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Kids' online privacy rules take effect: What's at stake

Kids' online privacy rules get tougher today. But parents should still be aware of the ways corporate marketing efforts can target kids with everything from alcohol, tobacco, and violent video games to the more insidious micropayments that will sap your bank account.

By Correspondent / July 3, 2013

Kids' online privacy gets a tougher today as new federal regulations take effect. Here, kids created video games at a coding camp at Emory University in Atlanta, in June 2013.

Jaime Henry-White/AP

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Tougher federal rules about how advertisers and marketers can track and target kids online take effect today, under an update of the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. 

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Contributing blogger

James Norton got his professional start at the Monitor as an online news producer, before moving over to edit international news during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since leaving the Monitor in 2004, he has worked as a radio producer, author, and food blogger. 

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As data collection and analysis develops from a crude art into a finely honed science, the ability to put a product in front of the right young eyes at the right time has gotten increasingly acute, and the pressure for a revision increasingly intense. 

Particularly under the gun of the new regulations: "behavioral advertising" that tracks children based on browser history, geo-location campaigns that market based on where a child lives, and re-targeted ads that pursue children from site to site once they've engaged with the campaign. 

What precisely is at stake here? Actually, a great deal – the nature of corporate marketing is to work to the edge of the rules in order to sell the most aggressively and competitively to the advantage of shareholders, a design that results in all kinds of shenanigans when left unregulated. 

And when you peel back the wrapper of online and TV content and look at some of things that have been marketed to children over the years, it's both chilling and illuminating.

Junk Food: Out of context, there's nothing more sensible to pitch to kids than candy, cookies, and the latest Xtreme gaming flavor of Mountain Dew. In context, these campaigns become a seamless part of a tapestry of high fructose corn syrup-driven obesity that have made American kids among the fattest in the world. 

Parents can make a huge difference in this regard, but the trick is standing up to the marketing (and sugar-craving evolutionary biology) and laying down a hard but reasonable line about what flies and what doesn't. (When I was growing up, soda and sweet cereal were banned for 51 weeks a year - and then, while on our annual weeklong vacation in Wisconsin's Door County peninsula, they were permitted again. Somehow, this totally worked.)

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