We have used new monitoring technology in the form of child ‘avatars’ - online profiles which simulate children’s browsing activity - to identify ads that children see online. As a consequence, we have already taken action to ban ads from five gambling operators which were served to child avatars on children’s websites in clear breach of the UK Advertising Codes.
Over a two week monitoring period last year we identified ads by 43 gambling operators in non-logged-in, online environments. Five of those gambling operators, NetEnt Product Ltd (Vikings Video Slot), Evoke Gaming Ltd (RedBet), Multilotto UK Ltd, Platinum Gaming Ltd (Unibet) and Skill On Net Ltd (PlayOjo), broke the strict advertising rules which prohibit gambling ads being targeted at under-18s.
We collected data on the 10,754 times that ads were served to the child avatars (ad impressions*) across 24 children’s websites and 20 open-access YouTube channels. In total, we found:
- Gambling ads were served to the child avatars on 11 of the children’s websites monitored
- 23 individual gambling ads were seen by the child avatars on those 11 children’s websites a combined total of 151 times – 1.40% of the total ad impressions
- One gambling operator (Vikings Video Slot) was responsible for 10 ads and 122 of the ad impressions (81% of the 151)
- No gambling ads were served on any of the open-access YouTube channels included in the research
The gambling operators have accepted their ads broke the rules. In most instances, we were informed that the problems arose due to errors by third-party companies who served the campaigns on behalf of the operators. We have instructed the companies to take immediate action to review their online ads, ensure they are not served to web users aged below 18 years of age through the selection of media or context in which they appear and to put in place measures to ensure this does not happen again.
We are now exploring whether this monitoring and enforcement approach can be extended to logged-in environments like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
We worked with an expert data and analytics firm to create seven online avatars. Their profiles were designed to reflect the browsing characteristics of children aged 6-7, 8-12 and 16, an adult, a person of an indeterminate age, and a profile reflecting the browsing behaviour of an adult and a child using the same device.
This strand of work heralds the beginning of a new phase in our regulation with the use of technology helping to better protect children and vulnerable groups online. The new approach is part of wider efforts to ensure action can be taken against irresponsible ads without the need for members of the public to raise a complaint.
The findings from the avatar research provide a snapshot of the ads that children are seeing online, with invaluable data and real examples of where ads for age-restricted products are appearing. They are also enabling us to take speedy action to enforce the rules in respect of the small number of ads which are found to be targeted irresponsibly.
We will now interrogate the monitoring data further and report later this year in more detail. Further work with child avatars will be undertaken to monitor exposure to online ads for high fat, salt or sugar food and drink products, and alcohol.
Our Chief Executive Guy Parker said:
“Online ads are subject to the same strict rules that apply elsewhere and this important new monitoring capability delivers on our commitment to having more impact online. It’s already allowed us to spot a problem with a small number of gambling operators and take quick and effective action to ensure children are protected from irresponsibly-targeted gambling ads. We’re already looking at expanding this work, as well as exploring how other new technologies can help us protect the public.”