Carnegie Education

The impact of child-targeted advertising on digital platforms in an era of device-orientated home learning

Megan White, who is studying an MA in Childhood Studies & Early Years, shares her thoughts on some of the unconsidered consequences of home schooling using digital devices.

Young person using an iPad

As advertisements migrate into the digital domain, it is possible that children are being subjected to an incessant stream of unregulated content which they unconsciously acknowledge as social stimuli. Children can learn appropriate gendered behaviour from these stimuli and are largely unaware of this influence on their gender development. The lack of regulation on digital platforms may expose young children to marketing strategies such as gender segmentation and the stereotypical behaviour associated with this. The current national lockdown may be magnifying this exposure to digital advertising, leading to the possibility that our young children are learning more about gender through marketing tactics than through the direct social world.

There are an ever-younger and ever-growing cohort of children that have unfettered access to internet-connected devices (Ofcom, 2020) and, therefore, to the countless digital advertisements displayed there. As younger children have increasing autonomy over digital devices, it is important to review the possible impact that this has on their gender development. Children as young as four have ‘developed a clear sense of what is expected of gender’ (Fawcett Society, 2020), so any early interactions with the social stimuli that advertisements exhibit may impact their understanding of gender. Children potentially observe and imitate symbolic models, within adverts, that display discriminative cues such as gender-stereotypical behaviour, and this could influence how children perceive gender-norms. These digital advertisements may have created a relationship between indirect social stimuli and social learning which children are naturally eager to observe. This would make them susceptible to the idea that gender-stereotypical behaviour is the only culturally acceptable way of acting, confining their gender development to contemporary perceptions of gender-appropriate actions.

As digital proficiency in young children proliferates, policies and procedures are having to play catch-up in order to regulate digital advertisements and minimise children’s potential exposure to pernicious material. The CAP’s Harm and Offence Law (Code 4.9, 2020) attempts to protect children from gender stereotyping within advertising campaigns. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the law is enforced on digital platforms. The Federal Communications Commission regulates the amount of TV advertising a child observes per hour, but there is no apparent equivalent regulatory body for the control of the volume or frequency of digital adverts (BBB National Programmes, 2020). This suggests there is no control over how many adverts children observe, let alone regulations on gender-stereotypical content, on digital platforms.

Within the context of the national lockdown, the introduction of widespread home-schooling has introduced digital platforms as educational tools. This could be seen as schools actively encouraging children to immerse themselves in the digital world, leading to an unprecedented exposure to unregulated adverts, all during the hours once spent in school.  By promoting these digital platforms and potentially increasing their student's exposure to gender discriminative content, schools could hinder the provision of equal opportunities within their institutions. This could be argued to be in direct conflict with Article 3.18 of the 2010 Equality Act (2014, p.20), which states that schools must ‘promote gender equality’. Due regard should be exercised when promoting these platforms in order to minimise the effect of commercially driven content on a child's gender development.

As the world becomes more heavily dependent on digital platforms for both teaching and entertainment, children could be observing an unmeasurable amount of gender discriminative cues. If definitive policies and procedures were created to regulate the volume and content of digital advertisements, we would have a clearer picture of this reality.


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