How to Avoid the Dangers of Online Advertisements Targeted at Kids

Joel Lee 11-08-2014

You might think you’re smart enough to dodge manipulative advertisements — and maybe you are smart enough — but what about children? With hundreds of banner ads, popup ads, and interstitial ads all over the place from website to website, it’s a wonder that we haven’t all been brainwashed already. Or maybe we have.


Online ads are increasingly targeting younger and younger folks. This is a growing problem for both children, whose lives are profoundly impacted by the ads, and parents who don’t want their kids’ lives being dictated by the media. But why? How? What can we do to alleviate the issue?

Children Are Going Digital


We’ve never been more digitally-ingrained than we are today and we’ve yet to reach our peak. Children born within the past ten years are still bombarded by traditional forms of advertisement — billboards, commercials, magazines, etc. — but they are the first generation to be surrounded by web ads and social media from birth.

How long has it been since cell phones were considered “for adults only”? Compare that to today when teenagers, kids, and in extreme cases, even toddlers now carry their own personal smartphones. What’s worse is that these phones have crossed the line from “nice to have” to “can’t live without,” resulting in smartphone addiction Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone? At one time, landlines and payphones were all we had--and we survived just fine, thank you very much. But now, it’s almost laughable if you don’t own an iPhone or Android, and for some of... Read More at the youngest of ages.



Part of the problem can be attributed to our increasing dependence, as a society, on the Internet and instant-global communication. These days, it’s harder to escape the Internet than it is to carry it around with you wherever you go thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, laptops, tablets, WiFi hotspots, 4G data, etc. Try to take a break from the Internet Take A Break From the Internet - You’ll Thank Yourself Later [Opinion] Oh, the Internet. One of the most world-changing inventions of the past century, perhaps even in all of human history. Never before has everything been so available in so little effort for so low a... Read More and you’ll see just how much of a grip it has on your life.

Children are growing up in a world where all of this is the norm. Not that it’s inherently bad — there’s plenty of good that has come from the Internet — but there are some concerns that deserve our attention. Specifically, online advertisements and marketing. More specifically, how they are targeting and affecting the minds of our young.

How Children Are Baited By Marketers


Marketing has long since learned that children are the most valuable customers. They may not have any money of their own, that’s true, but younger minds are more easily influenced. The more they are exposed to a particular brand, the more likely they will build up a loyalty to a said brand. If you win a kid, you win them for life.


So it’s no surprise that many online marketers target children. But how?

Social media is a big arena for this. Youngsters have always placed a high value on their social standing, even going as far as deriving self-worth from it. Social media is the concentrated essence of this. When combined with viral marketing, social media is the fastest and most cost-effective way to reach these kids.


Consider examples like Coke, which is the most popular brand on Facebook with 86 million likes and counting. Katy Perry and Justin Bieber each have over 50 million followers on Twitter. The nature of social media, with the constant “sharing” of content, means that Coke, Katy, and Justin are always on the minds of these users, many of whom are young and have no idea that they’re essentially being brainwashed.


Another effective tactic is advergaming where games are used to advertise a product or service. The most popular example is America’s Army, which was developed in an effort to increase recruitment for the United States Army, but other examples include in-game billboards, product placements, and entire games built for strengthening a brand (e.g., Disney games).

And as always, you’ve got regular website ads. These are located everywhere, so much so that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a site that doesn’t have any ads. The worst part, however, is that ads are typically context-sensitive. If a child clicks on one stray link, they could end up on a page full of ads far too inappropriate for them.

What Can We Do To Protect Our Kids?


What’s the danger, anyway? Not everyone believes that Internet ads are as damaging as they are claimed to be. That’s why Publicis Frankfurt, a German ad agency, ran a campaign to show just how much of an impact a single advertisement can have.


The campaign consisted of a series of photos showing kids whose eyes have been replaced by screaming mouths. The images are unsettling, if not outright disturbing, and the message behind them is a simple one: “It only takes one glance to be shocked by a stray image.”

How many shocking ads do kids encounter while surfing the web?

But we’re not just talking about ads with shock value. The fact is, children are impressionable and vulnerable and rarely know what’s best. Not that “helicopter parenting” is the right way to go, but children do need some measure of guidance and protection against the powerful influence of marketing.


The most effective way to fight is to educate. At the proper age, parents should teach their kids about advertising, marketing, and how companies try to sway their opinions with clever campaigns. Whether we’re talking about junk food, fads, or even sexualization, it’s important to understand the mechanisms of advertisement.

Where can you go to increase your education on advertising dangers?

