No less than $900 million is spent each year in the advertising industry, including marketing snack foods, video games and sugary drinks to kids each year. Those ads boost companies' bottom lines, but they can also lead kids to unhealthy choices.
To help protect kids from the harmful effects of digital advertising and data collection, the American Academy of Pediatrics is urging lawmakers, parents and pediatricians to take bold action.
The AAP is calling on lawmakers to ban all advertising targeted to children under the age of 7. The group is urging limits to advertising aimed at those under 17. And it's advocating for the end of online tobacco sales because the products can easily be purchased by children.
The AAP released its new policy on digital advertising and its effect on kids on Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
"The internet should not be a place where advertising for unhealthy products can reach children," said Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin, co-author of the policy and chair of the AAP Council on Communications and Media.
More legislation could be needed
Children who are exposed to those ads are more likely to consume high-calorie, low-nutrient food and beverages, studies have shown. Ads can be correlated with the use of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes, as well as alcohol and marijuana.
"Children are uniquely vulnerable to the persuasive effects of advertising because of immature critical thinking skills and impulse inhibition," the authors of the policy explain. "School-aged children and teenagers may be able to recognize advertising but often are not able to resist it when it is embedded within trusted social networks, encouraged by celebrity influencers, or delivered next to personalized content."
The data that these companies collect from children in order to serve up ads can end up hurting kids later.
"This policy statement expresses concern about the practice of tracking and using children's digital behavior to inform targeted marketing campaigns, which may contribute to health disparities among vulnerable children or populations," they continued.
The AAP is calling on Congress to update the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and shore up gaps in its enforcement.
That law regulates the types of information that websites can collect from children. It protects kids ages 13 and younger. The AAP has said that those protections ought to expand to young people under the age of 17.
One issue is that CHOPPA doesn't fully protect children when they're browsing sites intended for general audiences. The AAP policy highlights the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation as a stronger piece of legislation that better protects kids online.
"There are also concerns that poorer and marginalized communities are exposed to more health misinformation, which could negatively impact the health of these children who already face many challenges," Ameenuddin said.
Create a family plan
The AAP's new policy urges parents to keep an eye on the privacy settings in devices and apps in the home.
One way to do this is to use AAP's Family Media Use Plan, which offers an online tool for a family to tailor its own individual strategy and calculate how much time kids are spending consuming media content.
You can explain to your kids how to identify whether an algorithm might be affecting the types of content or ads coming to them on a streaming platform such as YouTube.
Researchers at the London School of Economics offer a set of tools to help parents talk to their kids about the kinds of information websites are collecting about them online.
They offer videos that can help explain processes by which online platforms can collect data and then copy, analyze, store, share or sell it to other groups. One way they do this is by placing "cookies" on a device that can track and record users' actions and sell that information to outside companies.
For instance, Spotify enables more than 60 different companies — such as Google, Amazon and Facebook — to put cookies on users' devices, the LSE researchers noted. Many kids simply can't comprehend the degree to which data collection takes place without them knowing.
"Policy makers and technology companies should adopt stricter privacy regulations for all users, but most especially for children and teenagers, who face privacy and data collection surfing the web at home, streaming videos and television shows, and even at school while using ed tech," Ameenuddin said.