The ABCs of how online ads can impact children’s well-being

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In today's digital world, ads are practically unavoidable. From pop-up ads on your daily Wordle to sneaky affiliate posts on your favorite social media accounts, we are constantly bombarded with targeted marketing messages promoting products and services – and children are no exception.

While advertising can be a powerful tool for businesses, its impact on young minds is often underestimated and overlooked. Research shows that due to their developing critical reasoning, younger people are more influenced by these ads than adults. And, when you think about how the average teenager spends over 8.5 hours a day looking at screens, you can imagine how the number of ads they see ramps up.

This exposure can lead to multiple problems if not managed and talked about correctly, with tech giants even under pressure to ban ads targeting children entirely.

But what are the risks associated with younger people regularly consuming this targeted messaging, whether they’re aware of it or not? We explore them below…

1. Normalizing inappropriate behaviors

One of the most obvious risks is children being exposed to unsuitable content, products, and services. Whether it's X-rated material or violence, seeing this type of content promoted on even a subconscious level can normalize these behaviors and create a warped sense of what’s appropriate and what’s not.

Research suggests that prolonged exposure to this sort of material can impact the development of the brain's pre-frontal cortex! This can result in increased aggression and inhibitory behavior, which stays with them for life and may get them into trouble in their later years.

2. Distorted perceptions of reality

The messaging from ads, which children tend to accept uncritically, can shape their perceptions of the world around them. With the rise of social media influencers and curated online content, ads often portray an idealized version of reality that may not reflect the complexities of everyday life. For example, with image editing software, AI, and filters galore, young people may regularly be exposed to a skewed idea of what they ‘should’ look like, what they ‘should be eating’, how they ‘should’ behave, and what they ‘should’ be sharing online.

This distortion can lead to unreachable expectations, poor self-esteem, and a warped understanding of societal norms. Enter the rise of eating disorders, anxiety, insomnia, and depression in younger people. Parents or responsible adults must help children critically evaluate media messages and develop a balanced perspective.

3. Encouraging unhealthy habits

When the purpose of ads is to drive sales, the nature of the products or services promoted is important in dictating how they may impact younger people’s consumption habits.

For example, over 85% of teens are exposed to junk food ads on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Worryingly, research shows that increased exposure to this directly correlates to increased consumption of foods higher in salt, sugar, and fat. And it’s not only unhealthy food ads that are a problem: alcohol and tobacco products promoted sneakily across various platforms can lead to bad habits too.

4. In-app purchases and financial risks

The ability to purchase new tokens, points, weapons etc. in mobile games has opened up a new avenue for advertisers to target children. While these purchases may seem harmless at first, they can quickly escalate, leading to substantial charges for parents or whoever is footing the bill.

Special game features, modifications, and virtual currencies entice children (and let’s be honest, adults) to spend real money within apps, often without fully understanding the financial implications (please say I’m not the first one to spend £50 on add-ons unknowingly). There have even been cases of extreme spending where a child spent $16,000 of her parents’ money unknowingly on in-app purchases. Whatever money is spent in these online realms, this extra financial output can strain family budgets and even lead to reckless spending habits later on.

5. Security and privacy risks

Some ads that children may be exposed to can pose significant security and privacy risks. This can be through specific banners, images, or microsites, crafted by cyber criminals to contain malware or lead to phishing scams, putting kids' devices and personal information at risk. Meanwhile, even reputable companies may carry out excessive ad tracking that can compromise children's privacy leading to the collection of sensitive data without parental consent.

Safeguarding against these risks requires robust cybersecurity measures and parental oversight. Parental control tools can be extremely valuable here, empowering parents and guardians with the ability to manage what apps can be downloaded and which websites can be accessed.

How can we support younger people to consume ads in a healthy way?

While the risks may seem daunting, there is plenty that parents and guardians can do to help protect children from the negative impact ad exposure may have. Being proactive in providing support and having awareness of the ongoing risks can help caregivers stay one step ahead of this unavoidable part of everyday life.

Open conversations

Open dialogue and communication play a crucial role in developing digital literacy and resilience. Discussing the potential dangers of advertising can empower younger people to make informed choices on how they receive and interpret ads. With this knowledge and understanding, younger people may be more equipped to reject the skewed reality and unhealthy behaviors idolized in the ads they see.

Tools and resources

In addition to open dialogue, parental control software can serve as a valuable tool in managing children's online experiences. Solutions like ESET's Parental Control for Android offer app blocking, web filtering, and screen time management, allowing parents and guardians to tailor children's digital environment to their specific needs and concerns. Using these tools alongside proactive communication, parents can create a safer and more secure online environment for their children.

The influence of ads on children's well-being cannot be overstated. From promoting questionable content to posing financial, security, and privacy risks, ads present multiple dangers for young minds. However, with vigilant parental oversight, open communication, and appropriate technological safeguards, parents and guardians can help mitigate these risks and empower their children to navigate the digital world safely and responsibly.

About ESET

For 30 years, ESET® has been developing industry-leading IT security software and services for businesses and consumers worldwide. With solutions ranging from endpoint and mobile security, to encryption and two-factor authentication, ESET’s high-performing, easy-to-use products give consumers and businesses the peace of mind to enjoy the full potential of their technology. ESET unobtrusively protects and monitors 24/7, updating defenses in real-time to keep users safe and businesses running without interruption. Evolving threats require an evolving IT security company. Backed by R&D centers worldwide, ESET becomes the first IT security company to earn 100 Virus Bulletin VB100 awards, identifying every single “in-the-wild” malware without interruption since 2003. For more information visit or follow us on  FacebookYouTube and Twitter.