This article appears in the November 2017 Family magazine.

Board books, building blocks and unboxing videos? Content specifically targeted to very young children brings both benefits and risks, said Benjamin Burroughs, a social media expert at the University of Las Vegas and father of three.

Burroughs spends hours studying children’s videos with a special eye on both explicit and masked advertising. While advertisers have always tried to target children, “this idea of building a data profile and having children be a segment of the market is newer,” Burroughs said. “Netflix, Amazon, Hulu — they’re all developing content specifically for this demographic. A large portion of YouTube’s growth is in this market, which is fascinating.”

Apps like YouTube Kids have been developed as “cordoned-off, well-guarded spaces” to keep children shielded from unwanted content, but at the same time they can be used to advertise directly to children, he said.

What is unboxing?

A YouTube phenomenon, unboxing is where a person takes a consumer product out of its packaging.

“Some of the most popular videos for young children now are in the unboxing genre, which involves people, who may or may not be anonymous with only their hands showing, unboxing or opening toys and other products then creatively explaining them,” Burroughs said. “However, many people don’t know that a lot of the folks who are doing the unboxing are getting paid to unbox or promote, whether it’s intentional or subconsciously, that product that they’re unboxing.”

Look at browser history

“I think it’s a good idea to view browsing history as much as possible. Have discussions with children about the content they’re watching and empower the child, if you feel like it’s too much advertising or too much that you’ve deemed negative content,” Burroughs said. “Have an open dialogue, even with young children, about how they feel and how that content makes them think about the world or certain brands, just so that they can start to become critical thinkers.”