising and marketing, the internet can be a pretty confusing place for kids. Influencers sing products’ praises without disclosing that they’ve been paid to promote them. Videogames slip subliminally persuasive branded content right into the action. Cookies track your every search and website visit, then serve you with targeted ads that seem to know you better than you know yourself. If it’s challenging for adults to recognize when they’re being manipulated, just imagine how difficult it can be for children, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed so much of their educational and social lives online. While parents may not be able to shield their kids from commercials entirely, it is possible to arm children with the kind of tools and knowledge that will help them recognize advertising when they see it. With that in mind, some of the world’s leading researchers and educators have weighed in with their advice on how best to protect kids from the physical, mental, and emotional impacts of digital advertising and influencer culture.
HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE
“In the past, advertising to children and youth consisted primarily of 30-second TV ads; now it includes product placements, immersive websites, advergaming, viral marketing, mobile ads, social-media marketing, and precise behavioral and location targeting”, says Ms. Rideout*. “More than ever before, advertising and entertainment are inextricably linked. In many cases, the content is the ad.”
Associate Professor of Marketing Anna R. McAlister, PhD. of Endicott College’s Gerrish School of Business agrees. While we might like to shield our kids from advertising entirely, it’s simply not possible in our modern world. “Advertising and marketing practices have evolved to the point where they’re present even in places we might think of as being non-commercial settings.” “For instance, streaming services like Netflix might allow a child to watch shows without commercial breaks, but that doesn’t mean the child isn’t still being exposed to commercial content.” Films and television series make frequent use of product placement, as do many popular videogames. “The best defense is to be present with your child when he or she is watching TV or playing online games, and to talk with them about the branded products and services they see,” says McAlister. “Actively mediating the content can help your child to navigate the highly commercialized digital landscape.”
UNDERSTAND THE ALGORITHM
Websites and social media platforms use algorithms to influence our viewing and engagement, and it’s important for parents to help their children understand how these systems work. “When you put words into a search engine, your location, your previous searches, and your previous websites viewed all influence the order of the results of your search,” explains Pediatrician and Adolescent Medicine Specialist Dr. Yolanda N. Evans. “As you watch content on social media, your history of ‘liking’ certain posts, the time you spend viewing different content, and even the viewing practices of people in your contacts all influence what is presented to you.” The goal? To maximize the amount of time you spend online and to encourage increased consumption. Evans suggests asking yourself (and your children) a series of questions when you’re browsing online: What advertisements pop up? If you click on an ad of interest, how often do similar ads follow? When you type a topic into a search engine, what’s the first thing that comes up? Is it an ad for a product that interests you? “Recognizing these patterns,” she says, “can help you teach your children to be conscious of bias in both content and advertisements.”
UNDERSTAND THE INFLUENCE
With the rise of social media influencers, the lines between entertainment and advertising are more blurry than ever. “Increasingly, children are not only targeted by influencer marketing, they are also used as commercial intermediaries between brands and their young target audience,” says Artevelde University of Applied Sciences and Ghent University researcher and lecturer Dr. Marijke De Veirman. “Children may have difficulties recognizing that these entertaining videos may also be presenting persuasive material, especially when they’re made by their peers.” Complicating matters, many of these child vloggers’ videos are available on platforms like YouTube Kids, which proclaims itself as child-friendly and which parents perceive to be a safe media environment.
One way to help your children become more critical consumers of influencer content is to ask some simple questions. “Find out why they like their favorite influencer,” suggests Ghent University Professor Dr. Koen Ponnet. “Is it because the influencer is glib and freethinking, or because he or she is famous and wealthy? Question your children whether they know how influencers gain their money, and let them reflect about authenticity.”
While much of our online behavior is tracked in granular detail, there are steps you can take to minimize the sharing of your data, which can help limit your family’s exposure to targeted advertising. “When using the web, make sure your default setting is ‘private browsing,’ says University of Arizona Assistant Professor Matthew Lapierre. “Use web browsers that allow for the installations of add-ons (Mozilla Firefox preferably) and then install and use AdBlock Plus and Ghostery.” Lapierre also recommends limiting your child’s overall exposure to advertising, whether through restricting the viewing of influencer marketing or product “unboxing videos,” or simply by DVRing their favorite TV shows and fast forwarding through the commercials.
DON’T WAIT TO REGULATE
The rules limiting commercialism on children’s television, such as the prohibition on product placement, don’t apply to the internet. “As a result,” says, Executive Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood Josh Golin, “YouTube is awash in ‘unboxing videos,’ where kids talk excitedly about toys, food, or other products their families have been paid to promote. These ads masquerading as content are incredibly effective marketing; kids who watch these videos are more likely to nag their parents for products than if they watch a traditional TV commercial, and they’re more likely to tantrum if their parents say ‘no.’” Golin suggests that parents concerned about commercialism’s impact on their children’s development should avoid these videos and other influencer content altogether.
Experts agree that more regulation is needed to help families protect their privacy and deal with the onslaught of marketing that seeps into every facet of daily life. Lapierre suggests reaching out to policymakers to advocate for more rigorous oversight, but change can be slow, and Taylor University Professor Dr. Tilakavati Karupaiah reminds us that, in the meantime, it’s up to parents to be gatekeepers. “You can engage with neighborhood parental peer groups to inform, motivate, and develop mutual strategies to shape children’s views in the immediate environment of the home, and you can do the same with PTAs in schools,” says Karupaiah. “Parents are the only medium right now to counteract manipulative digital advertising, and they can indirectly reduce screen time just through engaging with their kids more.”
The negative effects of advertising aren’t just mental and emotional. “Food marketing directed to kids is mostly for junk food and sugary drinks, and it harms their health” says Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity Director of Marketing Initiatives Fran Fleming-Milici, PhD. “Digital food marketing may be more problematic because it is sneaky. Games, apps, messages from friends/influencers, and product placements in videos promote brands, but hide persuasive intent.”
University of Leeds Professor and President Elect of the European Association for the Study of Obesity Jason Halford concurs, pointing out that recent data suggests that YouTube and Instagram influencers may have a significant impact on young people’s food intake. “Children and young adults identify with and are more influenced by popular social media figures than traditional celebrity endorsers,” Halford explains. While parents may be more focused on the ads their children see on television, Halford and Fleming-Milici remind them that it’s essential they understand who their kids follow online and what messages they’re promoting.
In our present digital ecosystem, advertising is a nearly ubiquitous part of the online experience, but it’s clear that its power of persuasion can be combated with a few simple steps. Talk with your kids about the content they’re seeing, and help them understand the motives at play when they’re presented with products and services that seem too good to be true. Teaching your child to be a critical consumer of digital media will yield lifelong benefits for their health and their happiness.
About Children and Screens
Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness. For more information, see www.childrenandscreens.com or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* “Advertising to Children and Teens: Current Practices: Common Sense Media.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, Common Sense Media, 28 Jan. 2014.