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Kids Are Exposed to Targeted Advertising Across the Industry

Read our State of Kids' Privacy research on why we need to keep kids' data off-limits.

Girard Kelly | March 21, 2022

We hear from families and educators we survey that they want better privacy protections for their children and students, but what is the actual state of kids' privacy? For example, how often are kids exposed to targeted advertising? Our 2021 State of Kids' Privacy report answered these questions by evaluating the privacy policies of hundreds of products. We looked at the most popular applications and services that are currently used by millions of children at home for play and homework, and by tens of millions of students in classrooms across the country. Our findings indicate that, across industries, kids are exposed to targeted advertising from the apps and services they use every day at home and in the classroom.

What is targeted advertising?

Targeting advertising occurs when a company shows you ads based on the personal information it collects about you and how you use the product. Behavioral advertisements take targeted advertisements one step further, collecting specific information about users typically through the use of cookies, beacons, tracking pixels, persistent identifiers, or other technologies that provide more specific information about the user. This information can include automatically collected data about how users, including children, are interacting with a product. This information is often shared with outside advertisers, who may display even more targeted products and services based on the specific information they receive either on how you use the product or what else you do across the internet. The targeted advertising question is one of the most important in our privacy evaluations, and we pay close attention to whether a company discloses (or doesn't disclose) that it uses targeted ads.

Over half of all products across the industry indicate they do display targeted advertising or were unclear about their targeted advertising practices.

 

Are companies using targeted advertising in kids' products?

Many apps and services say targeted advertising is intended only for adult users of the product, or that kids are not the intended audience and therefore kids shouldn't use the app. However, we know from parents, caregivers, and educators that the hundreds of products evaluated for the State of Kids' Privacy report are used by children and students every day. But what about privacy in products that say they're intended for kids?

Of the 200 products evaluated in our State of Kids' Privacy report, 127 indicated that the product is intended for children. Only about 5% didn't explicitly disclose whether or not children are intended users, which means that we almost always know whether the product is intended to be used by children.
 

 

For the 127 products that say they're intended for children, 37% -- or 47 products -- explicitly indicate that data collected from users may still be used to target kids with advertising.

Over one third of all products intended for kids across the industry admit they display targeted advertising.

In addition, for the 62 products that say they're not intended for children, nearly 75% -- or 46 -- use personal information to display targeted advertising to other users of the product, who could include parents, caregivers, educators, and other consumers. As mentioned above, we need to consider that even products that weren't designed specifically for kids will still be used by kids. When considering the products not intended for children, we acknowledge that data about children may also be collected by these products. Further, we must consider the possibility that data about children will be gleaned from other users of the product, including parents, educators, and other users such as siblings or friends. Therefore, we also evaluate whether products collect personal information from teen and adult users, in the interest of creating greater privacy for kids as well.

In 2021, our privacy evaluations showed that a higher number of products intended for children disclosed that they did not display targeted ads than those that did. Within the category of products that use target advertising, some companies may intend to display targeted ads only to adult users, and not to child users who are using a child profile. However, mixed-audience products often allow children to create accounts without indicating their age through age gates or other birth date verification systems. This practice would inadvertently expose children to targeted advertising practices.

What we found

In summary, this research shows that over half of all products across the industry used by children and students expose kids to targeted advertisements. Even when products say they're intended for children, over one third still say they display targeted ads to kids in the product or across the internet. Now that we know how often children are exposed to targeted advertising, it's time for families and educators to choose better privacy-protecting products that say they do not make money from kids' data and do not display targeted advertising for any user of the product. 

Behavioral or targeted advertising based on a child's personal information should not be displayed in the product or elsewhere across the internet. Targeted advertising, whether used by a company that a child interacts with or by another company that purchases that information, is an exploitative and dangerous practice. A child's personal information, provided to an application or service, should not be used to exploit that child's specific knowledge, traits, and learned behaviors in order to influence their decision making or desire to purchase goods and services. If a product gathers a child's personal information, and uses it to manipulate them through targeted advertising, families and educators should try to avoid these products at all costs. 

To fully protect kids' privacy, we need to ban the practice of targeted advertising for all users -- not just kids -- because the industry seems to be turning a blind-eye to whether its users are children under the age of 13. Ultimately, it's our children who are ultimately paying the price. 

For more information, please visit the privacy program's website.