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Social media marketing is not technically supposed to target children. Almost all major social media platforms have a declared age limit of 13 and up, so if you tailor ads to a younger demographic you’re tailoring ads to people whose very presence on the site is a violation of its terms. That said, it would be naïve to conclude that such targeting doesn’t still occur in abundance, or that children do not routinely lie about their ages to access social media, often with their parents knowledge.

If there’s an argument against child-focused social media marketing, it isn’t that the relevant demographics are not available on the relevant platforms. It also isn’t a practical argument regarding the potential effectiveness of that social media marketing. If you take the theoretical prohibition seriously, you’re most likely to do so based on ethical concerns or because you’re worried about the long-term public relations impact of targeting very young consumers and illegitimate users of the platforms in question.

Both of these concerns are quite valid, but it may be possible to resolve both of them without abandoning a very young target demographic altogether. Of course, such resolution is potentially important to any company whose social media marketing is focused on products like toys, which are primarily used by children. It hardly seems fair that this brand of social media marketing should be forced to adhere to different rules than more traditional marketing campaigns for the same products.

Child-focused television commercials, for instance, are a long, rich tradition, and it would have been silly if the Federal Communications Commission had said in the 1990s that toy companies could not buy ad space during the Saturday morning cartoon blocs for the purpose of targeting children. Obviously, those companies targeted children quite aggressively on the understanding that their products would find their way onto Christmas lists or into weekend conversations between children and parents, prompting the latter to shell out the money for it after the fact.

On one hand, there’s no reason to assume that this dynamic can’t persist in the 21st century, especially considering the sheer volume of advertising revenue that is currently generated by “Kids’ YouTube.” The deviation from traditional advertising models clearly doesn’t apply to digital marketing across the board, and that makes it all the more unfair that social media marketing is impaired by age limits.

On the other hand, there’s evidence to suggest that those age limits are well-founded. A recent study by Wellesley Centers for Women determined that there was an unusually high incidence of “problematic online behaviors” among children who started using Snapchat and Instagram at age 11 or younger. The research also indicated that those children were more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of online bullying and other unsympathetic activities.

Somewhat paradoxically, though, the same group showed greater civic engagement within the online community later in life, with more positive digital behaviors overall than negative ones. This goes to show that while the immediate impact of social media on young children is often negative, the best solution doesn’t necessarily consist of simply barring them from all relevant platforms until they’re older.

Insofar as the Wellesley research touches upon the impact of parental guidance, it arguably points the way to a better future in which children’s activity on social media is normalized but monitored, ultimately making them better digital citizens and, by extension, more viable targets for responsible social media marketing campaigns.

Of course, we’re not inhabiting that future today, so social media marketing still has to contend with the current realities, in which some children are using social media in defiance of the platforms’ rules, some are off limits to marketers, and only a handful are accessible within the context of parental monitoring. While we await the expansion of that latter group, social media marketing professionals need to come to a conclusion regarding which of the others to prioritize.

There are surely ethical ways of presenting a branded message to unmonitored users of social networking sites, but even if one takes special care with the design of their youth-oriented social media marketing campaigns, they run the risk of coming under fire for encouraging kids to use a platform that is increasingly recognized as potentially harmful. An ensuing public relations crisis could end up undermining your strategy across all demographics, not just the very young.

On the other hand, abandoning that target audience altogether could also have adverse effects beyond the initial loss of revenue from the parents of children who might have seen your products advertised directly. In light of the aforementioned evidence that early adopters of social media grow up to be highly engaged digital citizens as teens and young adults, social media marketing professionals might be well served to think of youth outreach as a way of becoming part of future consumers’ lifelong online communities.

This goal only really applies to brands whose products run the gamut of appealing to children, adolescents, and full-fledged adults. But for those brands, child-focused messaging is a uniquely important, if potentially treacherous area of concern for its social media marketing campaign. If that aspect of that campaign is carefully run, it can make inroads with both parents and children, ideally at the same time, and establish a level of trustworthiness that will serve the brand for years if not decades to come.

Outreach along these lines may also help a company’s social media marketing team to acquire valuable data about young consumers as they grow into the good digital citizens they are likely to become after being acclimated to social media at an early age. This data will then help the company to understand which activities and causes will be most important to the up-and-coming generation, and thus most useful in maintaining connections by way of charitable partnerships and promotions over the long term.

Social media marketing is not technically supposed to target children, but children grow up quickly, and when brands avoid reaching out to them for too long, they risk putting themselves at a disadvantage in marketing from that point forward.

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