In light of raising concerns about advertising practices targeting children, the study examines children's exposure to online marketing content in social media, online games and applications.
Kids are increasingly active in the use of Online Games, Social Media Sites, and Mobile Applications (henceforth and in the technical offer simply OGSMMA). The primary overall goal of this study is to:
"...support the Commission with evidence for investigating and understanding the new and dynamic channels of online marketing to children, as well as the measures to alleviate consumer vulnerability among children in relation to sophisticated online marketing..."
In addition, only if justified by the evidence gathered, the study should also “...help the Commission in preparing evidence-base proposals for new policy measures”. More in general, the study shall test and assess the awareness and understanding by children in different age groups of sophisticated marketing techniques directed at them in OGSMMA, taking into account that European Commission has currently identified nine problematic marketing practices:
1) Embedded advertising (or advergames). The practice of blending advertising messages with interactive games and competitions makes it more difficult especially for children to discern the marketing element;
2) In-app and online game purchases. In mobile applications and online games marketed as “free”, players can typically only access portions of these games for free, with new levels or features, such as faster game play, costing money. It can be difficult for children to understand that even though you have downloaded a free app, you still might have to pay additional real money during the game;
3) Data privacy issues/ market research content. When children buy goods and services, especially over the Internet, they are commonly asked to give a number of personal details about themselves. However, it can be difficult for children to see what the consequences of giving out personal data are, and it may be unclear how the seller uses the information;
4) New wallet (credit cards, phone as wallet). When children today purchase apps, music and entertainment over the Internet or mobile phone this often happens with a variety of payment means, such as value codes (for iTunes), parent’s debit or credit cards or via (mobile) telephone bills. This means that children’s experiences with “real” money have become more intangible and their understanding of the implications of spending money is diminished;
5) Lack of price and contract transparency. Even adult consumers are often having trouble figuring out what things cost online, what is included in the price, what the duration of the contract is, etc. In the case of children this situation may be compounded by lack of reasoning skills and purchasing experience;
6) Lack of age verification systems. Some online games have an age limit of for instance 12 or 13 years to sign up. At the same time, there are usually no age verification systems on the site;
7) Lack of contact information about the suppliers. There is often a lack of contact details where one can ask for information or complain if something happens on websites. Some online games where children can make purchases with mobile phones or credit cards, do not have any complaints possibilities or follow up mechanisms;
8) Alcohol advertisement. Advertisements of alcohol in social media sites and in other websites popular for children also represent an area of concern in the context of online marketing. Hidden Internet advertising that is not covered by the UCPD directive occurs in the form of comments posted on social networks, forums and blogs;
9) Inappropriate contents. Websites specifically targeting children may require different sets of rules. On such pages the level of protection against problematic advertisement should be checked, as parents and children trust that these websites are safe spaces. It is important to not only look at the way in which advertisement incites children into making purchases on these sites, but also on the content and appropriateness of advertisement.
Within this context, the study tackles the following questions:
- What are the most common, effective and questionable techniques in OGSMMA to impact children consumer behaviour?
- To what degree and how these techniques influence the consumer behaviour of children?
- To what degree do children recognise/understand the implications of embedded marketing?
- How to identify experimentally the average behaviour and skills and specific source of susceptibility with regard to problematic practices?
- To what degree are parents able to recognised/understand implications of embedded marketing?
- To what degree and how parents try to regulate the online commercial activities of their children?
- How to identify and test the most effective interventions to mitigate children’s vulnerability vis-à-vis embedded marketing?
- How to map/classify the policy interventions in place in Member States and at EU level to alleviate children’s vulnerability?
- How to identify unfair practices in OGSMMA aimed at children, and substantiate why they are unfair?
- What are implementation barriers for effective measures that may alleviate children’s vulnerability?
- How can the study suggest revisions/ expansion of UCPD and AVMSD with relation to ‘vulnerable children’?
The project findings are summarised here.
See also the Executive Summary, Final Report, Fact Sheet and Infographic.