Organization claims WhatNot solicits information from kids sans screening
Ryan is a really cute 7-year-old who happens to sit at the apex of an online empire.
Ryan is the star of Ryan ToysReview, a YouTube channel with 9.4 million subscribers and more than 16 billion – that’s billion – total views.
His videos feature toy reviews with an interesting spin – the reviews center on Ryan actually playing with the toys. His parents are also present, but he’s the center of the action. Predictably, the videos themselves are high-energy, colorful, quick-cut YouTube set pieces sometimes featuring cheesy special effects and even an occasional NBA player as a guest star.
The Ryan ToysReview family has expanded to include four additional review channels with more than 1.5 million additional subscribers.
With a profile like this, it’s no wonder toy companies advertise through the channel.
WhatNot Toys, a company that seeks out toys around the globe to bring back to the North American market, clearly saw the exposure that Ryan ToysReview offered and created an advertisement on the channel.
That’s where the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) comes in.
CARU, an investigative unit of the advertising industry’s system of self-regulation, ran across WhatNot’s ad in its ongoing search for sites that are not in compliance with its self-regulatory program for children’s advertising and the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
CARU raised a red flag about WhatNot. According to CARU, its investigators were directed by WhatNot’s Ryan ToysReview video to visit the WhatNot website to receive a free toy package. Once at the website, the user was asked to fill out a form that asked for first and last names and email and street addresses. The form stated, “Sign up today, but if you are under 13, please be sure to ask your parents for permission!”
CARU objected to the lack of age screening on the form. WhatNot pushed back, saying that the tagline telling kids to get parental approval was enough to remain in compliance with the relevant laws.
In its decision, CARU maintained its objection, noting that asking children to obtain consent from parents was not a recognized method under COPPA for “providing notices to parents to obtain parental consent.”
If the site is directed to a mixed audience that is not predominantly children under 13, age screening is an option under COPPA. However, it must be done in a way that does not coach children on how to get around the gate; for instance, by soliciting month, date and year of birth and blocking those users who do not qualify. Even then, the operator should simply tell the users they do not qualify to proceed rather than that they must be 13, and it should use technology to prevent reattempts, such as disabling the back button and dropping a session cookie to block the user for a reasonable period, e.g., 48 hours. However, sites that are predominantly directed to children may not age gate, and they must assume all users are under 13 and follow the notice and parental consent requirements of COPPA for children’s online services.
WhatNot answered the objection by deleting the form from its website and agreeing to follow CARU’s guidance in the future.