Kids and Digital Advertising

Companies have been advertising to kids for decades, but new methods of advertising in digital media bring up new concerns.

How does advertising affect kids?

Advertising directed at kids is designed to turn them into customers. Research shows that kids who see influencer promotions for junk food are more likely to eat more non-nutritious food. Tweens and teens often have money of their own, and the marketing they see can determine how they spend it. Children also influence parents’ decision making on everything from fast food to cars.

Children have less critical thinking ability and are less likely to recognize persuasion. They’re much less likely to identify influencer marketing. They recognize brands (like Mickey Mouse on their diapers) but don’t understand the point of branding.

They are more likely to respond to Blippi as a trusted friend or to want the things shown in Ryan’s World. Tweens and teens may welcome social media influencers as part of their peer group, and be subject to peer pressure from TikTok stars and YouTube messages.

What’s different about digital media?

TV commercials may be easier for kids to recognize than an influencer’s product placement. 

Digital media also can respond to kids’ behavior. That Blippi-obssessed toddler will be shown more Blippi videos by YouTube. Blippi even asks kids to get their adults to follow and subscribe.

Which ads are shown to your children? It depends on their behavior online. Advertisers explain that this is helpful to consumers: if you slow down and watch their video on Facebook, that shows that you are interested in their products. That way, Facebook can show you products that interest you instead of wasting your time on things you don’t care about. 

But that also means that your child consuming Facebook on an iPad will be shown more sugary cereals because they paid attention to that first sugary cereal cartoon mascot. 


Advertising can sometimes have positive effects. A campaign by the CDC saw a 34% increase in free time physical play among 9-10 year olds who saw the ads. But the vast majority of kid influencers and marketing directed toward kids is selling products…and often those products are not wholesome. 

Unhealthy foods are much more common in digital marketing than healthy ones, but that’s not all. Teen and tween influencers effectively market vaping, smoking, alcohol and cannabis use, and a vision of adult sexuality that sells provocative clothing. The desire to be cool has expanded from copying the cool kids at school to copying the cool kids on Instagram.

Limiting screen time for kids has always been a recommendation from experts. But the pandemic — and virtual school — make it even harder than it was before. 

Parents can still watch with their kids, though, at least some of the time. Help them recognize marketing when it doesn’t look like a TV commercial. Help them ask questions about the motivation of the influencers they watch. Share facts about the products and encourage them to do their own research.

These steps can help kids become savvy consumers — and keep them out from under the influence of the influencers.