An exploration into the wild west of online video, where children are exposed to ads and product placements through the never ending stream of content flowing from their screens

By Jared Hameloth

Have you ever wondered why your younger sister stares at her iPad endlessly for hours, scrolling and clicking through YouTube videos of her favorite vloggers? Or why your nephew always wears a hoodie that reads “team 10” on the front, regardless of weather conditions?

The answers to these questions are complex and affect many aspects of adolescent—and even adult—lives. They involve the way in which we consume any form of content, be it traditional television broadcasts, novels, or vlogs by YouTube celebrities. They involve who remains in control of the platform this content is viewed on, and who takes responsibly for wrongdoing. These answers paint a story of manipulation, consumer-building habits, and regulation-free spaces where anything goes. One of the main answers to these questions revolve around one idea: parasocial relationships.

While “parasocial relationships” may seem like a buzzword used in academic articles trying to explain the modern phenomenon of why tween girls love beauty vloggers on YouTube, the idea of it remains paramount to how online video services operate and profit. These relationships have implications that reach into the regulation of content directed towards children, and even into how these regulations affect children’s buying habits.

Parasocial relationships and their consequences

Parasocial relationships occur when a viewer bonds with a character presented in any form of media. These connections are felt most strongly by children due to the developing nature of social behavior humans form in our early years.

These relationships can include young children confiding in their stuffed animals, feeling emotions that the characters feel in novels, and wanting to emulate behaviors seen on TV. At their most basic level, parasocial relationships are one-sided connections to a character or person presented in media. Our social brains automatically form these ties with characters we perceive, making their creation involuntary.

Dr. Jason Baker, an associate professor of psychology and graduate program coordinator at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, helps explain these relationships and how they occur at a basic level. “For adolescents in particular, their reward system works differently. To quote the Sheryl Crow song: ‘the first cut is the deepest.’ That may seem like a triteism, but the idea is that because our prefrontal cortex and our higher cortical areas aren’t as well developed, our limbic system—which is responsible for registering our emotions—drives with the top down.”

Baker says that put simply, young children are affected very strongly by these connections because there is a strong emotional component in relating to characters. He notes that these characters can be in any medium: characters in books, TV shows, video games, and YouTube videos. But he also brought up that at the most fundamental level, children create connections with anything. “Young kids will animate almost anything in real life. They’ll see things in clouds and even confide in their teddy bears.”

“Young kids will animate almost anything in real life. They’ll see things in clouds and even confide in their teddy bears”

One of the main drives for these relationships is in how children constantly seek out role models. Baker says that the internet and online video specifically have made these tendencies even more proliferate: “They’re looking for models in their lives. The ability to have screens in front of them all the time and seek out these people—there’s just a plethora of opportunities to find somebody that is desirable who can serve as a model.”

Fred Rogers used puppet characters to communicate with children and form a connection with his young audience.

Perhaps the most famous example of the use of these relationships is Fred Rogers and his puppets. In his world of make believe, he presented stories and ideas easily accessible to children because they could create bonds with the characters. This allowed Mister Rogers to reach out to children and help them understand the world and present new information through trustworthy neighborhood friends.

By using children’s characters like puppets (and Rogers himself was a character that children related to heavily), he was able to establish very strong parasocial relationships with his audience. As mentioned, the implications of these relationships are far reaching and can have many consequences.

In “The Good Neighbor,” Maxwell King explores the limits that Fred Rogers set on advertisements running between his shows. Rogers was disgusted by the way that commercials were infiltrating children’s educational television and refused to let ads run between segments. He was a big proponent of commercial-free kids TV, which was one of the main reasons he never took up any offers to move “The Neighborhood” to a private station. 

His stewardship of the minds of his young viewers was built from an understanding of child psychology of the time; he purposefully rejected ads and commercial buys knowing that children are more susceptible to messages from characters in the show. Rogers knew, and Dr. Baker notes that “these stories can be very compelling and kids can be taken into that environment very directly.” 

Because of the intentional relationship Rogers created between his characters and his audience, he had a lot of leverage over that relationship. He used his connection to help children learn about the world and never tried to use his position to sell products through characters. While selling merchandise to kids is not inherently bad (think of all the fun kids have with stuffed animals based on television characters such as Daniel Tiger), Rogers knew the weight of the responsibility and stayed clear of the profit-making game.

The anti Mister Rogers

But not all actors have the same motives as Rogers. More recent uses of parasocial relationships have been through social platforms like YouTube. Although not many shows exist on the site that resemble “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in form, all content on the site still incorporates connections and relationships with characters. Maybe one of the most proliferate examples of a modern creator using their relationship with their audience for financial gain is Jake Paul.

