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Safely advertising to youths

Vanessa Gomes
Vanessa Gomes • 7 min read
Safely advertising to youths
Digital native youths of today are open targets for unsolicited advertising on the Internet and gaming platforms. Photo: Unsplash
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Most under-18s today are raised by millennials, who bravely ventured into online chat rooms and made friends on instant messaging services such as ICQ and MSN Messenger without reservations. In the early 2000s, the Internet was arguably safer than today for youths to browse online unattended.

Today, not only are digital footprints monitored and recorded at a young age, but the method of online interaction has changed. Gaming platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox are virtual meeting spaces for children to interact while playing online games.

The reality is that every day, 175,000 youths come online for the first time and will have 72 million data points associated with each of them by the time they turn 13. At a time when there has never been more scrutiny over online data privacy, Internet usage by under-18s now accounts for 40% of daily traffic.

This means tech-savvy digital native youths of today are open targets for unsolicited advertising on the Internet and gaming platforms, which adds to parents’ concerns about letting their children venture online, even to play games. Naturally, online gaming platforms need to be more accommodating of this demographic of users.

Will Anstee, CEO of Singapore-based youth-first engagement platform TotallyAwesome, points out this is a multi-layered conundrum. For one, there is a school of thought that online gaming content may inculcate negative behaviours in the real world, such as gambling, violent tendencies and the sexualisation of women. On top of that, there are no guard rails for advertising, which can harm youths and cause a disconnect between a brand and the user.

But while the negative implications of gaming are sometimes exaggerated, the positive associations tend to be ignored. Games enable youths to learn more about themselves and their capabilities and build confidence and creativity while allowing exploration of the virtual world that will inadvertently stimulate their mind, says Anstee.

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Games also aid youths that undergo a psychosocial moratorium. This is when individuals suspend their responsibility and commitment in search of their new identities. In simple terms, gamers (or, in this case, youths) can take risks within safe boundaries in the virtual world, where real-world consequences are lowered.

“And so, if done safely, it is incredibly beneficial, especially when providing a safe space for youths to experiment with their identity and social skills. So, the whole gaming world is becoming a new social platform,” he says.

“There is an opportunity to create a positive play, which is about enabling and empowering youths to think critically, build confidence and maybe even help them learn how to shut off one part of their brain from studying and focus on release while gaming.”

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Anstee takes it one step further and thinks about the implications of this setup from a brand’s perspective. Today, many companies invest in in-game advertising to gain eyeballs, but it should not be done willy-nilly. As with most business decisions made today, data is needed for companies to make informed and unbiased decisions when choosing a gaming platform to advertise on.

“Every game is different, so you can’t apply the same principles to advertising in the offline world. [In games], we’re thinking about the player’s peripheral vision and the devices they play on. We also have to think about how the game is played, whether it’s individual or a bunch of kids in a multiplayer game, and we can help brands navigate this,” he explains.

“The value exchange is linked to the play experience and, therefore, do you want to be [in games] without a strategic approach? Because you don’t want to get into it unless you have the right data points around you. You need to know how your brand operates against the audience in the game.”

Increased advertising value within games

Interest and involvement in gaming were on the rise even before the pandemic, and today, there is no specific gender that dominates the gaming industry, inadvertently creating a diverse and inclusive world with minimal toxic algorithms. But parents are still worried because of the social element of today’s gaming platforms.

In 2021, the World Health Organization said online games encouraged players to stay mentally and physically healthy at home. That is why, today, there is a trend to focus on positive play, especially since gaming platforms have evolved into concert venues and a new playground to share experiences. “As a result, we know that if we don’t get into gaming within the guard rails of positive play, there is a possibility of [gaming’s] true potential not being realised,” says Anstee.

The company launched its youth-gaming-focused division, TotallyPlay, last year. As the division focuses on putting guard rails around positive play, it is ahead of the curve because brands are still getting on board with the idea of positive advertising to youths, says Anstee.

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TotallyPlay employs several mechanisms, including artificial intelligence (AI), to identify concerning elements in ads, such as cigarettes, alcohol bottles or nudity. Rating systems are applied too, such as G (general audiences) or PG (parental guidance suggested), where brands are given a suitable rating for their inventory.

“We do a lot of micromanagement of the inventory to understand where [the ads] really fit in, from a genre perspective, and then we ingest it into our curation moderation platform. From there, brands can segment exactly what they want and start to see the reach and frequency against their inventory,” says Anstee.

Cultural nuances also need to be taken into consideration. For example, what is acceptable to be viewed by a 15-year-old in Australia may not be acceptable to a 15-year-old in Malaysia. “In Malaysia, you can’t have a person showing skin, which is fine in Australia. On the flip side, the imagery or video content may look fine, but the language may not be appropriate, and because of that, moderation has to be done in the local language,” he says.

Regulation compliance a challenge

As advertising deals with data sharing, the company must apply global regulations and legislation to its systems. This includes the likes of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and GDPR-K, which is the portion of GDPR governing children’s privacy. GDPR-K requires apps or sites directed at children under 16 (or younger, depending on the EU country) to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information about the child.

The US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which issues and enforces regulations on children’s online privacy, is also important. The primary goal of COPPA is to place parents in control of what information is collected from their young children online. The rule was designed to protect children under 13 while accounting for the dynamic nature of the Internet.

Both regulations stipulate that the data of children below a certain age cannot be held and retained for ad targeting, and the age is different in countries around the world.

“In markets like Malaysia and most markets in Asia, it is under 14. It is under 18 in India and under 10 in Thailand, which means a person there is considered to be an adult if they are over 10 years of age and, therefore, there is no regulation to protect them,” Anstee explains.

But even more, he says the company prefers to engage users contextually. This means there is no data sharing, and ads are put in environments people have passion for and emotional connections to.

“Say, you are a cook and are looking at recipes on the weekend for dinner. You will be served ads appropriate to you because you’re in an environment you love. So, if it is arts and crafts, music or sports, we put relevant ads into those environments instead of tracking and targeting. It also means we won’t start breaching the requirements of things like COPPA or GDPR, and that’s what keeps brands safe.”

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia

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