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Advertising & Algorithms: Conversations that Help Kids Become Informed Digital Consumers


The Phone Book By Jessica Speer

Like many parents, I’ve been trying to figure out how to raise kids with healthy and safe digital habits. This piqued my curiosity as a children's book writer with a social sciences background. Could I write a book to help kids become more informed tech consumers? A book that dives into safe and healthy digital habits, too?


The idea percolated in my head for months until I watched the documentary, The Social Dilemma. This movie and its exploration of tech's darker, complex side inspired me to begin. So I started researching for the book I titled, The Phone Book.


There were many topics I wanted to explore in this yet-to-be-written book for preteens and early teens. Everything from privacy and digital reputations to digital drama, cyberbullying, social media, disinformation, and more. With so many important topics to cover, where do I begin?


Why Tech Companies Want to Keep Us on Screens


Like many corporations, technology companies aim to expand their reach and profits. Advertising and algorithms are some tactics tech companies use to achieve these goals. Understanding this business model helps kids (and adults) become more informed tech consumers. So Chapter One of The Phone Book grew into “Why Tech Companies Want You Staring at Your Screen.”


Family Conversation Starters About Advertising


Conversations about the tech business model are an excellent way for parents to discuss technology and screens with their kids, too. Let’s start with advertising. Social media, video games, YouTube, and other apps need eyes on their platforms, including kids' eyes, to maximize profits. The more time kids spend on screens, the more money these companies make from advertisers who use their platforms to sell products.


Studies have found that by the time a child is 13 years old, ad tech firms have gathered millions of data points on them, which they can use for targeted ads or sell to third parties. Essentially, screentime + ads sold to companies = $$$ for tech companies.


Here are some conversation starters to explore online advertising with your family:

  • What have you noticed about the ads appearing in video games or your feed?

  • What type of ads (i.e., toys, clothing, food, etc.) do you often see online? Why do you think that is?

  • Have some of these ads made you want to buy the product? What made these ads so effective?

Family Conversation Starters About Algorithms


Now let’s talk about algorithms. Social media networks, web browsers, and sites like YouTube use algorithms to feed us content based on what content we have engaged with in the past. For example, if you watch fitness content on TikTok, that algorithm will continue to show related content until you lose interest. One downside of algorithms is that they can keep kids in a rabbit hole of harmful content, such as content related to diet culture and disordered eating.


To safeguard against this, remind kids that they can curate their feed in a way that positively impacts their mood, well-being, and self-esteem. For example, they can follow inspiring people making positive changes in the world rather than influencers and people who make them feel bad about themselves.


Here are some conversation starters to explore algorithms with your family:

  1. Does your feed and/or YouTube show you the content you like to see? What have you noticed about this?

  2. What app or platform do you think has the best algorithm? Why do you think that is?

  3. Has your feed ever gone in a direction that had a negative impact on your mood? Did you do anything in response to this?


Regular Family Conversations About How Tech


Whether your child is 6 or 16, regular family conversations about the positives and negatives of technology help kids navigate the complexities of the online world. Parents and caregivers play an important role in helping kids develop safe and healthy digital habits. When parents stay curious and ask open-ended, nonjudgemental questions, we can better understand what our kids are doing and seeing on their screens. With The Phone Book arriving in bookstores soon, I hope it offers another resource that helps kids form healthy, informed digital habits.


About Jessica Speer:

Author Jessica Speer

Jessica Speer is the author of books for kids and teens, including The Phone Book - Stay Safe, Be Smart, and Make the World Better with the Powerful Device in Your Hand. She is also the author of the award-winning BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships and Middle School - Safety Goggles Advised, both of which grew from her work with kids.


Blending science, stories, and fun activities, her writing unpacks tricky stuff that surfaces during childhood and adolescence. She has a Master's Degree in Social Sciences and a knack for writing about complex topics in ways that connect with kids. Jessica regularly contributes to media outlets on content related to kids, parenting, friendship, and social-emotional learning. For more information, visit www.JessicaSpeer.com

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