For those unfamiliar with Paul, most would congratulate you for your ignorance. He remains one of the biggest targets within the YouTube community regarding manipulating his audience into buying his “merch,” and has been the subject of many entertainment-focused articles regarding the drama with his fellow creators.

Jake Paul, pictured above, creates content for a young YouTube audience.

He is a former Disney Channel actor who started a YouTube channel to capitalize on his fame. He vlogs about his life and music career, often in tandem with his brother Logan. He often films himself doing stunts or showing off his house and wealth, and became even more of a celebrity when his music video “Everyday Bro” went viral. The video repeats lines about how wealthy and cool the YouTuber lifestyle is, painting a life his viewers might want to emulate.

Since his explosion into internet stardom, Paul has filmed his life of success for his young viewers to enjoy. According to Megan Farokhmanesh from The Verge, Paul has been criticized for tagging his videos as family-friendly to cater to the YouTube algorithm (so that his videos aren’t blocked to younger viewers), but also includes “sexy girls” in thumbnails and titles. This attracts a younger male audience that would be interested in clicking a video like that.

Where he falls into trouble with parents of these young audience members is in how often he “plugs” his merch; Farokhmanesh examined one of Paul’s videos while noting how he advertised his store and found that, “the YouTuber relentlessly plugs his merch, tour, music, and more in nearly half of a 14-minute video.” Along with that, the first link in his videos’ descriptions are always to his merch store.

In defense of marketing videos to children and then marketing merchandise to those viewers, Paul has said that “it’s fucking stupid that people think that’s manipulative . . . I don’t see a problem with it at all,” according to an interview on The Verge.

But the science behind parasocial relationships points toward evidence in the opposite direction of Paul’s position. Whether he intends to form these relationships where his young audience looks up to him and wants to recreate his glamorous lifestyle for themselves, the connections are made and the kids watching have almost no control in looking up to him once they are attached.

“it’s fucking stupid that people think that’s manipulative . . . I don’t see a problem with it at all”

Because of this dynamic, children may be more willing to buy merchandise from a creator like Paul that they trust, and might be more inclined to use a service promoted and linked to in a video’s description. Dr. Baker says that regarding how much content creators like Paul upload (3-5 videos a week, each 10-30 minutes long), young viewers start to “have a familial quality with the characters in the video because they’ve shared so much time with them.”

Exploring the differences between these two approaches taken by Rogers and Paul brings to light issues surrounding regulating these forms of advertisements in children’s content. How much should online video sites be allowed to market merch stores to children with direct links to those stores right underneath the video? The FCC regulates ad times on children’s programming for broadcast television, but has no reach into online video streaming services like YouTube.

How FCC rules affect children’s content on YouTube

While some mention using Federal Communications Commission guidelines to regulate children’s programming as a possible solution to protect kids from being over-exposed to advertisements on YouTube, issues surrounding regulation may be more complicated. 

According to the FCC website, there are specific rules surrounding whether links can be shown during kids broadcast television: “website addresses during programs directed to children ages 12 and under is permitted only if the website meets the following criteria.” These stipulations include restrictions mostly aimed towards content or services “primarily intended for commercial purposes.” They outline that the “page of the website that viewers are directed to is not used for e-commerce, advertising or other commercial purposes.” It also requires a limited amount of advertisement time between shows targeted towards children: ad time is limited to “10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.” Compliance with these rules are mandated through “FCC Form 2100 Schedule H,” and reports from major broadcasters are made public every year. 

FCC Chairman Genachowski swears in Ajit Pai as a new commissioner at the FCC headquarters in Washington, DC. Pai currently holds the position of chairman at the commission.

But YouTube has much different standards for regulating links being shown to children. The FCC doesn’t regulate content being shown to children on “edge providers” (websites and streaming services that compete with broadcast and cable stations, but haven’t been around long to see regulations put in place), and only steps in when children’s privacy is violated under traditional FCC rules.

In September, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that Google LLC and YouTube LLC had to pay $170 million “to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York Attorney General that the YouTube video sharing service illegally collected personal information from children without their parents’ consent.”

YouTube violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rules which state that websites directed to children must inform users of how and if they collect information, such as “persistent identifiers to track a user’s internet browsing habits for targeted advertising.” The rules require parental consent for these websites to track information from users under 13 years old. YouTube was caught up in these violations because it advertised its popularity with children to clients and corporate creators while not complying with these standards. They allowed large toy companies to create individual channels with targeted content for children, and because of this, these specific channels fell under the rules of COPPA.

