Privacy Going Down the YouTube
Governments, having observed shameless efforts by mass-media marketers to use children to separate parents from their money, have had to step in repeatedly over the past 40-plus years with laws and regulations to stop this kind of exploitation.
Today, though, governments and regulatory bodies seem nearly powerless when up against the online advertising juggernaut — even though polite exploiters wouldn’t use as crass a phrase as “advertising”.
Angela Campbell, an attorney with the Georgetown University Law Centre in Washington, not only related the sad history of ads targeted at children in a scholarly paper, “Rethinking Children’s Advertising Policies for the Digital Age”— she spelled out today’s dangers as well.
Computer technology has grown so sophisticated that a user’s online habits can be readily tracked — including the habits of kids.
“Online ad networks use a central server to deliver advertisements to consumers, which enables targeting, tracking, and reporting consumers’ impressions in ways not possible with analogue media alternatives,” Ms Campbell said. “When children watch videos on YouTube, a great deal of information is collected from and about them.” She quoted Time magazine: “YouTube pretty much owns kids’ eyeballs at this point.”
“Not only is marketing more personalised, but it is increasingly integrated into content,” Ms Campbell said. “The distinction between content and marketing has become even more blurred on the Internet, where much of the advertising looks similar to news clips or independent product reviews, a practice referred to as ‘native advertising’.”
YouTube overtakes Facebook
Indeed, a Common Sense Media survey of US kids ages 10-18 issued in March showed that children between 10 and 12 prefer YouTube over Facebook as their online news source.
Ms Campbell pointed to a recent survey of youths between 13-17 to rank their favourite celebrities from a list of 20 names. Two names are easily recognisable: pop music stars Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars. The others in their top 10 were YouTube stars.
One “YouTuber” is EvanTube. “Evan’s father started making and posting videos of Evan opening, playing with and talking about toys and other products when Evan was eight years old,” Ms Campbell explained. “Now he has four YouTube channels and reportedly makes millions of dollars.”
YouTube, sensing the ability to make more money, put together a “partners programme”, allowing creators to monetise content on YouTube by letting Google stream advertisements in exchange for a cut of the ad dollars.
In some quarters, it’s nice that EvanTube is now a brand. But traditional brands have caught on.
“The growth in the number of brand channels and brand videos has been remarkable,” Ms Campbell said. “According to video advertising technology company Pixability, by 2013, all but one of the top 100 global brands had a YouTube channel, and 56 had ten or more. By 2015, the top 100 brands collectively had 2400 brand channels, 611000 branded videos, and 40 billion channel views.”
The year 2015 also saw the debut of the YouTube Kids app for the youngest possible audiences, often known simply as YTK. “Google [YouTube’s owner] designed YTK specifically for children ages 5 and under,” according to Ms Campbell. “In Google Play and the App Store, Google describes the app as ‘designed for curious little minds’. This is a delightfully simple—and free!—app, where kids can discover videos, channels and playlists they love.”
Who supplies the video content? YouTube celebrities, also known as influencers. “Many of the influencer videos feature sweets and snack foods,” Ms Campbell noted.
“For example, children can learn to make a Nutella milkshake [or] lip gloss from a Snickers bar. Entire channels are devoted to sweets reviews.”
Ads eventually came to YTK. YouTube put a policy into place to regulate the ads, which is routinely flouted. The result, Ms Campbell said, is that “young children are exposed to a great deal of marketing at odds with long-standing policies regarding marketing to children”.
Our privacy, and that of our children, seems to be going down the YouTube.
Mark Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.