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Click here: AAP offers guidance to combat digital advertising to children :

June 22, 2020

It has never been more evident how dependent children and families are on technology than during COVID-19 lockdowns and school closures. Through digital media platforms and apps, children learn and socially connect, parents work and seek support, and everyone receives news and information about the world.

A new AAP policy statement Digital Advertising to Children helps clinicians and families build awareness of the rapidly evolving — and sometimes exploitative — digital marketing strategies that are baked into technologies families use every day. Recommendations for parents, health care providers and industry call for strategies to help protect children and adolescents from intrusive practices.

The policy from the AAP Council on Communications and Media is available at and will be published in the July issue of Pediatrics.

Risks of marketing, data collection

Marketing to youths no longer is confined to TV commercials and product placement in movies. Young minds now have to decode and resist marketing messages from favorite social media influencers, design “nudges” that encourage purchases and sharing of personal information, and invisible data collection and tailoring of both advertisements and information (e.g., political, health-related) that can influence user behavior. Except for a few nonprofit platforms (e.g., Hour of Code, PBS Kids, Mozilla browser), or in states like California where privacy legislation has taken effect, users can’t choose how much of their data they want collected or shared.

While many parents might dismiss the risks of data collection and tailored marketing, the policy describes real-life health implications for families. For example, there is concern that marginalized communities are exposed to more health misinformation that could negatively influence health outcomes (Ahmed F, et al. Lancet Public Health. 2020;5:e240,

There also are developmental and ethical reasons to limit marketing to children and teens. Research on TV commercials suggests the following:

  • Children ages 6 years and under have a hard time identifying ads. (So how can they tell that unboxing videos are advertising?)
  • Children 7-13 years can identify ads with the help of an adult but cannot think critically about persuasive intent. (So can they resist their favorite gamer telling them to download a video game?)
  • Teenagers — although more savvy about identifying marketing — struggle to resist ads. (So can they resist clicking on the YouTube video for secrets to getting the “perfect body”?)

These new types of advertising tap into children’s emotional responses to media, such as their affection for a celebrity or social media influencer, or their excitement at getting rewards (often in exchange for watching more ads) — which make ads much more difficult to resist.

Research shows that even adults don’t understand these design tricks.

Need for education

Teaching digital literacy is crucial. Children and parents need to understand how technology influences and sometimes exploits them. These mechanisms often are invisible, so digital citizenship curricula will need to help children understand:

  • Free digital products aren’t really “free” unless they are made by a nonprofit group.
  • Cookies (browser data trackers that follow our “crumbs” as we go from site to site) and device identifiers (IDs hardwired into smartphones and tablets, which can be traced back to users) often are collected by platforms and sold to companies that collect data on purchases, gameplay or browsing histories.
  • Individuals’ video viewing behavior on sites like YouTube can indicate aspects of users’ mental health, race, sexuality, political leaning or other characteristics.
  • Platforms used by schools (such as Google Classroom, ClassDojo) collect children’s data about test scores and behavior, which need to be protected.
  • Algorithms that sort people into categories of consumers carry bias and can reinforce disparities.
  • Users are more complicated than these algorithm categories, and they need to be aware of what tech platforms know about them and how this informs what messages they get (e.g., anti-vaccine misinformation to anxious new parents; alcohol and marijuana marketing to minority and low-income populations).

In addition, pediatricians can remind parents to be role models for digital media use and to talk openly and critically about media from the time children are young. Encourage families to use the AAP Family Media Plan (

Stricter regulations

However, digital literacy and clinician or parent behavior change are not enough (see resources). It’s unreasonable to ask every child to be as tech-savvy as possible and resist the powerful algorithms aimed at them.

First and foremost, the digital ecosystem needs to be fixed, according to the policy statement. Pediatric providers can support legislation to reduce the amount of manipulative marketing (e.g., KIDS Act) and data collection (e.g., Do Not Track Kids Act) occurring in platforms used by children. Public pressure on large tech companies is crucial.

Policymakers and tech companies should adopt stricter regulations and ban all commercial advertising to children younger than 7 years, limit advertising to older kids and ban targeted ads to those younger than 18 years.

Without systematic change so that data privacy and minimal marketing are the defaults, there will be inequitable manipulation of children’s online behavior and health outcomes.

Dr. Radesky is a lead author of the policy statement and a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media.

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