The best things in life are free — but when it comes to social media, “free” isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.
Thanks to advertisements, we can access our favorite apps and websites every day free of charge. But these ad placements often rely on feedback from data-rich, search-driven algorithms, not to mention users’ personal information. For adults, this model works great. In many ways, being served ads that align with our interests helps us filter the massive inflow of information we’re exposed to online.
For children, it’s another story entirely. Sure, kids have always been exposed to advertising — just think back to watching Saturday morning cartoons. But today’s digital natives aren’t simply seeing ads for Lego sets and sugary cereals between episodes of “PAW Patrol.”
Your Kids and Advertising
According to Common Sense Media, 42 percent of kids younger than 9 years old have their own devices, and many of them spend a minimum of 48 minutes online every day, whether using their own tablet or someone else’s. What’s more, 98 percent of the up-and-coming generation has easy access to tablets and smartphones, the primary mediums through which we’re now served advertisements.
There’s nothing wrong with kids using technology, but problems arise when multiple users feed different information to the same machine — at this point, it becomes impossible for algorithms to always serve up age-appropriate content. Consider what happens when your second-grade daughter browses YouTube on your device. She’s inevitably stumbling across an amalgamation of ads intended for you based on your browsing history and demographics.
These were the kinds of things I had to consider when thinking about the monetization side of Kinzoo, an app with a user base of children under the age of 13. As a parent myself, it’s not necessarily the ads that I have a problem with; it’s the way in which they might be served to my daughter. I didn’t like the fact that a machine was making the “decision” about what ads to show her and that the machine used personal information to make that decision. This is the main reason advertising is in a separate channel on my app. Giving children and parents the ability to choose what content to watch — rather than feeding them recommended videos and ads — was a top priority.
The good news is that we don’t have to feel helpless or keep our kids offline to get a handle on this complex situation. Take these few simple steps to ensure your children stay safe online while still allowing them to learn and have fun:
1. Familiarize yourself with COPPA.
The Federal Trade Commission manages the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which maintains that owners of online apps, services, and sites do not collect, disclose, or utilize information from users below the age of 13 without parental consent.
So what does this mean for you and your kids? Before you allow your kids to engage on U.S.-based apps and social platforms, ensure they’re COPPA-certified. Young kids can benefit from participating in creative online environments that don’t rely on social validation. They should have the freedom to safely roam the internet without feeling compelled to submit personal information.
2. Read the terms of service.
Though every social media platform requires users to be at least 13 years old to make an account, the average sign-up age for kids is 12.6. This means young kids are potentially putting themselves in harm’s way by setting up accounts with phony birth dates — sometimes with their parents’ permission.
I get it. Terms of service and privacy policies aren’t exactly riveting, but they contain key information that relates to your child’s online safety (e.g., how the platform collects, manages, uses, and shares data). You might be surprised to learn just how dangerous it can be to allow your child to set up an account. By fabricating personal data, kids will likely begin to see advertisements that are meant for older teens and adults.
3. Be wary of apps with intrusive ad mechanisms.
When an app or website forces ads into feeds or demands that users view ads before they can unlock features, it’s a good indicator that the platform is suited for more mature audiences. Yet one study found that ads are present in 95 percent of apps marketed to kids under the age of five. You don’t need to steer clear of these types of apps altogether, but you might want to flag them and leave a review for other moms and dads.
4. Talk about smart surfing with kids.
Making time for “the talk” is important. Your kids should feel comfortable telling you when they’re exposed to inappropriate online content, but children who fear that their devices will be taken away will hesitate to share information. Establishing an open and honest environment in your household will go a long way in ensuring your kids can not only recognize problematic advertising when they see it, but also feel comfortable telling you about it.
Many websites and apps have advertising systems that work well for mature users, but children have different online needs — and it’s important for operators to understand that. It’s nearly impossible to keep kids offline these days, but there are a few things parents can do to protect children from potentially harmful content and algorithms. It’s up to you to make sure they’re playing safe.
Sean Herman is the founder of Kinzoo, a video-sharing app where children can connect and parents can be sure they’re safe. Kids use Kinzoo to access the best of what technology has to offer — empowering creativity, connecting with friends and family, and learning about the things they love — within [...]