Technology Data Digital Advertising

As toymakers are fined for tracking children online, the zero-data digital media space for kids emerges


By Dylan Collins | chief executive

September 17, 2016 | 4 min read

Earlier this week news broke that some of the world’s largest children’s brands were being fined by the FTC for illegally collecting data on kids in the US. It follows the recent (near-bankrupting) fine levied on InMobi (an ad network) for the same activity.

the emergence of the zero-data digital media space for kids

In reality, this is a growing megatrend which has been bubbling in the background for several years: the emergence of the zero-data digital media space for kids.

For anyone reading this in Europe feeling smug, check yourself. This is about to become your reality as well.

Some brief history: Silicon Valley and Madison Ave has long operated on the principle that nobody under 13 actually exists on the internet. It turns out that this isn’t entirely correct.

In the last five years, kids have become one of the fastest growing internet audiences (a trend which caught content owners, media companies and brands by surprise). Today, 80 per cent + kids under 13 have access to a tablet (although with proliferation of smartphones, it’s hard to believe that virtually ever kid doesn’t have some kind of access). There are just over 50 million kids under 13 in the US alone which means about 40 million kids online today. Right now.

Politicians haven’t missed this fact. The US has taken the lead in rolling out kids data privacy law (COPPA) and the EU has followed suit (GDPR became law earlier this year). These laws make it illegal to collect data of almost any form (including cookies) from under-13s without express parental consent.

In theory this prevents the mainstream (data-driven) martech/adtech sector from interacting with kids. In practice this has created a spectrum of approaches from adopting very specific under-13 zero-data technology to an attitude of “Oh we’ve just switched on the ‘family flag’ on our existing (data-rich) platform, so it’s all fine”. However it turns out that huge platforms architected to capture vast amounts of profile data run by teams of people who sell highly targeted ad solutions can’t just switch to doing the opposite of that.

The digital media landscape is now rapidly moving to a point where soon every app will be required to have two modes of operation: over-13 (data-rich) and under-13 (zero-data).

Ironically, this announcement doesn't reflect the huge level of investment which Hasbro, Mattel and Viacom continue to make into digital safety for kids (they are among the very best in the industry). Instead it reflects a reduction in tolerance by the FTC for ‘grey areas’ of under-13 engagement, such as YouTube and Facebook plugins in under-13 digital media activity. I recommend you read the NY Attorney General’s press release for a deeper view (it’s surprisingly readable).

The most important lesson to take from this if you’re in Europe: these same US standards are already law here (GDPR) and soon will be enforceable (except at higher fines than in the US). If you’re operating in the under-13 space either directly or indirectly (advertiser, content-owner, agency), change your technology now.

Dylan Collins is the chief executive of the kids' digital media platform SuperAwesome

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