Online Marketing - Taking Action

At the end of the day very little that 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.

Tips for Dealing with Online Marketing

To help kids avoid the many traps and pitfalls set up by online marketers, parents and teachers need to become more informed about online marketing techniques and privacy issues – and then pass the information on to kids. In particular, adults should teach kids to:

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 to use it to create marketing strategies to reach other kids.

Think critically about online endorsements

Social networks such as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are full of material endorsing consumer products such as toys, food and makeup. Some of these are honest recommendations, but many are also paid endorsements, and it can be hard to tell the difference. "Influencers" are supposed to clearly state when they've taken money to endorse a product, so get kids in the habit of looking for those statements and being skeptical of any endorsement they see online. 

Protect their personal information

Children should always check with an adult before submitting any personal information online. If they absolutely must give out an email address to participate in a commercial website, a "dummy" Hotmail account can be created for them.

Know the difference between branded and non-branded sites

Branded commercial sites for kids are easy to spot. They're associated with a specific company or brand, and feature products and characters produced and trademarked by the company. Their purpose is to build brand loyalty, to sell products, and to use the information they get from visitors to develop their marketing strategies.

Non-branded commercial sites aren't as obvious, since they don't appear to be affiliated with a specific company or brand. They may feature the products of a number of different companies, or no product at all. Their chief purpose is to conduct surveys and research for the purpose of gathering personal information about the children who visit their site – either for the sole benefit of their site partners, or to sell to other interested third parties.

Clearly explain any hidden costs

Before allowing a child to participate in an online game or join a virtual world, adults need to read the Terms or User Agreement to find out exactly what's free and what isn't before getting too far into the site. Parents who let their children play games that permit upgrades for a fee should be careful to ensure that they don’t make purchases on their own: in one recent case a child was able to spend nearly a hundred dollars on one iPad game because the device had retained his father’s credit card information.

Recognize responsible children's sites

Not all websites have privacy policies – and when they do, it's important to learn to read the fine print. A good privacy policy will come right out and tell users what information is being collected from kids, and how it will be used. It should also allow parents to view the information collected on their child, and edit or delete it if they wish.

A responsible site for kids should:

  • Identify its partners
  • Make sure the difference is clear between its content and any advertisements
  • Have a privacy policy which is written in language that kids can understand and can be reached both from the home page and any other pages where kids are asked to submit information
  • State clearly in its privacy policy that any information collected from children will not be sold to a third party. This can be misleading however: Neopets is owned by Viacom, so Viacom subsidiaries would not be considered ‘third parties’)
  • Require parental consent to be obtained before any child under 13 releases any personal information. This consent should be verifiable, not just a simple exhortation such as: "Hey, kids, be sure to get your parents' permission before you give out information online!"

As well, parents should also consider using filtering software

Free filtering software can be downloaded from the Internet. These programs block ads on websites; however, they're not effective on sites where advertising is presented as content.

Another useful kind of software is one that filters outgoing information, and prevents children from giving out any personal information online. Parents can program the software with children's names, addresses and telephone numbers, so that if they try to send this information online it will merely show up as a row of asterisks or xs.

Children and even teens may have a hard time distinguishing programming and advertising, and branded websites take advantage of this by blurring the distinction. To counter this, adults need to teach children to:

  • Understand that although commercial sites are fun, their purpose is to sell products and build brand loyalty
  • “Read between the lines” of food, alcohol and tobacco advertising, both online and offline
  • Recognize the methods that marketers use to collect information
  • Understand the value of their personal information and how to protect it