How this affects creators and content on the site is in the way that the FTC defines channels on YouTube. It says that the rules for independent creators “apply in the same way it would if the channel owner had its own website or app.” Meaning that if the videos uploaded on the channel are geared towards kids, COPPA applies.

The Federal Trade Commission says that “there is no one-size-fits-all answer about what makes a site directed to children, but we can offer some guidance.” The criteria for how videos and channels are labelled include: “the subject matter, visual content, the use of animated characters or child-oriented activities and incentives, the kind of music or other audio content, or the presence of child celebrities or celebrities who appeal to children.” 

The FTC notes that there are broad exceptions, like just because it’s an animated video doesn’t mean it’s automatically targeted at children (think South Park). Because of this, it recommends that creators who are making content specifically for children should either communicate with YouTube that that is their primary content and goal, or note it somewhere in their channel’s “about” page.

One of the main takeaways from how the FTC enforces privacy protections on YouTube is actually in how they don’t protect almost anything else. It has no guidelines regarding links in video descriptions that take viewers to online merch stores or websites used for “other commercial purposes.” And they offer no rules to keep the amount of direct advertisement “plugs” (the characters in a video asking viewers to buy something) to a limited amount for content made for those under 13. 

Michael O’Rielly, one of the four commissioners for the Federal Communications Commission, authored a page on the official FCC blog titled “FCC Regulatory Free Arena.” In his 2018 piece, he discussed the limited scope of what their commission actually has the power to regulate, along with his feelings on what should be done.

“This rapid development and momentous shift of consumer preferences toward application-centric offerings [online video streaming apps like YouTube], requires the Commission to evolve its overall approach.” He talks about how the commission shouldn’t “spend one more minute” revising rules regarding old technology like cable television before it introduces a plan to fix the online video streaming wild west.

O’Rielly gives a list of the biggest unregulated players in their fields lined up nicely by category, which can be seen to the right. These include social media platforms, streaming services and even cloud storage systems. His conclusion on how to handle these new entities in the market is that: “the only logical take-away from this information is to either support greater deregulation of FCC regulatees that must compete with these services or advocate for new Congressional powers to regulate these services, which would seem futile and unnecessary.”

He brings up expanding video streaming numbers and monetary take-ins over the past few years by these services to bring home his point. He mentions that online services are so lucrative and competitive that they disrupt the power the FCC has across the board. “The need for the Commission’s regulatory structures (and therefore its relevance and function) are fading like that of a snowman in springtime.”

“The only logical take-away from this information is to either support greater deregulation of FCC regulatees that must compete with these services or advocate for new Congressional powers to regulate these services, which would seem futile and unnecessary”

O’Rielly calls the space these services occupy a “regulatory free arena,” but that’s only true for content. As mentioned, congress did enact COPPA to help protect children’s privacy online. The rules outlined in these protection affect all aspects of the internet, as can be seen by the lawsuit against Google LLC. But while YouTube itself is creating ways for channels to now abide by COPPA rules, protections for advertising to kids remains a field day for creators like Jake Paul because of the FCC’s limited scope. This leaves a wide open marketing opportunity for creators like Paul to use parasocial relationships to their advantage.

The developing consumer

Because young kids can be affected so strongly by relationships built through fictional and virtual characters, giving children unlimited access to these manipulations isn’t the greatest idea. An example of this from the land of Jake Paul comes in the form of him promoting a gambling website to his audience.

Anthony Cuthbertson from the Independent (along with many other publications) reported earlier this year that Paul and other popular YouTubers were sponsored by the website Mystery Brand, which “encourages visitors to gamble between $2 and $1,300 to win mystery items.” 

They made videos showing themselves using this service and winning prizes such as an iPhone XS and Yeezy brand shoes within the first couple tries of “opening” the boxes virtually. Many on YouTube criticized the creators who promoted these boxes, citing that although not technically illegal (or technically gambling either, since it’s a mystery box and not a slot machine), it was highly unethical to promote to children.

This screenshot from Paul’s “mystery box” video shows how he links to the website directly underneath. Throughout the video, he is seen promoting the site and becoming giddy from all the prizes he wins.

Dr. Baker comments on this form of manipulation by creators using their status to make buying products seem like it will improve their viewers’ lives. “The immediate effect of having ten-year-olds and eleven-year-olds seeking out their parents and believing that this [buying merch from YouTubers who they like] is a pathway towards fill in the blank: happiness, satisfaction, better social desirability—is particularly pernicious.”

