Online Advertising – Children Must Learn To Deal With It Properly

Children as consumers and financially strong buyers of tomorrow – the economy has recognized the potential. That’s why they are openly courting young customers – and not just in the offline world. Children are also bombarded with advertising on the web.

Put it to the test: how many nursery rhymes do your children know and how many advertising slogans? The result is likely to be in favor of the advertising slogans – and no wonder. Children live in a world filled to the brim with advertising. Not only in the media, but also on the street, at the bus stop, or on the soccer field, they are inundated with advertising slogans. There is no such thing as an advertising-free sanctuary. It’s hardly any different on the Internet.

Children Click Online Advertising

With its many interactive and multimedia possibilities, the Internet is every advertising professional’s dream. And these possibilities are also being exploited specifically for advertising purposes. Toy companies, for example, but children’s pages online. Other companies offer special online children’s corners on their websites. Multimedia elements and games are designed to keep young consumers interested. Pictures of cartoon characters or funny smileys are offered for download. Chat rooms and online communities round out the offering, which is peppered with advertising messages.

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Web design expert Jakob Nielsen has studied the surfing behavior of children on such commercial websites. One of his findings makes one sit up and take notice: Far more often than adults, children click on online advertising. “Children can’t yet distinguish between content and advertising”, says Nielsen, explaining this phenomenon. For them, advertising is just “another source of content” alongside others.

“If an ad banner contains a familiar sign or something that looks like a ‘cool’ game, they’ll click on it”, Nielsen says. That’s true, he adds, even if a website strictly separates editorial content from advertising by clearly marking the banner ads with notices such as “ADVERTISEMENT” or “PAID CONTENT”. “This tactic doesn’t work”, Nielsen said. “The children in our study paid no attention to these notices”.

Parents Should Know What Their Children Are Doing

Nielsen’s advice to all parents: “Take the time to familiarize your children with the realities of Internet advertising and teach them how to recognize advertising” – a general piece of advice that Burkhard Fuhs of the University of Erfurt can probably also subscribe to. Fuhs is chairman of the renowned “Erfurt Netcode”, an association founded six years ago that has developed criteria for good children’s sites on the Net and awards a corresponding seal of quality.

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“From the Netcode’s point of view, children must be empowered to develop media competence when using the media independently”, Fuhs explains when asked by heute.de. According to the “Erfurt Netcode”, it is necessary to develop “action strategies” that “enable children to recognize the character of commercial advertising and to learn reflected consumer behavior”.

What sounds very general and academic at first has very practical implications, for example, for the way parents should regulate their children’s Internet use. The age of the child plays a role here. So does the question of “what else the children are doing: What other media are they using and for how long, what are they doing with their friends?” It is also important that parents carefully select the sites their children are allowed to visit, says Fuhs. The principle applies, he says: “Parents should know what their children are doing online”.

Learning To Deal With Advertising

In order to cope in today’s consumer and commodity society, according to Fuhs, it is not enough just to protect children from dangerous content. Rather, they must “also be given the chance to learn how to deal ‘well’ with advertising” – both online and in real life. “Why does someone advertise? What does the ad say, and what does the product really look like? What are my desires that are aroused by the advertising?” Such and similar questions should be discussed with children, he said. Parents and teachers are called upon.

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The “Erfurt Netcode” has developed clear principles for online advertising on children’s websites. Advertising and editorial content must always be separated, it says, and in such a way that children can clearly recognize this separation. “Advertising must not dominate the page and must be recognizable, learnable and understandable for children – in accordance with their developmental stage”, demands the “Erfurt Netcode”.

Advertising? Yes, But…

In addition, online advertising must not hinder children in their use of a website. For this reason, websites that are suitable for children avoid large ads that automatically appear on a website and first have to be clicked away. In addition, advertising should not lead children away from the page they or their parents have chosen, says Fuhs.

The ideal website for children does without advertising, “because children always first have to learn how to deal with the world of advertising and consumption, and initially cannot recognize advertising as such”, Fuhs tells heute.de. But the reality of the commercial Internet looks different these days. “Advertising is desired in many cases, and children’s sites should also be self-financing”, says the Erfurt scientist, summarizing the status quo.

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Many good offers for children would not be feasible if they were not financed by advertising, says Fuhs. Incidentally, however, it is a “form of double standard” to condemn online advertising on children’s sites and at the same time to question the advertising-free children’s portals of the public broadcasters, Fuhs explained, alluding to the discussion about restricting the online offerings of ARD and ZDF.

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