Adtech firms collecting 'vast amounts' of data on kids despite online regulations

The study found that adtech outfits capture more than 72 million data points on kids before they reach the age of 13

Technology designed to track the activity of adults online has been found to be collecting “vast amounts” of kids’ personal data – calling into question whether laws designed to protect children online are robust enough.

According to self-styled ‘kid-tech’ platform SuperAwesome, which carried out a study into the practice, adtech outfits capture more than 72m data points on a child before they reach the age of 13.

The figures were gleaned using SuperAwesome's ad exchange Rex, which strips trackers from ads being served to kids.

SuperAwesome’s data has shown that regardless of how children access digital content, they are exposed to between 1m and 2m trackers per year, which are collecting some 5m data points, including information like location and sites visited.

While the research does not mention any specific vendors or platforms, the news amid a wider debate into how tech giants regulate the way children interact with their platforms and advertising's role in this.

Just earlier this month, YouTube came under fire for monetising content featuring inappropriate footage of children, much of which had been innocently uploaded by kids themselves. The company has said it is poised to hire more human moderators to help combat the issue.

'Educational need'

Typically, adtech players collect data via a combination of pixels, cookies, beacons and other trackers to build a comprehensive profile of an individual in order to serve them personalised ads.

However, regulations in both the US and the UK – including the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule (Coppa) and the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation – forbid this type of data collection when it comes to children.

Speaking with The Drum, Dylan Collins, SuperAwesome, chief executive officer, spoke of how the company conducted the research over concerns raised about the amount of time audiences aged under 13 years-old were spending on websites and apps that were built with “regular adtech.”

As a result, a lot of the so-called “kid profiles” have been passed from these apps and websites to anonymous third-party “black boxes”, such as ad exchanges and data marketing platforms (DMPs), etc, and then inadvertently targeted by advertising.

“We’re not saying advertising is a bad thing, what we’re saying is that we have to be wary of the tech beneath it all,” added Collins. This is especially a concern as many kids are accessing the internet (which has increasingly been constructed with ‘adult adtech’) on their parents’ devices – ergo with adult targeting profiles.

“There’s a real educational need out there for parents.”

SuperAwesome operates a series of “kid-friendly” web properties, such as its video platform PopJam. Last year it paired with Rubicon Project to launch Rex, where brands can engage with such audiences in a way that is compliant with child-protection guidelines (such as Coppa in the US).

Rex complies with such guidelines as it effectively strips away any targeting or tracking software that authorities do not permit to be used in commercial messaging to those aged under 13 years-old. SuperAwesome then identifies a relevant user base for advertisers using automated systems, and serving the ads to said audience segment.

According to Common Sense Media, 42% of kids in the US own their own tablet, while Ofcom data has indicated that in the UK children aged three to four spend eight hours online per-week; a number that rises to 20 hours by the time they turn 12.

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering events in Europe and the US like Ad Week, Dmexco, Dreamforce and Ciclope.

All by Rebecca