He notes that when these characters on the screen are so trusted by young viewers, their power to influence actions can be quite strong. “There is this ability to get way beyond the old testimonials from one famous wealthy person; rather it’s coming from this person you spend all this time with, almost like a brother or a sister.” This is known as the mirror exposure effect in psychology: “if you are exposed to something more often, you are more likely to gain familiarity with it and have social desirability to it,” explains Baker.

This brings up an interesting dynamic between traditional broadcast restrictions and COPPA rules. FCC regulations make note that website links used for e-commerce are prohibited to be shown during children’s programming, while part of COPPA’s definition for what constitutes children’s content online includes: “child-oriented activities and incentives . . . or celebrities who appeal to children.”

Under this definition, Jake Paul most certainly fits into what would be considered children’s content on YouTube. Along with that, Paul himself noted in an ABC interview that his audience is “definitely younger . . . I’d say it’s like eight years-old to like 16 years-old, and so that’s where I try to like cater the content.” But there still remains no regulations in place determining who can profit on this kind of content through ads and link promotion. This makes sense from YouTube’s point of view, however. Most of their biggest—and most profitable—creators make content directed towards children. Taking away those creators’ ability to profit from their videos would stifle their willingness to keep churning out content that keep young viewers on the site.

Sharon Beder spoke about these concerns and the development of young consumers all the way back in 1998. She is a professor at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia and has authored dozens of articles and books about marketing to children. In her 1998 presentation “marketing to children,” she outlined the building blocks for how children become consumers.

“From age 1: Accompanying Parents and Observing. From age 2: Accompanying Parents and Requesting. From age 3: Accompanying Parents and Selecting with Permission. From age 4: Accompanying Parents and Making Independent Purchases.” She uses this model to show how even at an early age, children learn to make and request purchases themselves.

She predicted at the time that because of how savvy children are in regard to purchasing items, that this consumer habit will only be expanded through the internet. Beder was already concerned with how marketing on television was affecting children, and she gave a warning in her presentation about protecting children on the expanding internet: “It is for these reasons that marketing to children should be carefully restricted. In particular advertisements aimed at children under the age of 9 years old, including on the internet, should be banned.”

Who is using the relationship and for what purpose?

All of these topics culminate into one main dynamic: how the producers, distributors, and consumers of media interact, and who is in control. With what we know about parasocial relationships and how children consume media, are they really in control of what they do online? 

Dr. Baker explains why they may not be in control: “A lot of these companies like YouTube and Facebook are employing PhD level psychologists to think about ways to attract attention and create recommendation trends that keep you always engaged.” These scientists use data and psychological knowledge to craft algorithms that keep children on their site, watching content created by those who also want to sell things. He notes that it’s not really a fair game. “What you’re up against when you’re reading a book is simply that author’s words that are static, it’s not nearly as dynamic as clicking through something and watching something and having an experience be crafted for you as you ‘decide’ what you’re going to watch next.” 

There is so much behind-the-scenes work to promote engaging content on YouTube to keep kids on the site, and in combination with children’s predispositions to attach themselves with virtual characters, it’s hard to make a case that they have autonomy in their actions online. It’s almost impossible for kids to open streaming services and not be confronted with a character that is trying to sell them something, and that’s where the stewardship of parasocial relationships comes into play.

For actors in this story such as the late Fred Rogers, he knew the power these relationships held and how to use them. He chose to answer questions children ask about the world and help them learn social skills with his silly puppets and calming voices. He refused to move “The Neighborhood” to private networks that would bombard viewers with ads for toys of the characters they saw on screen. He remained an advocate for children until the day the show went off the air when he retired.

But the world has become increasing complex. There are hundreds of websites and video streaming services visited by children every day, all connecting characters to products in straightforward, but also sneaky ways. Children have no say in whether they become connected to these figures; their minds are programed to seek these relationships to learn about the world. 

Because of the increasing challenges children face in discerning good actors from bad, Dr. Baker suggests that we be vigilant in recognizing the creation of these relationships and recognize who is using them. “Our social brains will use parasocial relationships probably for as long as we’ll be around. That’s probably always going to be an important tool to get information into our heads. It’s a tool that works. We know it works. So the question is: who’s using it and for what purpose?”

This project was created by Jared Hameloth for his independent study during Fall 2019 under advisement of Dr. Robert Spicer. All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons or screenshots of web pages.