Google just announced a slew of new policies to make its products safer for young users. Facebook did the same just last month. Both said they will restrict targeted advertising aimed at kids and teens, though in slightly different ways.
They’re also turning more protective features on by default — like setting kids’ Instagram or YouTube accounts to private, turning off autoplay and disabling location history. Google said it will get rid of “overly commercial content” from YouTube Kids. It will also remove images from its search results of users under 18, if they ask.
Ariel Fox Johnson is senior counsel for global policy at Common Sense Media. She said there’s been growing concern about the ways these technologies could harm children. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Ariel Fox Johnson: Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable to advertising. They can’t identify advertising if they’re really young. They can be particularly vulnerable to host selling, so “unboxing,” or a beloved character kind of pushing a product on them. Common Sense research showed that almost half of videos viewed by children 8 [years old] and under featured promoted products for children to buy. We have yet to see how Google will start to get rid of these or define these overly commercial videos, but there’s clearly room to act there. Another harm that these changes, I would hope, are trying to address are privacy harms. Kids are getting labeled and limited. Kids are getting put into specific filtered experiences from very early ages. And generally, we try to encourage kids to learn and explore and grow, and that’s not something that we’re always letting them do online these days.
Meghan McCarty Carino: Why do you think we’re seeing these kinds of changes popping up right now?
Fox Johnson: I think the companies see the writing on the wall. We know that in the U.K., the Age Appropriate Design Code is going to be enforced starting next month. We also in the U.S., while we don’t see laws being passed, we see both Republicans and Democrats in Congress introducing updates to [the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act] that cover teens, that prohibit behavioral ads to young people. These are all things that policymakers abroad are starting to act on and policymakers in the U.S. are starting to build consensus on. If Congress can’t pass comprehensive privacy law this year, well, maybe it can do something on kids or teens. I think companies are trying to start to get in front of that.
McCarty Carino: How do companies actually know how old kids are? Is it basically the honor system? What if they are using an adult’s account?
Fox Johnson: That’s a great question. And it’s not one that those of us outside of companies always have insight into. So one way companies could know how old users are is by people saying I’m 14, or I’m 13, or here’s my birthday, or I’m 18. Other ways that they could know are by looking at what sites you use. Are you using a math app for fourth grade? Are most of your friends on the app 15? Are they geolocation tracking you as you go back and forth between elementary school? Companies know a lot more about users’ age than they’re often willing to tell us. And often they’ll tell advertisers that they can reach certain groups of people, but they won’t tell the public or policymakers that. I think we’re starting to see an acknowledgment now, particularly from Facebook, who’s talking about new ways to assess people’s age, that they have lots of signals about how old people are based on messages shared with them, based on photos, based on all kinds of things, and we’re starting to see an acknowledgment of that.
McCarty Carino: During the pandemic, so many parents have had to lean on technology, maybe even more heavily than they already were. Do you have any advice for them around these issues?
Fox Johnson: I have a lot of sympathy for these parents as a mother of two kids myself, who now spend more time on devices than I would like. I think it’s important for parents to sit down with kids and see what they’re doing on their devices. What apps are they using? What games do they like to play? You know, kids are getting nudged into features that create sort of constant attention and constant viewing, which is not healthy and not a healthy balance for kids and families.
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
Ariel Fox Johnson mentioned some of the ways these companies might know a user is underage. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment specifically about whether it uses location data to estimate users’ ages. They said the company doesn’t share all of the signals it uses publicly so that people aren’t able to evade Facebook’s efforts. But they did say Facebook looks at things like the age of people you follow and your activities, including likes and comments. Someone who follows Home Depot, they said, is more likely to be an adult.
We also talked about age-appropriate design rules going into effect in the U.K. next month. This week, a group of congressional Democrats called on gaming companies to extend those rules to games here. They include stricter privacy settings and restrictions on in-game advertising and purchases for minors. Many of the same Democrats have been trying to put the rules into law here. But the bills haven’t gotten far. So for now, they’re just asking nicely.
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