On Thursday, children’s privacy and health advocacy groups petitioned the FTC to craft rules prohibiting online platforms from using user-engagement techniques that manipulate children. According to the petition, a vast majority of apps, games, and services used by minors generate revenue primarily via advertising that employs techniques that detract from their overall wellbeing.

The coalition of more than 20 groups, including Fairplay and the Center for Digital Democracy, expressed concerns over tactics such as autoplay, reward notifications, endless scroll, and strategically timed advertisements, arguing that such practices serve the interests of platforms and advertisers – not children. Design features like these, they said, are integral to gaming and social media companies’ business models, and often transform minors’ online experience a harmful one.

The petition asserts that autoplay and strategically timed advertisements, for example, make it difficult for kids to navigate online websites or services because they either 1) keep the user on one content stream to exclude other content, or 2) employ pop-up ads to block the user from moving forward. Interactive advertisements, petitioners said, go even further by compelling users to click or “play” in an ad to continue gameplay, despite neither the video nor “game” being part of the actual service.

Petitioners also alleged that harms arise from design practices that maximize young users’ time and activities online -- including impacting theirmental and physical health.

Last month, the FTC hosted a virtual event on “Protecting Kids from Stealth Advertising in Digital Media,” providing insights from researchers, child development experts, and others into children’s advertising. The event’s speakers explored the techniques used to advertise to children online, recognizing the harms involved and discussing possible protective measures and solutions.

There have also been recent efforts to curb online harms to children, including the enactment of California’s Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, and proposals such as the Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act and the Kids Online Safety Act.

“The FTC must act to stop the use of these harmful practices on minors,” the petition states. “Without FTC intervention, these practices will continue and likely will intensify, becoming only more tailored to an individual.”