As you no doubt know, the government yesterday published a review, authored by Mother’s Union boss Reg Bailey, on the sexualisation and commercialisation of children. The Letting Children Be Children report contains a slew of recommendations about what, and how, brands market to children.
Launching his report, Bailey said: “Regulators, businesses and broadcasters should do more to connect with parents – it’s not enough for them to work out what is acceptable from what people complain about afterwards.
“I want all businesses to play fair when selling to children and not take advantage of gaps in the regulation, especially regarding new media.”
As well as calling for an end to inappropriate clothing and products for children, a ratings system for music promos and a beefed-up TV watershed, the report calls on ISPs to up their game in assisting parents to control what their children see online.
The Bailey Review also recommends that companies ‘providing content which is age-restricted, whether by law or company policy, should seek robust means of age verification’, and urges an end to the practice of using under-16s as ‘brand ambassadors’ in social media.
In an open letter to Bailey, Prime Minister David Cameron praised the report, specifically endorsing a ban on the use of children in peer-to-peer marketing. He also backed the report’s proposals for “making it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material” across all media.
According to his letter, the Prime Minister will call a meeting with industry representatives in October, when he will assess how well the industries concerned have complied with Bailey’s proposals. But it’s still unclear whether the government will back the report’s call for legislation, should industry fail to respond effectively within 18 months.
Cameron’s letter hints strongly that his government will stop short of new legislation. He writes that “many of the actions you suggest are for business and regulators to follow rather than for government. I support this emphasis, as it consistent with this government’s overall approach and my long held belief that the leading force for progress should be social responsibility, not state control.”
In the meantime, here’s a quick rundown of the proposals which are most likely to impact on children’s experience online.
Brand Ambassadors, and Peer-to-Peer Marketing
Under the new proposals, brands will no longer be allowed to ‘pay’ children to promote their products on social networking websites. It’s this proposal which was specifically endorsed by David Cameron in his response to the report yesterday – so it’s very likely to be adopted by government.
Previously, and perfectly legally, brands have been able to recruit under-16s to test out their products, and feed back to the company. As part of this process, children have been encouraged to spread positive social-media word-of-mouth, via a reward system which allows them to trade points for prizes.
The approach was notably applied by Mattel when promoting their Barbie-branded MP3 player. 50 girls aged 11 and under were recruited to promote the product, and were able to win branded merchandise by creating their own fan website, and asking their friends to sign up to Barbiegirls.com.
In a similar vein, the report calls for concerted attempts to improve parents’ awareness of advertising and marketing techniques used to promote products to children.
ISP filters and parental controls
“… As a matter of urgency, the internet industry should ensure that customers must make an active choice over what sort of content they want to allow their children to access.”
The Bailey Review calls for ISPs to “act decisively to develop and produce effective parental controls” and for adult-content filters to automatically be offered, either as software or via home-network filter like that recently launched by TalkTalk, on all internet-enabled devices, including smartphones. Consumers should be asked, at the point of sale or during the initial start-up process, whether they wish to receive adult content.
“We believe that this will substantially increase the take-up and awareness of these tools and, consequently, reduce the amount of online adult material accessed by children”.
Bailey stops short of recommending a mandatory ISP filter for online content, but proposes that “if voluntary action is not forthcoming quickly then Government should consider regulation (for example, as part of the planned Communications Bill), however problematic that might be.”
The government has previously indicated its determination to make ISPs more responsible for protecting children from pornographic content – but, as we noted earlier, it’s clear that they favour self-regulation over legislation.
The report dismisses the effectiveness of internet companies age-verification systems, and calls for them to be upgraded.
Those providing content which is age-restricted, whether by law or company policy, should seek robust means of age verification as well as making it easy for parents to block underage access.
Bailey notes that the absence of a UK national identity card scheme is often cited as a bar to effectively enforcing age-verification online. But it also points out that:
“age verification has to be in place in non-internet environments by law (for example, the sale of pornography on DVD) and if we as a society are saying that the supply of adult material needs control, then that control should operate across all outlets, irrespective of the ease of checking the buyer’s age.”
The proposal wasn’t one of those highlighted by the Prime Minister in his letter, so it remains to be seen whether the government will endorse it.