NEWS15 December 2009

Government report raises concerns over research with children

UK— A government-commissioned report on the impact of the commercial world on children’s wellbeing has highlighted concerns over the use of “potentially intrusive” market research techniques.

The report, by a team led by Professor David Buckingham of the University of London, highlights the large amounts being spent by marketers on research looking at children, and raises concerns over ethics and privacy in the use of new and “potentially intrusive” techniques.

Among the research methods cited are those that involve studying children in their homes, and ‘cool hunting’ – recruiting children to inform marketers about current trends in their peer group.

“While there is a long history of market research in this field, concern has been expressed that children are being recruited for market research at an ever-younger age, that the aims of such research are not always clearly explained, and that there are violations of privacy as researchers are increasingly keen on studying children in their ‘natural habitat’ of the home or the peer group,” the report says.

It also raises questions about online research techniques, highlighting concerns that data mining undermines children’s right to privacy online. Concerns are also raised about the privacy implications of new marketing techniques that are “more personalised and more participatory”.

The points made echo comments earlier this year from Ed Mayo, CEO of Consumer Focus, who said that some online techniques used to research and market to children were “insidious and downright creepy”.

Professor Buckingham’s report says that the debate on children’s wellbeing is often polarised and sensationalised, and that evidence of the effects of the commercial world on children is “rarely conclusive”. The public is not currently well informed about the ethical concerns and threats to privacy posed by marketing techniques, and “existing regulation is insufficient in some respects”, it states.

The report welcomes steps being taken to address these issues, including revisions to the MRS Code of Conduct and guidelines for research with children. However, it says, “It is not clear how far [voluntary codes of practice such as the MRS code] would be able to deal with what some critics see as more ‘intrusive’ forms of market research with children.”

The latest version of the code, which takes effect on 1 April 2010, tightens the rules for interviewing children, removing a previous exemption from the requirement for parental consent to interview children aged 14 or over in public places. Specific guidelines for research with children and young people will be revised early next year in the light of changes to the code and legislative developments.

The report, entitled ‘The impact of the commercial world on children’s wellbeing’, was commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and is available online here.