Ethics Alert Series

Marketing and Protecting Children

By Senny Boone

The young consumer is digital savvy and immersed in social media, offering marketers an opportunity to further enrich their experiences in a safe and effective manner. This ethics update focuses on the pitfalls to avoid when marketing to children as well as provides you with key tips for how to do so in an effective, respectful, and safe manner.


The young consumer is an attractive audience for brands with products and services aimed at these demographics. Youth actively participate in newer technology and social networks as digital natives having grown up in a time when digital apps reign. In 2020, about 18% of the U.S. population fell into the 0-14 age category (, and according to a 2018 Pew research study, 13–17-year-old individuals are extremely active with digital media — 45% reported being online constantly and 97% using a social media platform like Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.

However, with this opportunity to market products and services directed for this younger audience comes great responsibility since this younger audience mainly views online content without supervision. It is essential for marketers to do their homework from both an ethical and legal perspective before engaging in such campaigns. When communicating and engaging with youth, marketers must ensure they understand the fundamentals of protecting children while expanding their younger audiences to safely enrich their experiences without exposing them to harm. Our society has long recognized the need to protect children and responsible marketing is an essential component. In addition to industry self-regulatory guidelines and practices, federal and state laws offer a complex set of protections for children and their parents and caretakers.


As you'll see from the following examples, marketers need to carefully review their practices and provide appropriate safeguards before engaging in marketing campaigns that are directed to younger audiences.

Instagram & Teen Self-Esteem

Facebook is now under pressure to make changes to its practices based on internal documents that indicate it is aware of the potential harm to children's self-esteem and body image, especially among young girls.

According to the report, researchers warned Instagram that its Explore page, the page which serves users' curated posts from a wide range of accounts, can push users into content that can be harmful to their well-being. For example, social posts about trying severe dieting to look super-skinny can lead to anorexia and a loss of self-worth in young teenage girls who seek to portray these stereotypes for personal affirmation.

The app also has a culture of posting only the best pictures and moments, and it operates as an addictive product to drive traffic and sales. Marketers need to be aware of these negative affects and ensure they are not contributing to or further fostering through ads that can add to these stereotypes.

E-Cigarettes & Youth Vaping

The marketing of fruit-flavored e-cigarettes with nicotine is leading to an upswell in teenage use of these products which can be harmful to their health. According to Tobacco-Free Kids, over 2 million kids reported using e-cigarettes even as the pandemic led to school closures and offering youth an addictive product to cope with stressful times.

  • Kids aren't just experimenting with e-cigarettes. Many are using these products most days or every day, a sure sign they're becoming addicted. In 2021, 43.6% of high school e-cigarette users vaped on at least 20 days a month, and 27.6% reported vaping every single day.
  • Flavored products are driving this epidemic. In fact, 85% of youth e-cigarette users use flavored products, with fruit, candy/desserts/other sweets, mint, and menthol reported as the most popular flavors.

E-cigarettes pose serious risks to the health of young people:

  • The U.S. Surgeon General has concluded that youth use of nicotine in any form, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug and can harm adolescent brain development, particularly the parts of the brain responsible for attention, memory and learning. The Surgeon General also found that using nicotine in adolescence can increase risk of future addiction to other drugs.
  • Juul and other e-cigarettes deliver massive doses of nicotine, putting youth users at greater risk of addiction. Each Juul pod (cartridge of nicotine) contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes.
  • Studies have found that young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to become smokers, and many are low-risk youth who would not have otherwise smoked cigarettes.

Children & Social Media Influencers:

Children's nutritional choices can be affected by their viewing/following of popular social media influencers. When viewing certain influencers' videos, unhealthy v. healthier food choices were prevalent among young viewers. Also, "kidfluencers" are a big trend with under-age children being paid to promote products and services online, a marketplace estimated to reach $15 billion by 2022.

With these examples in mind, marketers should understand they have special obligations to foster a safe online environment for children to ensure their safety and well-being and to not foster products or use data practices that can lead to harm.


Responsible marketers and regulators have come forward over the years to develop key guideposts to protect children including:


Although the digital realm can be overwhelming at times, you can have a positive and meaningful impact on improving the advertising practices and policies directed at children. Best practices include:

  • Consent: Ensuring parental consent and the transparency of terms and conditions;
  • Content Review: Reviewing and declining content that may be unsafe and/or addictive for children and fostering unachievable stereotypes that leads to anxiety and/or may cause them to get addicted to harmful products;
  • Data Practices: Obtaining advance permission (parental or caretaker) if permitted for collection for regulated ages (13-16 depending on the law) and strongly protecting information in your care and not sharing it with any third party without parental consent – these are essential as part of secure and safe data practices.
  • Taking Action: For questions/comments, please contact the Ethics team at, or to report a potential ethical or legal violation, please submit the information via this complaint form.

If you have questions or want to get more involved in marketing and ethics, please contact We look forward to working with you in our shared efforts to ensure good business practices, consumer protection in the marketplace, and consumer trust by providing accountability.

Senny Boone Esq. | ANA Center for Ethical Marketing


"Marketing and Protecting Children." ANA, 2022.