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Banning Ads for Kids: An Old, Bad Idea

Banning Ads for Kids: An Old, Bad Idea

June 25, 2024

For multiple generations of adults, the Saturday morning cartoons of the 1960s to 2000s represent a nostalgic, pre-Internet childhood. The commercials that played during these kid-friendly TV shows themselves were many of these adults’ first exposure to advertising and themselves became a source of nostalgia, with countless social media accounts and posts dedicated to sharing or recalling ads for toys, snacks, games, and breakfast cereal.

Today’s kids are growing up in a different, more connected world. They certainly still watch television and consume other forms of traditional media and see ads in those formats, but they also have access to digital spaces that, until recently, did not exist. Advertising in kid-friendly digital spaces might feature many of the same types of products that were advertised alongside Saturday morning cartoons, but advertising techniques have grown more sophisticated and personalized. Contextual advertising places ads alongside relevant content—for example, placing an ad for diapers on a forum for new parents. Meanwhile, targeted advertising places ads in front of users who fit certain demographic criteria—for example, showing an ad for a local community college to young adults who live in the area.

Despite improvements in technology, the debate around children’s media and advertising is hardly new. In the 1970s, interest groups lobbied for an advertising ban during children’s programming on television, arguing that children are not mature enough to understand advertising claims and that TV advertisements manipulate children into pressuring their parents to spend money. This attempt ultimately failed, and instead Congress passed the Children’s Television Act in 1990, which imposed some restrictions on advertising during children’s television but did not ban the practice. These restrictions included limiting commercial time during children’s programming to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per hour on weekend and prohibiting advertising products associated with the program currently airing or containing talent or identifiable characteristics from the program. The latter rule was meant to establish a clear separation between TV programs and commercials.

Within the modern debate surrounding children’s online safety and privacy, calls to ban targeted advertising to children online rely on similar talking points as interest groups used in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. There are also new concerns related to safeguarding children’s personal data. These concerns are reflected in the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0), a bill proposed by Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) that would update existing children’s online privacy protections, including a ban on targeted advertising to children under 17.

Privacy fundamentalists portray targeted advertising as an invasive form of surveillance that takes advantage of consumers, including children, by “forcing” them to trade away their personal data for advertising purposes in order to access certain websites and online services. However, the reality of targeted advertising is that online services typically do not sell their users’ personal information to advertisers, but instead sell the ability to advertise to a certain demographic of users that is likely to be interested in a certain product or service. As a result, businesses can more effectively reach their consumer base and consumers see ads that are more relevant to their interests.

Not only do calls to ban advertising to children still rely on many of the same old arguments, they also still face the same obstacle: feasibility. TV networks and online services alike need advertising revenue to keep the lights on. Without this important source of revenue, there is little incentive for networks to air children’s programming or for online services to offer content aimed at children. If Congress bans targeted advertising to children under 17, online services are likely to either stop offering content aimed at children, show even more (but less relevant) ads to make up for the reduced effectiveness of switching to only contextual advertising, or start charging much higher prices for content that was once low-cost or free. This would have the strongest negative effect on low-income households with less disposable income to spend on children’s entertainment and educational content.

It is unrealistic to imagine children experiencing a world without ads without any other changes to the status quo. Banning targeted advertising to children would require countless online services to pass their operating costs onto someone else: in this case, parents. Parents would be the ones paying subscription fees for content that used to be free, if they could afford to do so given inflation and the rising cost of living.

Just as Congress regulated advertising during children’s programming in 1990 instead of banning it altogether, Congress should pass regulations that address concrete harm instead of banning targeted advertising to children. This should include passing a federal privacy law to give consumers of all ages more control over their personal data and requiring greater transparency in online advertising to address deceptive practices, such as scammers promoting questionable products and services to vulnerable populations, including children.

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