By Matthew I. Growney, Founder and CEO of Isabella Products
"Dad, can I get McDonalds"? For the past three weeks I have tried to remain vigilant against bringing Harry, my eight year-old son, to the Golden Arches. It isn't my disdain for fast food, but I am holding my ground because of the Happy Meal gimmick that always turns him into a begging savage. I have seen the same level of incessant curiosity occur with Harry's exposure to adult movie releases and a slew of other adult products (think purple pills).
Each time my son ignites, with a barrage of questions, pleas to learn more or requests to visit whatever appears in his line of sight. It isn't difficult to determine the source of his curiosity--digital media--served up from a tablet, laptop or mobile phone. Harry sees claims on the Web and wants proof of their existence. Who can blame him? Advertising can be very effective.
In my opinion, Harry has been exposed prematurely to things that simply don't need to be addressed in second grade. While I consider myself a watchful Dad, I also want to freely encourage my son to explore and discover all on his own. I don't want to be a 'helicopter parent' who hovers over my child's every keystroke. While I know there are areas of the Web and children's apps that are 'safe', I am often reminded that there are lots of places kids can easily find inappropriate content.
I think parenting is about balance and still, I know that I can't control the mouths of my fellow Patriots fans when I take Harry to Gillette Stadium. (He learned several new choice words on Sunday. Thank you, large-double-fisted-vodka-bearded man.) But, I do expect a break when allowing Harry some rewarding screen time on learning-based applications and games created for kids. Instead, it seems that many of the children's products have indiscriminately decided to secure advertising from adult or mass-market brands in order to make money. Problem? Absolutely.
Children have a right to be parented by their parents. This means that only we should have the ability to control the pace and type of exposure to mature content on a daily basis. I want to use my own judgment on what they see, eat, hear, and learn. Eliminating mass-market advertising from within children's content (books, apps, etc.) and from areas on the Web where children interact is definitely one way to solve the issue. Sounds simple enough.
COPPA guidelines to protect children against violations of their privacy is an essential start, but allowing Google or other online advertising aggregators to sell banner ads to only the highest bidders (like R-rated games or even political campaigns) should be prohibited.
While I understand the economic rationale for advertisers to leverage children's media--reach adults who maintain the purse strings and the kids who wear adults down with requests--I think we need to push pause. The children's digital experience should be reserved for well, children. Advertising should be learning-inspired and even include certain public service announcements (PSA's). It's time we really consider the distraction, relevancy, and age-appropriateness of digital advertising to children.
And, I'm not alone. We are on the precipice of technological, social, and economic change as it relates to the ethical responsibility of digital advertising. Voices are rising and the topic is percolating. Take ad blocking, for instance. Consumers are thrilled about this technology because they don't want the disruption of their online experiences. Yes, I know the business of advertising helps pay for the interesting, educational content we consume as adults. However, we must consider the audience and the particular digital channel and then look for ways that we can control, create, and use them for good. In this case, learning, discovering, exploring and entertaining a young (and highly impressionable, I might add) audience. This is the concept that inspired our company to develop Fable, a WIFI-enabled, browser-free tablet. So, advertisers, focus on us. But leave the kids alone.
Sure, the digital juggernaut may make more money selling ads for shooting-based video games, but wouldn't it be even cooler for children to watch digital content that could teach them how to build robots, create their own software games, build an animal shelter or help out the local food pantry? Wouldn't it make sense to show kids how food is made or harvested or grown in an ad as opposed to where they can get another Kardashian-promoted energy product or genetically-engineered puppy?
As a parent, I would welcome ad spots in children's media like STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) themes or from community organizations that help promote the positive aspects about being a child, nurturing self-confidence or helping your neighborhood or school.
There has been much discussion and debate over the accelerated maturity rates for children over the past years. Some of which has been biological and some intellectual. I'd love to find a way to keep my son as digitally age-appropriate as I can while making sure he becomes a kind and caring young man.
I think some of this can be accomplished by exposing him to digital media that shows what matters in the community and not what's available on the shelves of convenience stores or playing in the movie theatre for mature audiences.
The digital devices of the future will be more than a "second screen." They will be a second "classroom" for children. I think it is critical to keep pace with evolving technology and find the best ways to leverage it for learning--at home, in our classrooms, and in our community. Removing inappropriate content and providing enriched experiences that will engage kids and get them excited about learning and the world around will surely pay dividends for everyone.