Last night I spoke to parents in Belchertown, MA, a small community close to Springfield, as part of the Totally Wired Parent/Educator Tour. The librarian who invited me to speak mentioned that she was trying to get a parent who home schooled her kids to attend my talk, but that the mom said something along the lines of “Oh, she uses the word ‘tween’ and is in marketing so she’s going to say everything is positive.” Unfortunately, the word “tween” has become part of the media and marketing vocabulary to identify a segment of young consumers, but to me, it also just describes that developmental space “in between” childhood and becoming a teenager. The librarian said even they’ve adopted the word “tween” at the library. This comment made me think about my message again. I don’t think I’m glossing over the negative side effects of growing up “totally wired,” not in the book, and not in my talks. If anything, I’m trying to defuse the panic so parents can actually deal with the challenges but also acknowledge the benefits.
And as for marketing, if you read Ypulse, you know that while I talk about marketing a lot, I’m not afraid to be critical of it and encourage lots of dialogue around how brands are marketing to youth. I wanted to write a post for parents who are concerned about online marketing to kids and teens that offers suggestions for helping them to become marketing literate.
1. It’s almost impossible to avoid…so demystify it. Unless you don’t let kids watch TV or use the internet, they are going to encounter marketing in some way, shape or form. Webkinz is a virtual world created by a toy company that wants you to spend more time with its toys so you will hopefully buy more of them and get your friends to buy more. Everything Disney does is designed to sell its characters, music, theme parks and stuff you can buy in its stores. The reason you can create a customized Toyota Scion in the virtual world of Whyville is so that when you’re old enough to drive, you might want to buy a Toyota Scion. Dove’s “Evolution” video is a great example for tweens showing how models are made to look flawless in order to sell products.
Have these conversations with your kids. There are some virtual spaces that don’t allow brands in, at least for now. Club Penguin is ad free (though I guarantee you there will be a line of penguin dolls you can buy soon). The site is now owned by Disney, so look for these penguins to get their own show, ride, etc. soon. Teen Second Life also doesn’t allow brands in their world. Still, even if a site doesn’t allow brands in, if teens are hanging out there, there’s a good chance they’re talking about brands on their own.
2. Teach them to think twice or ask you before they click. Advertisers and marketers know that kids and teens are watching less TV and spending more time online, so they are trying to reach them there. The division between marketing and content is even blurrier in the virtual space. Ads look like games but are really ads. In virtual worlds, you can dress your avatar in branded clothing or drink virtual Pepsi. It’s important to talk to kids about how banner ads promoting a game are also promoting something else. Most kids sites should be running age appropriate ads, but I’ve stumbled across a few that have served up adult oriented banners. Plus you never know what will launch spyware on your computer. For younger kids, try an ask mom or dad before you click policy.
3. It’s all about permission. You have to give permission for your child (under 13) to share any personal information at all with any website. It’s the law, and it’s called COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. If you didn’t consent and your child is receiving marketing messages from a website, first ask your child if they lied about their age. If they didn’t lie, you can call (877) FTC-HELP and report the violation to a live operator. The best approach with kids under 13 is to be there with them when they register. Talk to your kids and teens about sharing personal information online — decide how much you and they are comfortable with. The idea is that the company wants to know more about who its customers are so they can serve you better, but if you don’t want to help them, don’t. If your kids are over 13, make sure they understand the concept of opting in and opting out. Teach them to look for check boxes that are checked by default to send you regular emails or offers. If you let them have an email account, teach them to identify and manage spam. Exercise your right to control at least some of the marketing you receive.
We live in a heavily branded world — online and off. Unless you really go off the grid, it’s almost impossible to avoid marketing targeting you or your children. Rather than let them just encounter it (and have it just wash over them, subtly sinking in), take a proactive stance, engage with them around what it is and how it works. By demystifying the “great and powerful Oz” that is marketing, you are empowering your kids to make conscious choices and to think critically.