Forty years after the debut of Sesame Street, it is once again time to rethink the way we expose kids to media
Four decades ago, Joan Ganz Cooney and her colleagues created the gold standard for using mass media to educate children when they founded the long-running kids' program Sesame Street. Today, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the nonprofit research organization Ganz Cooney founded, is pushing for an overhaul of children's media legislation that may prove no less far-reaching.
The center's recent report, D is for Digital, analyzes the impact of digital media on kids and reaches some striking conclusions. "Federal regulatory bodies, such as the Federal Communications Commission, and voluntary industry, public interest advocacy and philanthropic organizations, should advance policies that protect children from commercialism," the center writes. "A revitalization of the Children's Television Act needs to be undertaken to modernize the child protections now called for in a digital age."
I heartily second the recommendation. I do not profess to be an expert on regulation, but I am a student of the impact of interactive media on children and young adults. I have been chronicling the explosion of virtual worlds for children over the past year and a half at Ypulse, a Web site that covers marketing to young people. Last autumn I held a conference on younger teens, or "tweens," and technology.
Digital Marketing Is Interactive and Immersive
We clearly need to develop standards when it comes to kids' digital media. One of the major goals of the Children's Television Act was to increase the quantity of educational broadcast TV programming for children. But it was enacted in 1990 and predates much of the digital era. And other than subsequent FCC rules on digital TV and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which prevents personal data collection from children under 13 without parental consent, there's a dearth of rules and guidelines for kids' digital media. What's more, the standards for what constitutes "educational" content are weak at best.
Digital media—whether delivered via the Internet, cell phones, Apple (AAPL) iPods, or mobile gaming devices—is saturated with ad-supported content. And unlike TV ads, much digital marketing is interactive and immersive. Even broadcast TV is changing how it delivers commercials in an age where multitasking youth have become adept at using ad-skipping technology like digital video recorders. Marketers are increasingly placing products within shows, or even crafting entire shows or vignettes around a brand, using so-called branded entertainment. For instance, various companies promote brands on youth-targeted networks like the CW through "content wraps," serialized vignettes that appear at various intervals throughout a show.
Companies including Disney (DIS) and Viacom's (VIA) Nickelodeon plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing virtual worlds and casual games for kids; we're seeing the proliferation of Web sites connected to real-life toys, including Webkinz, Build-a-Bear (BBW), LEGO, and Mattel's (MAT) Barbie.
Dressing Avatars in DKNY
There's little doubt as to the reason behind these efforts. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, a Mattel executive proudly announced that the company won't run any outside advertising in its Barbie Girls virtual world. Come on. The entire site is a Barbie ad. On Web sites like Stardoll, children under 13 can dress their avatars in virtual DKNY clothes.
There are no requirements or standards for labeling online advertising or for transparency around this type of sponsor integration within virtual worlds. There are also no requirements for any amount of educational content on commercial Web sites or any criteria for vetting kids' sites or electronic toys that claim to be educational.
Why all the fuss over messaging to kids? An American Psychological Assn. task force has recommended limits, citing research that shows that kids under the age of 8 can't critically comprehend TV ad messages and that they're prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate, and unbiased.
Advocacy organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) argue that exposure to marketing exploits children's developmental vulnerabilities. A recent British study found that "the pressure to consume and conform can lead to excessive levels of materialism and competition among children leading to bullying." CCFC also argues that marketing is a factor in the childhood obesity epidemic. But unlike some European countries that have banned marketing to children on TV or in schools, the current U.S. regulatory climate makes such proscriptions unlikely.
Updating the Children's Television Act
Marketers do try to self-regulate, through such bodies as the Better Business Bureau's Children's Advertising Review Unit, which aims to ensure that messages for kids are "truthful, accurate, and sensitive." But experts say comparable efforts in Europe are far more effective in promoting healthy development.
So how do we redefine the Children's Television Act for the Digital Age?
Reach out to industry. Several groups are hard at work investigating the impact of digital media on children. Among them are Common Sense Media's Digital Kids Initiative, the MacArthur Foundation's research into digital learning, and of course the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and others. These organizations need to reach out to the entrepreneurs and large corporations creating these new kids' spaces and begin a dialogue.
Create research-based universal standards for what constitutes educational content. This applies to TV, online, and other electronic content and should be broken out by ages and development stages. If TV networks are required to provide educational content, let's hold their feet to the fire and make sure it's educational. They can still create fluff, but they shouldn't be able to pass it off as educational content. In the digital space, where there is no regulation yet, companies that comply could be given some sort of educational seal of approval. Let's reward sites that encourage kids' creativity and learning. These standards should be updated and informed by the latest research.
Build new, ad-free business models for sites targeting children. Many people argue that subscription models make high-quality children's content inaccessible to low-income families. I agree. So let's come up with creative alternatives.
Increase transparency and labeling of sponsored digital content. If the only way marketers can effectively reach youth is through product placement and branded entertainment, we need more transparency about who's paying the bills and what content is sponsored. Young people respect this sort of transparency and understand sites need advertisers to keep the lights on, but they don't always recognize branded entertainment, advergames, or brands in virtual worlds as advertising.
These steps alone won't reinvent how marketers get their messages before kids. But they could go a long way toward protecting children who are living long stretches of their lives immersed in ad-saturated digital media.