There is a “digital gold rush” underway to cash in on young people’s passion for interactive media. Google and other media and ad companies are working to transform kids’ clicks and views into bundles of cash and burgeoning brand loyalty. While TV still dominates a great deal of kids’ media viewing, they are also consuming content (often simultaneously) on mobile devices, tablets, and through streaming or video-on-demand services.
In February, Google launched its YouTube Kids app for children five and under; Disney acquired leading youth-focused online video producer Maker Studios last year in a more than $500 million deal, giving it control of “the largest content network on YouTube”; Viacom’s Cartoon Network (CN) now offers CN’s “Anything,” providing mobile phone-friendly “micro” content and promising to serve a “network of devices giving a network of experiences to a network of fans”; and Amazon, Netflix, and others are sending more “kid targeted” streaming video-on-demand programming.
But unlike broadcast and cable TV, where there is at least a handful of FCC regulations that prevent some of the worst practices perfected by advertisers for targeting kids, the online world is mostly a regulatory-free zone when it comes to digital marketing.
Advocates and child-health experts fought a long campaign, from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, to ensure that TV didn’t take unfair advantage of how kids relate to advertising—so that shows weren’t simply “program-length commercials” for toys, or that the “host” or star of a program—such as a cartoon character—didn’t also pitch products at the same time. There were also modest limits in how many ads could appear in so-called “kidvid” programming.
These rules reflected research on children’s development and their inability to fully comprehend the nature of advertising. The FCC policies embraced an important principle: children were to be treated differently than adults when it came to TV advertising.
Such safeguards are even more important in the digital era, when sophisticated advertising techniques gather and analyze data on everything an individual does, and incorporate an array of powerful interactive features on mobile devices and PCs that have been designed to get results.
Parents and others who care about children should be forewarned: For Google, Facebook, media companies like Nickelodeon, toy companies, and junk food marketers, the Internet is a medium whose primary focus is to help brand advertisers turn young people into fans, “influencers” (to spread the word via social media), and buyers of products.
Although children benefit from using educational apps, and have greater access to more diverse entertainment and other content, the motivation really at work is to mold this generation of youth into super-consumers, encouraged to engage in a never-ending buying cycle of goods and services.
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