Study: Parents Concerned About Digital Marketing Practices Targeting Kids

FTC close to vote on updates to children's privacy rules

Privacy groups advocating more stringent regulations for marketing to children online and on mobile devices released a study today showing that parents and other adults overwhelmingly agree with them. 

Many of the techniques used by marketers and child-directed websites elicited disapproval from parents and other adults, with 80 percent opposed to allowing advertisers to collect and use information about a child's activities online— even if the advertisers do not use or know the child's name.

Specific tactics got even higher responses: 91 percent of parents and adults said it was not okay for advertisers to collect information about a child's location from a mobile phone; 96 percent of parents and 94 percent of adults said it was not okay for websites to ask children for personal information about their friends.

"I don't think people fully understand … how all this data collection and tracking operates, but when presented with a straightforward question, they are concerned and opposed," said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University, a leading child privacy advocate group.

The timing of the study—conducted last month by Princeton Research Associates International—is no accident, coming just as the Federal Trade Commission is expected to expand the Childrens Online Privacy Act. Passed in 1998 before mobile marketing took off, COPPA requires marketers to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information online, such as names and email addresses, from children under 13.

New rules under consideration by the agency would expand the FTC's COPPA authority to mobile devices. It would also make it more difficult for marketers to target kids both online and on mobile devices by limiting behavioral and geo-location tracking and the use of social plug-ins. The FTC said it hopes to finalize the updates by the end of the year.

"This [study] sends a strong signal to the FTC that there is broad political support for them to support these proposals," said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, which commissioned the study with Common Sense Media. "I think this will play a role in the commission's decision," Chester added.

While parents and adults may agree that the FTC should strengthen COPPA, the online ad industry is doing all it can to derail the updates. Companies such as Viacom, Apple, Facebook and Twitter have lobbied heavily at the FTC in order to protect the trillion-dollar kids ad market (per a Digitas estimate), made all the more promising by digital-savvy kids taking to mobile devices before they can even walk.

The PRAI findings were based on a telephone survey of more than 2,000 adults.