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Kids' TV Has Rules. It's the Internet's Turn.

Much of the modern digital environment is designed by adults, for adults, to market and sell things. Despite the fact that children are avid users of browsers, games, social media, or easily accessible general audience platforms (e.g., YouTube), children are usually an afterthought in technology design or regulation. As a result, the onus is on parents to help their child navigate a digital playground in which the platforms themselves are designed to promote arousing and commercial content. Senator Ed Markey's (D-Mass.) KIDS Act seeks to change this status quo and push platforms and regulations to consider the interests and the health of kids in the context of online media platforms.

I am a pediatrician and a researcher. Before I am given any access to children -- either for clinical work or research -- I have to go through training, background checks, and rigorous board review. Children are considered a vulnerable population because they are so reliant on their adult caregivers, because they have weaker impulse control and critical-thinking skills, and because their behaviors are highly shapable through behavioral reinforcement and rewards. Beyond that, children simply think differently about the world. Their minds are illogical, expansive, and curious. Caring for children takes preparation, forethought, and an open mind that the young human on the other side of the interaction is not going to think, feel, or behave in the ways adults do. PBS Kids, Sesame Workshop, Fred Rogers, and other child-centered designers understand this. But in my research, the majority of children's digital experiences are on YouTube or apps that monetize play, extracting data and attention for profit.

Here are the developmental reasons why adult design assumptions are not appropriate for children and, in extreme cases, exploit their developmental differences:

  • Autoplay is hard enough for adults to resist. But children are particularly susceptible to autoplay, and research shows they get upset when screen time limits are put in place.
  • Positive reinforcement appears in the form of likes, hearts, stars, applause, fireworks, coins, hatchable eggs, extra gameplay items, outfits for game characters, virtual toys -- you name it. Play most apps with your child and you will see a disproportionate amount of applause and rewards provided for simple achievements. App designers know that this will form habits and affinity with the app, because children are highly susceptible to rewards -- the same reasons we use sticker charts for potty training.
  • Badges/rewards based on elevated levels of engagement provide children a sense of artificial achievement or fulfillment. Children lack the critical-thinking skills to realize that the rewards are gimmicks to get them to reengage with the app day after day.
  • Product placement, branded content, and influencers are some of the most popular children's content on YouTube. However, children cannot discern advertising content as easily as adults can and are more likely to follow their trusted characters' (or celebrities') recommendations without realizing that their behavior is being influenced.
  • Frictionless access to hundreds of thousands of apps in the app stores. Without strong parental control settings, our new research suggests that young children are accessing inappropriate content, such as violent jump-scare apps.
  • Push alerts and nudge techniques to spend more time on digital platforms or apps is common in the apps we play in my lab. We have documented techniques such as rewards for playing on a daily basis and for watching ad videos, enticements such as bouncing presents that, when clicked, show an ad video, share data with Facebook, or show encouragement from trusted characters to make in-app purchases (such as Strawberry Shortcake stating that she really wants the blue coloring in her cake, which happens to be locked). Examples below.

It is time to recognize that adult design principles have been loaded into children's digital products without a discussion about the ethics or impact of this practice. Other countries have also begun efforts to require child-centered design. The U.K. recently announced their Age Appropriate Design Code to guide companies' product design to prioritize kids' privacy and data protection. The KIDS Act would help regulate the powerful influence of advertising and the use of inappropriate design features for children, preventing them from appearing in children's digital environments in the first place. It would also provide parents with tools to find healthy content, help their children avoid outrageous content, and push back against manipulative design; I frequently hear from parents that they see plenty of inappropriate content in their children's digital experiences, but feel no self-efficacy to manage it. The KIDS Act would also encourage platforms to elevate safe, quality content and even fund high-quality educational content so it shows up first on children's screens.

This approach is far more efficient than asking every parent to regulate their child's access to a sea of extractive digital products dressed up in primary colors.

Dr. Jenny Radesky

Dr. Radesky is the David G. Dickinson Collegiate Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, and Division Director of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, at University of Michigan Medical School. She runs the Radesky Lab's research focusing on interactive and mobile media use, the parent-child relationship, and child social-emotional outcomes. She is the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, and authored AAP policy statements Media and Young Minds (2016) and Digital Advertising to Children (2020). She is now co-Medical Director of the AAP Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, which provides guidance to families about healthy media use.