Make marketing online fairer and more transparent for children, say NCC and Childnet

Posted on 06 December 2007

Children online must be better protected from the opaque commercial practices on some of their favourite websites, says the latest research from the National Consumer Council (NCC), Childnet International and expert in marketing to children, Dr Agnes Nairn.

With the majority of the country’s 7-16 year olds established internet users, the Fair game report uncovered how children are attracted not just to kids’ sites but to those aimed at adults too. A quarter of adverts on children’s best-loved sites are aimed at adults – such as gambling and dating services.

Although children are savvy and can often spot and ignore online advertising, they are also often unable to tell where factual or entertainment content ends and advertising begins. Almost a quarter of adverts are integrated into content and nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of these are not labelled as ads.  This makes it hard for many young children (and adults) to tell what’s what.

So-called free offers and poorly enforced data protection rules are also highlighted as serious concerns in the report. While nearly all host sites have a privacy policy, a quarter of advertisers do not. Currently, neither parents nor children would know where to go to make a complaint.

Fair game shows that the majority of websites designed for children rely on advertising as their main income source. The report calls for a thorough examination of how marketing activities affect children, and better enforcement of existing online standards and rules.

Speaking at the report launch today, NCC Chief Executive Ed Mayo said:

‘Children are enthusiastic explorers of the online world. But parents should be aware that the internet is highly commercial. Every hour that a child spends in front of the computer is like letting them run loose in a shopping centre.’

The research found that some advertisers encourage children to give away their friends’ contact details or send information to a friend in return for free offers. Many of the children also admitted to lying about their age online. They said that they felt that age stipulations were for guidance, rather than a legal requirement.

One girl aged 11 told us:

‘On all of my addresses I’m 20. Games, Bebo. If you want to go on a website, you lie about your age. They’re not as safe for, like, six-year-olds.’ A boy of 14 explained: ‘If they give you extra for being 18 or over, then I put myself down as over 18.’

Dr Agnes Nairn, an expert in the field of children and marketing, said:

‘One important conclusion from our research is that both parents and children are alert to stranger-danger and are beginning to understand basic internet security. But our concern is that parents are not aware of the pervasive and often covert format and content of some advertising found on sites popular with children.  Children are quite savvy in this area, but in many cases children cannot distinguish content from commerce and so can’t really make informed choices.’ 

She added that privacy and data protection remain a major challenge in the internet environment:

‘Children and parents do not read privacy policies and are unaware that their personal data is so valuable or how it can be used commercially. We found that only one in five privacy policies could be understood by someone under 14. It is vital website hosts are more transparent about the use of the data they collect and take more responsibility for the practices of the advertisers who pay to be on their sites.’

Will Gardner, Deputy Chief Executive of Childnet, said:

‘This research is really important and timely as it has shone light on how children are interacting in this commercial environment, the opportunities and challenges they face and how they deal with these. We found that children see the internet mainly as a free thing, not somewhere to spend money, but to window shop. However, some children are purchasing online and most children will be in front of online advertising (perhaps for long periods of time).  It is, therefore, vital that all of us who share a commitment to the care and well-being of children review and keep pace with the online environment – which increasingly children are seeing as their space and “home” – to ensure that children are not taken advantage of and are adequately protected.’

Fair game calls for:

  • more efforts to monitor online advertising practices and active enforcement of existing codes and regulations
  • effective communication to online users about what the marketing rules are so that people know they have the right to complain and know how to
  • much improved communication to children about privacy protection
  • effective international co-operation on the enforcement of rules and codes of practice.

1. A copy of the report:

Fair game? Assessing commercial activity on children’s favourite websites and online environments is available on the NCC website at http://www.ncc.org.uk/nccpdf/poldocs/NCC182rr_fair_game.pdf and on Childnet’s website at www.childnet.com/publications/policy.aspx

2. Childnet International is a registered charity established in 1995 working with children, young people, teachers, parents and carers, government, industry and policy makers to help make the Internet a great and safe place for children, both in the UK and on a global level. For the past twelve years, Childnet has sought to promote the positive use of technology, by highlighting the creative and beneficial things that children are doing with new technology, as well as responding to the potential risks. Childnet has classified the risks facing children online as three Cs – ContactContent and CommercialismFair game has sought to shed more light onto Commercialism, the third C. See www.childnet.com

Agnes Nairn is a UK-based academic researcher and writer in the field of children and marketing. She has worked in this field for many years and has published both reports and a wide range of papers in international academic journals. She is Affiliate Professor of Marketing at EM-Lyon Business School and visiting Professor of Marketing at RSM Erasmus University in the Netherlands. Agnes can be contacted on [email protected]

3. The website research looked at 40 sites that were known to be popular with children. The extent and nature of commercial activity was examined on each site. A questionnaire was drawn up and applied to each site during the first quarter of 2007 and detailed results were recorded. Further examination of each site was also carried out.

4. We combined factual mystery shopper investigations with qualitative discussion groups involving children across a range of age groups. Discussion groups were also conducted among parents. Children were observed interacting directly with the internet and recorded on video. These recordings were subsequently analysed in detail.

5. The key recommendations from Fair game?

  • The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) should take action to better monitor advertising practices, enforce codes and regulation, and inform the public how to complain about internet advertising.
  • The Information Commissioner (IC) should examine ways to improve communication to children about privacy protection.
  • The ASA and IC should ensure more effective international co-operation on enforcement of rules and codes of practice.
  • The ASA and IC should conduct an education campaign about the commercial nature of online activity targeted at schools and parents.
  • Companies should provide privacy policies in clear, plain language that children can understand.
  • Card issuers should ensure that online retailers of age-restricted products do not accept payment methods that are accessible to children.

The NCC makes a practical difference to the lives of consumers around the UK, using its insight into consumer needs to advocate change. We work with public service providers, businesses and regulators, and our relationship with the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform – our main funder – gives us a strong connection within government. We conduct rigorous research and policy analysis to investigate key consumer issues, and use this to influence organisations and people that make change happen. Check www.ncc.org.uk for our latest news.


NCC press office on

020 7881 3018/9

Will Gardner, Childnet International on

0207 6396967

or mobile

07960 565994

or email

[email protected]

Dr Agnes Nairn on

01225 480546

or mobile

07796585449

or email

[email protected]

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