Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Guarding the gates: how the advertising industry can help keep kids safe online

By Nick Stringer, a global technology, public policy, and regulatory affairs adviser. His extensive experience includes serving as the former Director of Regulatory Affairs at the UK Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK).

“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future” – JFK

Keeping young people safer online is a global challenge demanding immediate action. Initiatives worldwide showcase the urgency. However, companies operating internationally face a labyrinth of well-intentioned rules and regulations across borders.

While cultural differences may contribute to this complexity, policymakers (as well as industry commentators and children’s rights groups) often overlook the role of advertising – a key international engine driving online content and services – in tackling this issue. Whilst legal obligations fall on ‘Big Tech’ (and rightly so), could advertisers (and their partners) play a more significant role in achieving this goal? And, if so, how?

This is the fifth instalment in the ‘ByteWise Insights’ series, examining society’s complex ties with technology and proposing public policy solutions. We have previously explored the need for greater global cooperation, a call for more regulation of political advertising, the advertising industry’s role in supporting quality journalism and news, and the importance of technology education for the public. Rather than focusing solely on national or regional regulation, this article explores a different front in the quest for greater online safety. It examines the potential for advertisers – some of the most influential ‘household’ brands around the world – to play a more significant role in protecting young people in the digital world.

A global push for online safety

A growing trend sees policymakers worldwide urging, and often forcing, large technology companies to prioritise child protection online. The UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, is at the forefront of this movement. Following the UK Online Safety Act, it recently published a consultation outlining how user-to-user services (e.g., social media platforms) and search engine companies can fulfil their legal obligations, including on age verification and the designing of safer algorithms.

Despite investments in online trust and safety by tech firms globally, there is a public policy push to do more, driven by society’s concerns. The UK’s approach is seen as a model for many countries around the world, such as Australia. But it has its critics. Families who lost loved ones after using / seeing harmful online content, particularly on social media, express a clear view: Ofcom’s proposals are a step in the right direction, but fall short of what’s truly needed. Whilst not wishing to muddy the legal responsibilities, this might be where advertisers play an important and complementary role.

Shielding young eyes: advertising’s track record

The advertising industry has a strong history of safeguarding young audiences from inappropriate marketing around the world. These safeguards often take the form of international standards, which are then adapted and enforced within individual countries for greater effectiveness. Industry and regulatory bodies continually reassess these standards to align with the rapid advancements in technology, evolving business models, and shifting user behaviours.

While some argue that the current requirements imposed on advertising are insufficient, there is a concerted effort to strike a delicate balance between safeguarding younger audiences from inappropriate ads and recognising the vital role that advertising plays in financing online content and services.

Beyond just protecting young people, the industry has also implemented various ‘brand safety’ standards to ensure that online advertisements don’t appear alongside illegal or inappropriate content. These standards typically involve criteria for content classification, placement, and monitoring, as well as mechanisms for mitigating risks associated with ad placements.

Adherence to brand safety standards helps advertisers maintain brand integrity and trust among consumers while maximising the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns. However, due to cultural variations across the globe, what constitutes ‘inappropriate’ is subjective, necessitating localised variation and implementation of these standards.

Follow the money: protecting society from harmful online content

The advertising industry has demonstrated that where there’s determination, there’s a path forward in putting in place global industry measures to address challenges. In the UK, Ofcom appears to want the ad industry’s help in mitigating online harms. In February 2024, Lord Michael Grade, Chair of the UK communications regulator Ofcom, delivered a call to action, emphasising the importance of prioritising trust and safety. He urged advertisers and their partners to allocate resources towards protecting society, particularly younger audiences, from harmful content. This seems to have fallen on deaf ears or perhaps seems misunderstood.

Industry commentators often propose ad tech reforms seeking to address this. Whilst encouraging, I don’t think these are explicit enough. Ad tech ‘intermediaries’ are wired to react to commands, not pleas. The complex advertising supply chain often swallows up such messages. Ad tech is also pre-occupied with the evolving privacy landscape which is threatening many business models. No, we need the real decision-makers – the advertisers, who hold the purse strings – to shout this from the rooftops. Advertisers wield immense power. When they demand change, the entire ad supply chain leaps to attention. I’ve seen it happen (although not often enough) and the threat of lost revenue, thanks to this ‘purchaser power’, can light a fire under the industry to get things done.

A global advertiser young people safety initiative

What should the next steps be? Firstly, this issue needs to move up the agenda amongst advertisers. To date, the priority has been ensuring young people do not see inappropriate advertising. This is important but advertisers need to acknowledge their responsibility towards the broader goal of protecting young people’s online safety, not just their role in making sure their advertising is targeted appropriately.

Secondly, a set of principles and requirements should be drafted to complement the mandates of online safety legislation, such as Ofcom’s proposals encompassing age verification, algorithmic reforms, and effective content moderation. Global advertiser industry associations stand out as the ideal organisations to drive such an initiative forward. Many of the world’s largest advertisers tend to be pro-active members and are therefore well-equipped to craft such a framework. This could also include specific requirements for advertising partners – media agencies, demand and sell side platforms, exchanges, and media owners – as well as technology platforms relying on advertising revenue to provide their content and services. Armed with these requirements, advertisers – via their ‘purchase power’ – can mandate their implementation throughout the supply chain.

Advertiser muscle: the importance of ‘purchaser power’

Making the internet a safer environment for young individuals should rank high among society’s concerns. Remarkable strides have been taken globally towards this goal. The advertising industry, renowned for its adeptness in global self-regulation, is well-placed to complement these efforts. It is asking the industry to think beyond marketing. However, given their advertising’s substantial financial influence as primary backers of digital content and services, companies possess the capacity to ensure that safeguarding measures for young people online are not only mandated by legislation but also financially incentivised.