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Fears rise as kids spend even more time on digital media

Media and tech giants are swarming the kids entertainment space, hoping to capitalize on the dramatic increase in screen time during the past year.

Why it matters: As streaming and digital gaming become more popular, new concerns are rising about kids' privacy and susceptibility to tactics designed to keep them hooked on screens.

Driving the news: Last week's blockbuster IPO of Roblox, a game that's popular among older kids and teens, revived growing concerns about ways in which the kid-friendly game can inadvertently lead to addiction, cyberbullying and abuse.

  • The New York Times summed it up nicely last year in a piece titled "My Kid Sold Her Soul to Roblox."
  • "When the actual world stopped being a place where children could go and meet their friends, it’s just the natural order of things that a digital world would pop up to replace it," author Emily Flake wrote.

How it works: Roblox isn't one game. It's a platform in which users can create their own games and make them accessible to other users. While this makes Roblox extremely social, the ability to build new games and features also means it's hard to put down.

  • The company's CEO said last year that roughly three-quarters of American children age 9-12 use Roblox monthly, per NPR.
  • The game is also capitalizing on a growing trend of social media and tech platforms connecting fans with creators directly, and providing fans with ways to pay their favorite creators within the app.
  • Nightmare stories have emerged of parents waking up to giant credit card bills from kids making dozens of in-app purchases — buying things like digital avatar skins or virtual items.

Be smart: School-aged children and teens do not fully understand the complexity of how their digital data is collected and used for ad-targeting purposes, and laws protecting childrens' privacy are outdated and weakly enforced, said Nusheen Ameenuddin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, at a congressional hearing on the topic last week.

  • Kids are also easy targets for features designed to keep them glued to screens, according to Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel for Common Sense Media.
  • For example, the endless scroll of social media feeds, autoplay on suggested YouTube videos, and in-app purchases or incentives for spending money can take advantage of young audiences, Johnson said.

Where it stands: Some watchdogs are calling on federal enforcers to rein in manipulative and privacy-infringing tactics.

  • Last month, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against the math game company Prodigy Education, accusing the company of deceiving teachers and parents by suggesting the program is free while aggressively marketing a $59 premium membership to children.
  • Some lawmakers are pushing to strengthen the law that protects children's privacy online, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule, that was last updated in 2013.

The big picture: Screen time in general has skyrocketed for kids who are attending school remotely and stuck at home more during the pandemic.

  • Specifically, time spent on YouTube and gaming platforms such as Roblox and Minecraft has significantly accelerated, according to data from SuperAwesome, a kids tech company.
  • While YouTube reigns supreme for kids streaming, may of Hollywoods' biggest companies are also paying big bucks to get in on the action. The majority of kids (52%) surveyed by SuperAwesome in the UK and the US this year said they're "extremely influential" in the choice of video service within their family.

Be smart: Screen limits for children have been hard to implement throughout the pandemic, as more activities from music classes to tutoring have moved online.

  • One study by Dubit Trends found that school work and social media made up the vast majority of the increased screen time from 2019 to 2020.
  • Still, the study showed YouTube usage surged 22%. Another survey of Michigan parents found that one third of adults say their child is distracted during remote classes with apps such as YouTube on their device.

What they're saying: Despite the inevitable reliance on screen time during the pandemic, parents should give cut themselves some slack for loosening limits, Ameenuddin said.

  • While some days may be more screen-heavy, parents can focus on alternative activities like a walk outside or listening to music on other days to help balance it out over the long term.

What to watch: Habits are hard to break.Now that screen time limits have been lifted by parents and the offline and online worlds have blurred for kids, it will be harder for parents to restrict online media consumption once lockdowns are lifted.

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