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Behavioral Ads Are Bad for Kids

Read our new primer on why we need to change the model and keep kids' data off-limits.

We have all learned that "free" comes at a price -- often, to our privacy. For years, the costs of apps and services have been subsidized by their users' information, feeding an ad-supported model that tracks and profiles all of us, including children and teens. We are categorized and labeled ("Working-class Mom", "The Awkward Years - High School Students", "Rich Kids of America"), and then manipulated and microtargeted with the ads and content companies believe relevant.

Indeed, researchers recently discovered Facebook would let them target teens labeled as "interested in gambling" with ads featuring poker chips and dice. Other equally disturbing ads could be purchased to target teens interested in alcohol, smoking, or extreme weight loss.

Big tech companies have convinced advertisers and marketers that the more targeted ads are, the better, but this business model's underlying profitability for most companies is questionable. More traditional "contextual" ads, which are displayed based on a website or app's content and not on who is visiting it, may be nearly as profitable and much less controversial.

The behavioral ad model has underappreciated costs, especially for kids. In our new explainer, we examine the practice of behaviorally targeted advertising, the harms it poses for young people, and what policymakers and companies can do to improve the landscape.

Behaviorally targeted ads are now standard fare for online platforms, and they have become very big business. But the truth is, behaviorally targeted ads are bad for kids.

  • Kids do not want targeted ads. Most kids and parents are uncomfortable with the idea that their data is being used for targeted advertising.

  • Kids do understand how their information is collected, analyzed, and used by commercial actors, and they are largely defenseless against such targeting techniques.

  • Behavioral profiling is particularly problematic for kids because it happens at a unique time of development -- when both their brains and identities are developing and forming. Historically, this is precisely when society has encouraged children to explore new things and not worry about making mistakes.

Common Sense believes that children and teens should not be tracked and profiled online, or subject to behavioral ads based on their personal information or online activity. And Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and individual companies can all work toward this goal, by:

  • Prohibiting such practices (as recommended in recent legislation to update the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act).

  • Providing additional advertising guidance.

  • Being honest about when kids are using their services and what is best for them.

Given the new bipartisan agreement that the status quo is not working for kids and families, we look forward to new movement on this issue.

Ariel Fox Johnson
Ariel Fox Johnson is Senior Counsel for Global Policy at Common Sense Media, where she advocates for smart practices, policies, and rules to help all kids thrive in today’s wired world. Her work focuses on enhancing family privacy rights, strengthening students' educational privacy, and promoting robust consumer protections in the online world. She frequently advises policymakers, industry, and tech experts, and has helped develop laws on student privacy, consumer privacy, and the Internet of Things. Ariel is a graduate of Harvard College and Law School. Prior to joining Common Sense, Ariel worked on privacy, media, intellectual property, and technology matters at corporate law firms, and provided pro bono assistance to nonprofits and asylum seekers.