A new report by usability experts Nielsen Norman Group confirms what many adults, especially parents, probably already know: that kids are skilled Web users before turning 10.
It's not uncommon today for children as young as nine to be as capable as adults when it comes to navigating the Web, according to the 262-page study released Monday and based on testing with 90 kids ages 3 to 12 who interacted with 53 sites geared to children and three sites for general audiences.
That wasn't always the case. When Nielsen Norman conducted its first study of kids' Web use in 2001, it found that children ages 7-12 weren't necessarily the computer whizzes people commonly assumed. But with kids being introduced to the Internet at earlier and earlier stages, children in that age bracket are now seasoned Web hands, while their three- to six-year-old counterparts are the ones stumbling to find their way.
Even then, "some 3-year-olds are very good at using the Internet," said Raluca Budiu, lead researcher on the report, in an interview Monday. But kids still aren't so savvy when it comes to recognizing the difference between ads and editorial content online. With marketers increasingly trying to blur the line between advertising and content online for adults, it's hardly surprising that kids can fail to separate the two.
But unlike adults, children -- especially those under the age of six -- were unaware of the concept of advertising, while older kids may know about ads but couldn't always distinguish them. "Even when words such as 'ad' or 'advertisement' marked the ads, some of the children still clicked on them, thinking they were legitimate content," states the report.
Sites should be providing more prominent notice of advertising by making the ad markers large enough for children to see in display ads and by explicitly saying when an ad appears at the start of a video. The study cites pre-roll ads on the Cartoon Network that ran before video-centric games and confused children because the word "Advertisement" appeared in tiny print at the top of the screen.
The study recommends that ads aimed at children avoid calls to action like "Click here" or "Play now" because they are likely to grab kids' attention away from page content without the understanding that they are clicking on an ad. That might sound like a marketer's dream, but Nielsen Norman suggests that's not necessarily the case:
"When children click on ads, they often get to content that is not appropriate for them (for instance, it may have a lot of text, or it may be just different than what they were hoping to find), and thus they might feel disappointed and cheated. Often, the bad experience on the ad site reflects upon the original site, and children decide to go somewhere else." So irresponsible marketing backfires.
The study also advises that ads should have consistent placement on the right side of a page, as on sites for adults, to help children distinguish between ads and content and learn that clicking on the right side could take them to a different site. The children's site Funbrain, for instance, ran ads that sometimes appeared on the right, and at other times in the center of the page, creating confusion.
Once kids have clicked on ads, they should be clearly warned they are leaving the Web site with a dialog-type box in the middle of the screen, with options to continue or go back. Nielsen Norman found that many sites still didn't provide adequate notice, but many more did than in its original study nine years ago. Discovery Kids was among the sites that did a better job of indicating to young users that they were exiting the site after clicking an ad.
In what seems like advice that could lead to confusion, the study suggests matching ads closely to site content. The reasoning is that if kids see ads containing content not geared to their age group, they assume the site would not interest them either. Most sites matched ads to content well, although there were exceptions, like an ad on Neopets for AT&T U-verse -- a service for adults.
Government-mandated rules for online marketing to children include the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires Web sites to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children, including their names, home addresses, email addresses, or hobbies.
The FTC also works with the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which publishes self-regulatory guides for children's advertising.