Online Communities for Youth: Financial Motivation

Written by Amber Arquilevich, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab and Communication Major

Image Source: The Indian Express

What’s worse than coming home after a long day of classes to throw all your stuff down to decompress and scroll through Instagram only to get bombarded with ad after ad? Your feed is flooded with posts you weren’t expecting and information you do not want to process. It’s cognitively taxing; you were expecting to aimlessly browse through content without thought.

Advertisements have manifested themselves into most digital properties. They come with every YouTube video, sports game, and now appear on apps. Throughout our research within the Youth Technology Safety Project at the Cornell Social Media Lab (SML), we have observed that these advertisements seem to be out of place. The team is curious as to why they appear in applications such as Skout, which is advertised for ages as young as 12 years old. We look at these mediums for communication and what they offer, exploring why advertisements are suddenly incorporated into online communities for youth. This is a major issue as the question of financial motivation begins to arise. To further understand how these online youth communities are compromised we must explore two things: how ads generate revenue and examples of apps using ads to their advantage.

Ad Revenue Through Apps

Advertising revenue is the money that businesses get from showing ads on various digital platforms. In the article “Ad revenue: what is and how to increase it?,” there is proof of increasing trends in online traffic as we see that the pandemic caused a large shift towards online shopping. Buyers still engage in online activities, driving larger investments in digital advertising; it is predicted that by 2024, digital ad spending will reach $242.80 billion (“Ad Revenue: What Is and How to Increase it,” 2022). Corporations can reach their target customer in various ways including influencer marketing, content marketing, search engine optimization (SEO) marketing, and pay-per-click (PPC) marketing (“Ad Revenue: What Is and How to Increase it,” 2022). Each company whether it’s an app, website, etc. analyzes what their strongest strategy is to generate the most revenue and drive their business. According to the Apple app store, Skout tracks purchases, identifiers, and location which are all useful for the PPC marketing strategy. The same article referenced above outlines the PPC model to be one where advertisers pay the “publisher” for every click their ad receives. With that in mind, we can further investigate digital security.

Ad Use through Children Apps

Apps such as Skout, which is advertised for 17-year-olds, present various ads to children. Skout is marketed as a global network for meeting new people. Seems fun in theory, right? Aside from privacy issues that are present in the app, our team came across a wide array of inappropriate advertisements. They promote unconventional avenues such as Jackpocket (a lottery app) and TIAA (an investing tool). Although they seem harmless in nature, they prompt further data collection and digital profiling, a potential threat most younger people are unaware of. Personally from a Gen-Z perspective, current youth are comfortable with the internet and have grown up in front of a screen, therefore they do not question providing personal information when asked. This understanding can be used in marketing to prompt children to perform behaviors they would not typically do on their own.

Advertisements have a major strength in the context of children’s apps: their interactivity. Fortin & Dholakia (2005) note that this interactivity drives user involvement and has a significant impact on advertisement effectiveness. Furthermore, the scholars mention that advertisers can exploit the creative flexibility of the new media by customizing their message to intended audiences and drive business or data collection. In other words, advertisers understand the power apps hold because of their ability to weave in persuasive messages with pre-existing content. With a greater understanding of how app and advertisement developers work, we can achieve a more ethical digital world. Employees can surface the ethical implications of advertisements when working on new projects. They can remind large corporations of the impressionability of youth, leading people in power to believe that advertising should only impact children to an appropriate extent. In the workplace, we can remind ourselves that we impact future generations, and we have a responsibility to ethically shape them.

Examples of data-collecting advertisements placed throughout the “meet” feature of SKOUT; Image Source: Personal App Use

Looking Ahead

The findings through Skout, including unjustified and inappropriate advertising, encourage us to take a step back and realize the influence of business on technology. In an increasing digital age, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of online communities. However, those who design these systems must uphold ethical standards; they must balance their work with the greater good of emerging youth. The ethics of app designers should not be compromised by financial incentives as they should remember that children are typically unaware of serious online threats. It starts small, with the simple click of an advertisement.

Reference List

Fortin, D.R. & Dholakia R. R. (2005). Interactivity and vividness effects on social presence and involvement with a web-based advertisement. Journal of Business Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0148-2963(03)00106-1

Meushar, S. & Jacobson, T. (2022, March 4). Ad revenue: What is and how to increase it? CodeFuel. Retrieved April 11, 2022, from https://www.codefuel.com/blog/ad-revenue/

Skout, I. (2009, February 10). Skout — Meet New People. App Store. Retrieved April 11, 2022, from https://apps.apple.com/us/app/skout-meet-new-people/id302324249

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