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The disturbing world of online advertising aimed at children

Zoe "Zoella" Suggs has millions of followers online that watch her videos on YouTube
Zoe "Zoella" Suggs has millions of followers online that watch her videos on YouTube Credit: PA

The murky world of online ads is increasingly exposing children to inappropriate and dangerous content - and the problem is getting worse.

The market is currently growing at 20pc per year and will be worth £1.3bn by 2021 as younger audiences abandon terrestrial TV, according to a new report by PwC.

But regulation of the market hasn't caught up. Current rules are not enough to stop companies crossing the line and inappropriately targeting young people with products and services that at best, they may not need, and at worst, could prove harmful.

Take, for instance, high profile YouTubers Zoe "Zoella" Suggs, Alfie DeyesJake Paul and Brian "RiceGum" Lee.

Last year, they were criticised for promoting companies' unhealthy brands to their very young fan bases.

Examples included pre-roll video ads for sugary sweets and drinks in their videos. Researchers found that children who watched Zoella, who has 11.7 million followers and her partner Deyes, who has 3.9 million, went on to eat 26pc more calories than those who did not.

Dr Emma Boyland, one of the researchers from the University of Liverpool told the BBC that children consider vloggers to be "everyday people" just like their peers, and so are more influenced by their behaviour. 

The same problem has occurred on Instagram, where a host of celebrities including Scarlett London and reality TV star Kim Kardashian have been accused of promoting unrealistic lifestyles to young people.

Earlier this year Kardashian, who is followed by 126 million people, was heavily criticised for advertising Flat Tummy Co lollipops containing appetite suppressants.

Stephen Powis, NHS medical director, claims that young people are being "bombarded" with ideas, images and advertising which set a high and often unrealistic bar for what they should look and feel like.

"Where celebrities and the platforms which promote them exploit this vulnerability by pushing products like laxative teas, diet pills and other get-thin-quick solutions, they are taking the health of our young people in their hands and should act with far greater responsibility," he said. 

Children might not know they're being targeted 

Instagram and YouTube both have rules in place to force users to signpost if they are being paid for promoting products or services.  

However Carl Jones, senior lecturer at Westminster School of Media and Communication, believes children won't necessarily understand that labelled posts are adverts.

"I think [social media sites] need to start being proactive and start predicting where children’s advertising is going rather than reacting when the damage is done," he says.

"Big brands want to be where the eyeballs are. If kids are on social media or watching YouTube the advertisers are going to want to be there. Those are very small negatives versus the amount of eyeballs that will watch their messages."

Children are a lot more innocent, a lot less sophisticated and they tend to trust a lot more, Jones says.

For this to change, companies would have to be forced to stop product placements - something they are unlikely to do. 

Apps like TikTok provide more opportunities 

Such is the success of barely disguised advertising that big brands have turned to alternative sites such as TikTok, a video-streaming site that is hugely popular with under-18s, to find "cut-price stars".

"People on the verge of becoming influencers, those people are very important and a lot of brands go after them," says Jones. "They are under the radar so don’t have enough followers to have negative influence they can get away with it."

Many of these future internet stars are also children, who can be paid thousands of pounds per post to promote products online.

Young Instagram stars such as twin toddlers Taytum and Oakley Fisher are followed by almost three million people, while seven-year-old Zooey Miyoshi has 144,000; while YouTubers like Maya (the star of the FullTimeKid channel) or Evan (of EvanTubeHD fame) have videos that are watched by billions of people. 

What's the solution?

So far, regulation has not affected advertiser's online activity materially. The ASA has tried to be less reactive to big brands' activities on social media sites by using child avatars of different ages to find out how advertisers are targeting young children.

This activity heralds a new strategy to be able to be more proactive in regulating the online space, the ASA says. Earlier this year, researchers found that children as young as six were being targeted by major gambling operators online, in a move to ramp up pressure on companies that are known to target underage players.

The ASA used avatars that simulate the online profiles of children in order to identify campaigns that breach advertising rules targeting children under the age of 16.

"Our rules do not prohibit children from being targeted with ads as long as those ads are age-appropriate and are responsible," an ASA spokesperson said. 

"We recognise that children will also occasionally see ads that aren’t meant for them (offline as well as on). That’s why our content rules require that ads for products like alcohol or gambling do not contain anything that is likely to appeal particularly to children."

For now, social media companies are relying on users and artificial intelligence to alert them if advertising is inappropriate - a practice that is clearly not working, Jones argues. The solution is simple: hire more human eyes to scan what children are likely to be watching. 

"They cannot police everything that is uploaded, so they expect consumers to do the policing. companies are relying too much on software to alert them to content that is possibly controversial. They should go back to the old method of humans relying on the content."