'Pitching to children on a one-to-one basis is like shooting fish in a barrel," says veteran children's TV activist Peggy Charren. "It's so unfair and potentially dangerous that it's even more important to stop this than it was to get a V-chip for undesirable programs on TV."
Ms. Charren is talking about the problems posed by the Internet, a technology undreamed-of when she began her pioneer work to reform children's television almost 30 years ago. The big difference: TV is a one-way medium, but the Internet is interactive, and the potential for commercial exploitation is high.
Recently the Center for Media Education (CME) - a nonprofit, Washington-based research and advocacy group - called on the Federal Trade Commission to do something about ads aimed at children on the new medium, citing their new study.
The CME report points to exploitative practices like the micro-targeting of very young children who sit before computers and "visit" the rapidly increasing numbers of manufacturers' sites on the World Wide Web, the graphics portion of the Internet. There, children can interact in ways designed by advertisers to promote or sell products like cereal or toys. The kids also answer personal questions that yield detailed information, allowing an advertiser to customize his pitch right down to the level of an individual child or family.
'SO now we have yet another way to get children to sit in front of the screen: the computer," Charren says. And "the qualities that make computers so wonderful for children [provide] the same technical opportunity that can make Internet advertising aimed at kids so terrible: its ability to deal with their learning level on a one-on-one basis, giving them information as they show themselves ready for it, tapping the delight kids can get from controlling information."
Nielsen Media Research figures show a decline over the past 12 years in the time children spend watching TV, some of it because they are spending more time using computers..
The computer and the Internet have the potential to be "a wonderful educational tool," Charren says, "if you have enough money for nifty CD-ROMs and time to use them. But unfortunately it also opens new avenues - through its interactivity - for kids to be manipulated in ways that television never made possible."
If anyone should know the difference, it's Charren. Social and media analysts have called her the most important figure in the long, contentious history of children's TV. Last fall, when President Clinton gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award bestowed by the United States, the citation noted that "while many have decried the quality of television, Peggy Charren has done something about it."
That's putting it mildly. The group she founded in 1968, Action for Children's Television (ACT), spearheaded the reform movement that culminated in the Children's Television Act of 1990, a landmark law making service to children a condition for station owners' keeping their licenses. "I'm the law's grandma," Charren chuckles. "I would have been its mother, but it took too long." She closed ACT the year the law was passed, but continues as a TV consultant and a visiting scholar at Harvard University's School of Education.
CME is as close to an ACT successor as currently exists. "The CME's focus on new technology and the child is what we need," Charren says, pointing to the Internet problem. There are Web sites for all kinds of companies where kids play games, Charren notes. "It's a good way to hook kids on products early," she says. "You get this very tight connection of the child to the culture of the corporation."
THIS may sound like a form of education, "but actually it's a come-on," she claims. "Kids are asked their names, their addresses, their ages, the names of their friends, their interests. What if the information gets into the hands of someone who wants to sell them something singularly inappropriate or wants to entice them to do something you don't want children to do?"
Internet ads, she says, are the latest step in the sad story of commercial exploitation of kids in the media. For decades, a "synergy" has existed between broadcasters and toy companies that "has nothing to do with the family's interests," she says.
"On TV shows like 'GI Joe' and 'My Little Pony,' it's practically impossible to tell advertising from the editorial content," she says. "The characters can't wear clothes any different from the toy. In fact, there's a set of guidelines from the toy companies that should make any rational person's hair stand on end."
Yet television, for all its problems, is a one-way street, Charren points out. The Nielsen ratings provide a very loose demographic picture: They don't tell you who the audience is or what their preferences are. "And they certainly don't give you their name and address," she notes. But on the Web, she says, such data are all too available.
Charren doesn't pretend to have a perfect solution. But from her background as a children's TV activist, she says: "If we separate the needs of children from the needs of everyone else, that's a rational way to begin." And one way or another, she adds, "We do need to get parents to understand it's not a good idea for your child to be wurbling secrets to any stranger that comes down the electronic pike."
PROTECTING KIDS ON THE WEB
Under the ominous title "Web of Deception," a report by the Washington-based Center for Media Education (CME) details marketing practices aimed at young users of the Internet.
In Netscape's KidsCom, for instance, a little cartoon-character man stands on a pool of water with a word balloon over his head saying "I'm a kid that needs to register." A user clicks here and is asked questions like "What kind of computer do you now have ("IBM," "MacIntosh," etc.)? Another part of KidsCom - KidsKash - tells children they will win credits called KidsKash they can use to claim "loot" (including a case of Nabisco cookies) by answering questions like "What brand of athletic shoe do you wear most often?" and "Who buys your athletic shoes?"
Elsewhere on the Internet, Microsoft's "Splash Kids" asks children questions about themselves as a preliminary to becoming one of the Splash Kids and offers them a chance to win a Sony Discman as part of a monthly giveaway if they sign up. Big letters on the screen say "Sign-up and Win!" with a picture of the Discman underneath.
CME investigated the world of on-line advertising to children and found two basic threats: the tracking of children's on-line computer use and the solicitation of information from them; and what CME calls unfair, deceptive advertising, such as "infomercials" for children - electronic advertising "environments" in which children play with brand-name characters.
CME has called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to come up with specific ways to protect children. CME is not against advertising to children in cyberspace, it states, but wants children to be treated fairly and appropriately.
The organization suggests these industry guidelines: Personal information should not be collected from minors; ads for kids should be labeled as such; interaction should not take place between a child and a product spokesperson; and no micro-targeting of kids or direct-response marketing should be conducted.
*Tomorrow: Teaching media literacy in schools, Page 10.