5Rights gives evidence to Parliament on children and online advertising

The 5Rights Foundation has responded to a Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) call for evidence on online advertising. The response draws attention both to the evidence that children and young people are disproportionately vulnerable to the risks of online advertising, and to the relevant protections in the Age Appropriate Design Code that seek to mitigate these risks. Once again, 5Rights is calling on the Government to lay the Code in Parliament immediately.

The key points made in 5Rights’ response are as follows: 

Children are disproportionately susceptible to the pressures of online advertising, targeted or otherwise. 

The evidence is clear that children under the age of 12 experience “difficulty in recognising and evaluating advertising information.” Moreover, as children age, their ability to recognise (and ‘defend’ themselves against) advertisements online continues to be compromised by the range of stimuli that compete for their attention. In fact, research from the WHO on food advertising concludes that older children are just as affected by online advertising’s persuasive effect.

The increasingly embedded and immersive nature of online advertising means that children are often unable to recognise content that is paid-for. 

Rebecca Mardon, a senior lecturer in marketing and strategy at Cardiff University writes in an LSE blog that children “struggle to recognise adverts when they are embedded in organic content, and may not recognise YouTube videos featuring paid advertising content, vloggers’ own-brand merchandise, or free products “gifted” by brands as marketing.”

The rise of ‘advergames’ - adverts disguised as or embedded within online games - provides a good illustration of the challenges children face in recognising more personalised and embedded advertising or promotional content. The Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath found that “children as old as 15 do not recognise advergames as adverts, and are influenced by them without their conscious use”.

Online behavioural advertising is increasingly manipulative in nature 

For instance, online advertising in the form of emotional targeting is on the rise and is especially concerning when children and young people are the recipients of such practices.  In a now infamous leaked memo from Australia, Facebook was found to have given a presentation to advertisers in which it demonstrated its capability to infer the real-time emotions of adolescents and advertise to them based on those feelings. Segment profiles included “insecure”, “worthless”, “stressed”, “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless”, and a “failure”

Many mood, meditation, and mental health apps also have business models that are based on selling young people’s emotional data, so they can be targeted with advertising based on the likelihood that they’re feeling a certain way at a given point in time.

Children and young people are exposed to age-inappropriate adverts due to insufficient age assurance measures. 

Warnings of pre-teens being targeted with adverts for inappropriate alcohol and gambling by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) in 2018 suggests a greater concern for the efficacy of “self-declaration of age” mechanisms to adequately protect children and young people from age-inappropriate adverts. 5Rights highlights that online platforms have not sufficiently demonstrated more robust age verification processes or upheld their own restrictions on their platforms, despite continued calls to do so by the ASA. This is especially vital given that the percentage of children who lie about their age when using social media remains high.

Children do not understand how data about them are used to target them with commercial content. 

In 2018, UNICEF published a report on Children and Digital Marketing, stating that “many data collection practices occur… under circumstances that do not empower children to understand and control the use of their personal information.” Indeed, a New York Times article last year highlights that a vast majority of the 150 privacy policies from popular platforms were assessed to be at an excess of a college-reading level. The ability of children to understand the use of their data on these same platforms with respect to commercial content is highly dubious. 

Age Appropriate Design Code

The overall picture 5Rights aims to present in our response is one where children and young people are disproportionately unprotected from online advertising. The provisions outlined by the Age Appropriate Design Code, particularly the requirements of online services to turn behavioural advertising “off” by default for children and to ensure that children’s data profiles do not lead to the auto-recommendation of content that is age-inappropriate or detrimental to their wellbeing. In order to comply with these requirements, the Age Appropriate Design Code also establishes the need for online services to have more robust age verification processes. Proper enforcement of the Code, therefore, would greatly mitigate the risks highlighted in our response. The Government should lay the Code in Parliament immediately.

For the full 5Rights response to DCMS please see the consultation here:https://5rightsfoundation.com/uploads/final-5rights-response-to-dcms-online-advertising-consultation.pdf