Advocacy Groups Claim Companies Are Using Online Games To Turn Kids Into Tiny Marketers

Playing a game online might seem like an innocent enough activity for a kid, but what if said game is run by McDonald’s and asks for the child’s email address at the end, while encouraging them to share the experience with their friends? That sounds a lot like marketing to kids and using them as tiny marketers without parental consent. So say advocacy groups that are urging the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on companies soliciting email addresses from kids.

There are five big companies the groups have a beef with — McDonald’s and its Happy Meal.com; Turner Broadcasting’s CartoonNetwork.com; General Mills’ ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com; Viacom’s Nick.com and Subway’s SubwayKids.com site.

The consumer advocacy groups filed complaints with the FTC today, urging it to update its 1998 law protecting the privacy of kids on the Internet, reports the Los Angeles Times.

“The FTC should act promptly to stop this commercial exploitation of children,” said the legal counsel for the Center for Digital Democracy, which is spearheading the effort.

So far, Turner Broadcasting says it will review the allegations, while General Mills and Subway claim to be “compliant” with the federal law. Viacom wouldn’t comment on the allegations because it hadn’t seen the complaint but that it doesn’t keep email addresses, and McDonald’s apparently has yet to respond.

The FTC is already trying to change laws protecting kids on the Internet in light of the leaps and bounds made by technology since the law was first written. It announced earlier this month that it wants to make changes to the law, so that sites geared toward kids won’t be able to farm kids’ data and market to them until they’re 14.

The groups are taking issue with “fun” activities on the sites where kids are able to share whatever game they just played with a friend, who then gets an email urging them to check it out. Peer pressure!

“Such tell-a-friend campaigns, a powerful form of word-of-mouth marketing traditionally directed at teens and adults, are inherently unfair and deceptive when aimed at children who often aren’t aware that they are being asked to generate advertising messages,” the groups said.

The total of 14 groups want the FTC to stop such refer-a-friend practices, as they don’t ask for parental permission first to share email addresses of friends. There’s also the issue of storing things like kids’ photos they might upload on certain sites as part of whatever activity they’re participating, “in unprotected, publicly accessible directories.” In short — creepsters might be watching.

FTC urged to bolster online privacy protection for children [Los Angeles Times]