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Marketing to Kids Online

Marketing to Kids Online

By Tara Swords

Keeping advertisers from pushing too many products and ideas on her children was never too difficult for Susan McLaughlin. For starters, the 46-year-old mom from San Jose, Calif., never installed cable TV in her family's home. But when she and her five-year-old daughter visited the official web site of her little girl's favorite toy, McLaughlin realized that advertisers have a much more effective medium for reaching kids: the Internet.

"There are games and downloadable activities, but it's pretty obvious from the sites that they are there to sell," McLaughlin says. "Plus, she keeps on clicking on pictures which take her to more toys, some of which are too old for her or aimed at teens or preteens."

A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that web sites do in fact market heavily to kids and teens online. After all, the Internet is a marketer's dream because it can help lure kids into interacting with games, cartoon characters, and online communities. And it's not just toy manufactures that are getting in the game. Free online video games, for example, are built around popular TV show characters or include product placements. Or some sites for kids are designed to feel like an independent editorial site, but the advice is really focused on promoting specific products.

The problem is that kids might not realize they're being marketed to -- and parents might not realize their kids are disclosing private data about themselves along the way. Experts say instead of pulling the plug on your computer, you can take these steps to protect kids from digital marketing tactics:

1. Teach your kids about online marketing Many young children don't understand that the fun web sites they visit have an ulterior motive. "Parents should teach kids that these sites are commercial and are there to build brand loyalty," says Warren Nightingale, media education specialist at the Media Awareness Network.

When McLaughlin found that her daughter's visits to that popular toy web site made her want a new toy every week, she used the situation as a teaching opportunity. "I don't say, 'They're trying to get you,'" McLaughlin says. "I said, 'It's good to hold on to your money and decide which toy you really want.'"

2.  Protect kids' personal information  The chief reason commercial sites try to attract kids is to increase sales. One way they accomplish that goal is by collecting information about kids' preferences and reactions to toys. By law, sites can also collect email addresses for kids who are age 13 or older to continue targeting kids long after the initial interaction.

"They'll have some content that's free but for the exciting content, such as an environment where they can participate in games or surveys, they need to register," Nightingale says. "To register, you have to provide personal information such as name, address, and email." If you don't want your child to give out an email address, make that clear. Or, Nightingale suggests, set up a dummy email account designed to collect emails that you never intend to open.

Also, experts recommend that parents read sites' privacy policies. Sites should always be clear about what information they collect from kids and how they use it. If not, tell your kids to steer clear. In addition, look for seals, such as those by Better Business Bureau or TRUSTe, that indicate a site follows ethical business practices, including protecting your children's privacy.

3. Stay involved  Nightingale advises parents to keep Internet-connected computers out of kids' bedrooms and in a spot where parents can supervise. "When it comes to digital technology, kids are so immersed in it and spend so much time on it that they become the experts in the family but they don't necessarily have the life skills to recognize potential dangers," he says. "So parents need to step in and guide them."

If you feel that an online advertiser is exploiting your child, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission or Advertising Standards Canada. Nightingale also suggests parents share their concerns with other parents in forums such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Or you take McLaughlin's lead and raise your kids' awareness every chance you get. "[Advertisers] just keep adding more links to more toys, and that's hard to control," she says. "We put the computer in the family room next to the kitchen so I can see what she's doing. I say, 'you can't click on anything without asking me.'"

Tara Swords is a business and technology writer based in Chicago who regularly writes for the Chicago Tribune, Inc, Diversity/Careers in Engineering and Information Technology and other national publications.