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.

Jaime Henry-White/AP
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.

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. 

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.)

Violent Video Games: Take it from this former boy who grew up during the dawn of video games: if it bleeds, it succeeds.  

Playing violent video games has been linked to violent behavior and bullying, but the links are weak and reputable contrary studies exist. One thing nearly everybody can agree upon, however: The games are largely a massive waste of time. Oh, and that they may prevent crime by keeping otherwise crime-prone kids and young adults off the streets. The story of wasted time is defined by what the time-waster might otherwise be doing.

Micropayments: You want terrifying? Here's terrifying. There's an increasing trend for games to be marketed at a price that is low or free, and derive income from thousands of minor in-game purchases and/or auction sales made by players. The result is a "free" game that turns into a $75/month open wound on your checking account as your son or daughter purchases in-game gear for their imaginary in-game character. 

Alcohol, Guns, and Cigarettes: These three very adult products all have a vested interest in getting to the next generation as early as possible without tipping off any stick-in-the-mud parents and regulators. If you dig into these realms you'll find sweet, fruit-flavored "alcopops," colorful "my first gun" weapons, and candy cigarettes, among other gambits to pitch the under-18 (or under-21) set without triggering legal consequences.  (Of course, the argument about whether access to guns at a young age tends to teach gun safety or create gun-related deaths is still viable and ongoing.)

Jarts: These top-heavy, skull-piercing lawn darts actually haven't been sold since a Consumer Product Safety Commission ban in 1988, but they're a good example of what gets marketed and sold in a low-regulation environment: They're fun, they're sporty, they're potentially lethal. Libertarians might argue that a few seriously jarted kids is a small price to pay for a free society, but that's a long argument to be had somewhere else.

Actually, it's highly unlikely that your children will be targeted by ads for lawn darts, but still – be aware. Fun but deadly.

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