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PR’s Ethical Challenge of Protecting Children in the Digital Age

Published on October 30, 2023, at 3:53 p.m.
by Katherine Williams.

In today’s digital world, children are growing up in a vastly different environment than their parents or grandparents did. Social media platforms have made children not only consumers of content but also active participants, sharing their lives, interests and experiences online. With the rise of platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, young people are more exposed to social media than ever before.

In 2018, Pew Research Center surveyed 750 13-to-17-year-olds on their social media habits. Out of the 750 surveyed, 97% were active social media users. PR practitioners must navigate this landscape ethically and take into account the impact of social media on children’s development and self-image.

The double-edged sword of social media

PR professionals must recognize that social media can have both beneficial and harmful effects on children.

Sharla Biefield, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor at The University of Alabama, explained the dual nature of social media. She pointed out that while social media can negatively affect children through bullying and the creation of a negative body image, it can also be a safe haven for LGBTQ+ youth.

Sharla Biefeld

“Social media can provide a supportive and affirming community for LGTBTQ+ youth in rural areas,” Biefield explained. “For example, when COVID-19 shut down the world, kids didn’t have access to a lot of in-person interactions with their peers. These interactions were important for their well-being, especially if they didn’t have an affirming family, or feel safe talking about their identities with family. Social media and those communities can be really beneficial and important to create a sense of belonging.”

Public relations can use campaigns for good to help create a more inclusive and accepting atmosphere for all groups. This can extend past the LGBTQ+ community and include creating promotions with a diverse group of people of different races, cultural backgrounds, body types and disabilities.

The growing challenge of Kidfluencers

In the advertising and public relations fields, children present a unique challenge. According to a Statista report in 2021, advertisers spent $2.9 billion worldwide on digital advertising targeting children. The latest trend in children’s media consumption revolves around kid influencers who are paid by companies to play with toys or promote their products. Not only do child influencers affect the young people watching, but it is uncertain how this phenomenon will affect the kid influencers themselves in later years.

Steven Holiday, an advertising professor at The University of Alabama, questioned, “If a brand has used a child to be a kid influencer in either advertising or public relations to represent their brand, can they have an independent identity separate from that? We don’t know because the use of children in advertising and PR is constantly evolving. As those children grow up, what effects will that have on their own independent social identity?”

Steven Holiday

It is vital for the PR industry to consider the well-being of children and their privacy. Public relations campaigns can have long-term effects, and it is important to consider the trajectory that media exposure can give a child. Publicists should gain consent from the parents and children and highlight what an ad or campaign can mean for a kid in the future.

Transparency in PR

Holiday also underscored the importance of clarity and accountability in advertising and PR campaigns.

“Children don’t understand that there’s some kind of persuasive or selling intent tied behind advertisements or kid influencer videos,” said Holiday. “So ethically there needs to be some kind of intervention. For example, saying ‘Hey, what you’re about to watch is actually an ad for a product’ or a ‘paid promotion’ label on the videos of kid influencers.”

Kids are drawn to content featuring other children, whether it’s a traditional commercial or children enjoying products online. This dynamic makes them vulnerable to the advertising tactics used by brands. Good PR is about building trust and credibility with audiences. By being clear and accountable about the nature of PR campaigns, practitioners can help to ensure that children are not misled or taken advantage of.

The importance of media education

The PR specialists can think of other ways to combat the negative effects of children’s exposure on social media.

Biefield explained, “I think another important component is media education, both for parents and children, and making sure they understand who can see the content and how a digital footprint works. They need to see the positives and negatives associated with social media and understand the risks for kids.”

Some ways to increase media awareness are to expand education on social channels or simply speak to parents and minors about their online presence. It is important to note that kids are not just posting themselves on their social media accounts, but their parents may be posting photos and videos of them without their consent.

Holiday also suggested increasing awareness among parents by explaining kid influencer tactics or an advertisement’s true intention.

“It is different when parents see a disclosure or disclaimer because they can understand an advertisement’s persuasive intent versus a child and so ethically getting a parent involved is important,” Holiday suggested.

Photo by @Suzi Media via Adobe Stock

Parents can mediate the content their children consume and explain an advertisement’s purpose to ensure their children understand the intent behind it. This conversation between parents and children can help children better understand how advertisements work.

Responsible public relations

Publicists have an obligation to protect minors from the dangers of social media and advertising while also helping them grow in the digital age. It is essential for PR specialists to follow ethical guidelines and train families in responsible media consumption. Taking these steps can create a safer digital world for young people.

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