  • Admongo is a government-sponsored video game that aims to educate players about the advertising business: who makes them, how do they work, and what do advertisers want from you? A great resource for children and adults alike.
  • Food Ad Tricks is a quick but informative video that shows all the effort that goes into a food commercial. In particular, how do they get those burgers to look so full, tasty, and appealing? They hire a “food makeup artist,” that’s how!
  • Junk Food Ad Tips from Common Sense Media is another useful resource for combating deceptive junk food ads.
  • PBS Parent Guide provides some questions for you and your children to ask yourselves while consuming media. These questions, such as the ones listed in the “Question the Commercial” Guide, are designed to help you peer through the veneer of alluring advertisements.
  • The Merchants of Cool is a fantastic documentary report by PBS that delves into the American business of advertising and how much of an impact they have on popular culture. The entire 60-min episode can be viewed online for free.

Just as importantly, be involved. Know what your kids are doing when they’re online, but do so more through open communication than sneaky surveillance and monitoring. If necessary, reduce their exposure to ad-heavy sources of entertainment.

Ad-blocking tools can be helpful against website ads, though there are reasons not to use AdBlock AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery - The Trifecta Of Evil Over the past few months, I've been contacted by a good number of readers who have had problems downloading our guides, or why they can't see the login buttons or comments not loading; and in... Read More . If you do end up using such tools, please learn how to whitelist websites Please Whitelist MakeUseOf In Adblock: A Plea From a Former Adblock Filter Developer It’s no secret that we’re not huge fans of Adblock here at MakeUseOf. But we know that some of you won’t let go of Adblock until it’s pried out of your cold, dead hands. If... Read More so that legitimate websites can earn ad revenue for putting out free content. Another option is to use a web filter like K9 Web Protection, OpenDNS FamilyShield (our review Block Inappropriate Websites With OpenDNS's FamilyShield Service I think it’s safe to say that for as long as the Internet has been around, there have always been inappropriate websites - and I’m not just talking about adult entertainment! Think of all the... Read More ), or Qustodio (our review Qustodio: Free Parental Control Software For Internet Access [Windows] Having parental control over the Internet is an extremely difficult undertaking. You can try tampering with your operating system’s host file, or you can fiddle with browser extensions. Just a few months ago, I wrote... Read More ).

At the end of the day, we can’t completely mitigate the impact of advertising, but that doesn’t mean we should give up and concede the fight. We ought to educate and equip our kids so that they’re smart enough understand what’s being thrown at them and see through all of the marketing. That’s how we win.

How do you protect your kids from online ads? Do you think it’s even necessary to do so? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: girl working on laptop Via Shutterstock, Child on Smartphone Via Shutterstock, Teenager on Smartphone Via Shutterstock, Social Media Icons Via Shutterstock, Storefront Ads Via Shutterstock, Web Address Via Shutterstock, Creepy Ads Via Publicis Frankfurt

Explore more about: Online Advertising, Online Privacy, Parental Control.

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  1. Supriya Hardikar
    December 13, 2017 at 4:11 am

    Your article is spot on. Its incredible that there are parents who think ads, memes and other content that kids see every minute of the day can influence them negatively. Coming from an Asian country we are very concerned about our kids growing up too soon and getting interested in the opposite gender too soon. Memes and similar content on all social media platforms, stimulating a pre-teen or even teenagers mind is a menace from my pov. Getting kids to think and act differently and trying to communicate with them about these monsters is quite a challenge, because its happening everywhere. I got onto your site when I was looking for game based edutainment to educate my child and her friends about these monsters that have entered their lives too soon. Good luck and keep writing. Would love to read and let me know if you can think of games to educate pre-teens in a game based manner.

  2. srara
    May 24, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    Could be better

    • srara
      May 24, 2016 at 5:12 pm

      I don't think so

  3. Lian
    October 27, 2014 at 10:12 am

    I read these lines recently, "the internet is a wicked cesspool of filth and debauchery filled with weirdos, pervs, and foul-mouthed trolls." -- This sounds true in this digital world. You made valid points here on online advertisements targeting kids.

    Ad blocking helps to some extent. I'm always concerned on my kid's safety. parental control program for my kid's safety.

  4. Saikat B
    August 12, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    What's also dangerous is the data collection technologies uses by sites like Facebook. Then there are numerous third party websites as well. How powerful is the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act in the U.S.?

    • Joel L
      August 12, 2014 at 6:06 pm

      Unfortunately, I don't think COPPA has proven very useful. As far as I understand it, when a child enters info (such as registration), sites only need to provide information on why they store certain information and what that information will be used for. COPPA also allows parents to retrieve whatever personal information their children might have submitted, but how many parents actually do? Can't say I know any.

  5. likefunbutnot
    August 11, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    Use Adblock Edge or Adblock Plus, or the EasyList TPL if you're one of those IE people. Don't use devices or browsers that don't have an option to block ads (or get an AdTrap, I guess) Blocking ads solves most of what's wrong on the web. I'm more concerned with security than what little Timmy might see when he's online, but as a happy accident, it fixes the problem anyway.

    That it damages the typical web-based revenue model is not the responsibility of end users. Security and safety ultimately ARE the responsibility of end users, especially end users who have to be mindful of their own progeny.

    Just block ads and watch as the problems disappear.