When the iconic US snack brand Cracker Jack decided to replace its "prize" with a QR code, it felt ominous. Instead of finding a tiny baseball card or a temporary tattoo, kids are now directed to a mobile game, which lets them share a baseball-themed picture of themselves with the Cracker Jack logo with their friends on social media. R.I.P, all that is pure. Will it ever be possible to shield kids from being tracked, analysed and bombarded with advertising - and used as advertising - if we can't do so with a classic snack?
Photo Illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Seems unlikely. "I would say that the only way to ad-proof your kid is to keep them under their bed all day," says Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of the forthcoming book Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat. "Whether it's television or video games or social media, everyone wants a piece of your child's attention."
Advertising to children is nothing new, of course. (I still hum the Aeroplane Jelly jingle every now and then.) But it's become dicier in the digital world as it surfaces under the guise of mobile games and "influencer" content, and the internet does not have the same FCC-enforced rules for separating commercial and program content that TV network and cable channels do. Now, you'll see Pokémon GO leading kids to Starbucks. You'll see popular teen vlogger Baby Ariel sampling Jelly Belly-brand jelly beans with her family. My four-year-old learned how to click "Skip Ad" before she learned how to count to 20, but ads aren't just in official commercials — they're everywhere.
So what does this mean? As parents, do we have any choice as to how much advertising our kids are exposed to? We do.
What's the Big Deal, Anyway?
Research shows that kids respond to ads much differently than adults do - for instance, junk food commercials are alarmingly effective on them. Children under eight are especially vulnerable because they lack the cognitive skills to understand that what they're seeing is an ad. They implicitly trust what they see and hear. In experiments with preschoolers, a Stanford professor who studies childhood obesity and its links to screen time told the New York Times, "even a 30-second exposure to a novel product, one that you've never seen before, changes their preferences for brand."
But companies aren't going to wait until kids get it.
Are Subscription-Based Services the Answer?
A new report by Exstreamist, a news site dedicated to streaming services and the future of television, shows that kids in "Netflix only" homes are being "saved" from 230 hours of commercials a year. More parents — myself included — are being driven to subscription-based content providers, feeling that such services give them more control over what their kids are seeing. (And at a time when violent and disturbing YouTube videos masquerade as kids' content, that control is critical.)
Pinna, a podcast subscription app for kids from the Panoply network, offers all-you-can-listen audiobooks and original programming for children ages 4 to 12. It's $US7.99 ($10) a month and contains zero advertisements. I tried it on a free trial subscription, and my four-year-old daughter devoured the shows. (She particularly loved the quizzes at the end of the Sarah & Duck episodes.) Of making children listen to ads, Andy Bowers, Panoply's chief content officer, told the New York Times, "I just think it's coercive."
Naomi Schaefer Riley tells me that a lot of the ads to children are coming through free versions of games - Candy Crush, Subway Surfer, etc. "Parents will often allow their kids to get such games because they're free without thinking about the real costs," Riley says. "These games are obviously a time waster and an attention reducer, but at least if we force ourselves to pay for the game that has no advertising we might actually think harder about whether we really want our kids to spend time on these."
Ad-free, subscription-based services aren't a fool-proof solution, of course. In response to the report about Netflix, some Reddit users predict that if you take out the ads, the content will then become the ad. "Can [kids] recognise the product placements within the programs themselves as advertisements?" wondered redditor misterchef78. "Having distinct barriers between entertainment and advertisements was a feature to help consumers understand when they are being advertised to."
Also, the fees for all these subscriptions add up quickly. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Foxtel and now whatever Disney plans to launch - it's a lot. But the payoff is some peace of mind.
'A' Is for Advertisement
As parents, we should be teaching kids the difference between a program and a commercial so they can start thinking critically on their own. Common Sense Media offers some helpful conversation-starters. Sit with your child and visit a website together, Crayola perhaps, and talk about how the images, videos and games make products look like something kids would want to buy. During TV commercials, stop and ask your children, "What is this selling?" If your children are older, you can give them an allowance to purchase apps — with limited funds, they will have to really consider the value.
Apps like Kidoz, available on Android, put smartphones into a kid-friendly mode that prevents them from seeing irrelevant ads. Adguard AdBlocker blocks ads on Chrome. You can also curate playlists of approved shows.
Then, of course, there is this big idea: reduce screen time. Here are some ways to make screen time rules that work for your family. (This process includes looking at your own media use.) There is all sorts of research showing that kids need more non-digital playtime.
And keep talking. Keep talking to other parents about how they manage ads. Keep talking to your kid's school administrators about how they collect data and where that data goes. Keep talking to your legislators. And keep talking to your kids about what the world is trying to sell them.