January 6, 2013 Linnette Attai

As 2012 came to a close, the children’s media and marketing industries saw a flurry of activity from the Federal Trade Commission. In December alone, we saw reports on mobile apps (“Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade”) an updated Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, and a new report on food marketing to children and adolescents. None of these were unexpected, and savvy industry experts were well-positioned with business practices and plans that allowed them to continue operating smoothly as others make adjustments to adhere to the new rules.

Regardless of how you are currently positioned, the start of the new year is a good time to assess your guidelines and standards, and to look ahead to the issues that are going to be top of mind with regulators and self-regulators in the future. What sorts of concerns can we expect to dominate our industry in 2013? Here’s a sampling of what’s coming:

Privacy: There are a whole host of privacy-related issues that will continue to draw attention from regulators, self-regulators and advocacy groups. As mentioned above, there’s an updated COPPA rule on the books, and by July 1, site operators will need to be compliant. But here’s one catch: the definition of “operator” has been expanded, as has the definition of “website or online service directed to children.” So, even if COPPA didn’t apply to your business in the past, be sure you understand the changes to the law. You might have some work to do.

In addition to adjusting websites, policies and practices, those in the mobile space should be particularly alert. The FTC has expressed strong dissatisfaction with privacy and transparency practices in mobile app products and marketing. They issued two reports and a set of guidelines in 2012. If you don’t know what the requirements are when creating and marketing your app, or if you know what the requirements are but haven’t aligned your practices yet, you’ll want to address that. Now. The next time we hear from the FTC on this issue, we expect it will be to announce a COPPA violation or an allegation of deceptive trade practices. Take the necessary steps to be sure that’s not you.

Safety: Sadly, 2012 seemed to be the year that cyberbullying became a household term. Cyberbullying has been defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”

If you’re the operator of a site, app or other service that allows teens to engage socially, are you comfortable that you’re doing everything you can to prevent cyberbullying on your platform? What about protecting young users from other predatory behaviors? A particularly important note for new developers: just because you intend your site or service to be used in a certain way, that doesn’t mean that users will play along. Community building takes time, effort and attention. So before you launch, kick the tires – hard – on all of your safety practices.

Obesity: There are conflicting views on whether or not food marketing is a cause of childhood obesity. Regardless of your point of view, marketers can’t ignore the issue. It’s a global dilemma, and despite industry progress on the self-regulatory front, the latest FTC report, along with regulatory efforts overseas will ensure that the issue remains in the spotlight this year.

Just last month, the FTC stated that “the food industry can – and should – make further progress in using its marketing ingenuity and product portfolio to address childhood obesity” and that “industry self-regulation should continue its focus on improving the nutritional profile of the food marketed to children.”

If you’re in the business of marketing food or beverages to children and adolescents, be sure you understand the regulations, self-regulations and different perspectives on the issue.

Violence: Sadly, due to recent events, the question of whether or not violence in media impacts and influences real-world violence is one that we need to explore. This is not new territory, but there is new dialogue happing around it and a call for another study on the impact of violent video games and programming on children. If you are a content creator or distributor, or if your business sits in the movie, music, video game or toy industry, this issue touches your world.

Are you comfortable with the content you’re creating for children? Does it stand on its own merits and represent your brand appropriately? Now is a good time to assess your standards and be sure your policies are providing the appropriate guidance for your company.

Mobile Monetization: New technology provides all of us with the ability to complete purchases without physical cash or credit cards. With a simple password, we can buy real or imaginary goods through a phone and tablet. Fast, convenient…and very complicated when the purchaser ends up being a child. As “freemium” continues to shine as an effective mobile app business model, attention needs to be paid to the economies, parental controls and messaging that we build around purchasing. Remember, the FTC is looking very closely at mobile apps for children, and so far, they’re not pleased on a number of fronts. One child racking up excessive purchases through an app will be the quickest route to more regulatory attention. Take steps now to be sure you’re not at risk.

These are just some of the issues that the children’s media and marketing industries will be wrestling with over the next year. In addition, expect to see self-regulatory attention paid to advergaming, social media marketing, behavioral targeting and data security.

Are you ready?