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Is Virtual World Advertising Harmful to Kids?



By Janet Meiners
Marketing Pilgrim

October 22, 2007

Execs from social networking sites recently met and talked about marketing to children. The question was raised in a series of articles about who is watching out for children and pointing out that there are no standards in this arena.

Marketing to children isnít new. However, social networks have a strong pull because they are so engaging and itís easy to spend a lot of time interacting on a site. Itís more than passive viewing like other forms of entertainment, like watching tv. Online itís even easier to blur lines between whatís real and what isnít. Thatís true even for adults.

Not much has been done to help parents or educators monitor how children are advertised to. The Childrenís Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 that says that children under the age of 13 must have a detailed privacy policy and get permission from parents to collect any personal information about them. COPPA doesnít deal directly with advertising though.

Karthryn Montgomery, a professor at the School of Communication at American University has done some recent research on the issue. She wrote Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce and Childhood in the Age of the Internet. She also helped found the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy, and is pulling for more regulation in this area.

This issue should be addressed as it has a growing influence. More children are participating in virtual worlds:

ďAn expected 53 percent of children on the Web will belong to a virtual world within four years, more than doubling the current population of 8.2 million members, according to a recent report from eMarketer.Ē

And advertisers are spending more to reach them. According to research firm Parks Associates, there will be 10 times the spend on advertising in virtual worlds by 2012 - about $150 million.Some sites are acting more responsibly. Techlearning points out ways virtual worlds can educate kids - and pointed out that there is a Second Life Teen. You must be at least 15 years old to use it and they maintain a PG standard.

Just as marketing to children gets more sophisticated online, there should be standards to how its done - especially to the youngest children. But Iím not opposed to using advertising to fund projects that educate children and that use social networks to do it. Social networks can facilitate learning and interaction but there must be responsibility and advertisers arenít always going to be the best judge of that.



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