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Teens can’t tell the difference between Google search results and ads

February 16, 2016

young lady phone google

Have you had “the talk” with your teen? (about ads)

Teens may be more seemingly saavy when it comes to using technology, but that doesn’t mean they’re more aware of the subtleties of the internet. Particularly, when it comes to digital advertising.

In a new report published by the UK’s telecoms watchdog Ofcom, researchers found that only 31% of 12- to 15-year-olds knew which search results on Google were advertisements. For children aged 8 to 11, this figure was even lower — less than one in five.


Even when it was labeled “Ad,” they had trouble

In their tests, Ofcom showed children screenshots of Google search results. Children were then asked to identify whether the results at the top of the page were ads, the most relevant results, or the most popular results. Even with the topmost search results outlined in an orange box and labeled with the word “Ad,” children had difficulty recognizing them as such. The Ofcom team found similar results when it came to YouTube. Particularly, 53% of children surveyed didn’t know there might be paid-for endorsements of products among vloggers.

Even more surprising, the test also revealed that among 12- to 15-year-olds, 19% believed that any information listed by the search engine must be true.

FTC is watching very, very carefully

There are real-world implications given the relatively unregulated world of online content. Organizations and watchdog groups around the world have sought to address this worry. Google’s YouTube Kids has recently been at the center of controversy with several US consumer watchdog groups even filing a complaint to the FTC claiming the app blurs the lines between ads and original content. In the UK, videos that don’t clearly advertise as paid-for content have been banned on YouTube by the Advertising Standards Authority.

And the controversy isn’t solely directed at Google and YouTube. Other social networks, such as Instagram and Twitter, have also come under fire for broadcasting paid-for promotions to young audiences.

Clearly and conspicuously

Within the US, the FTC mandates that any commercial relationship between a brand and online endorser must be “clearly and conspicuously” disclosed. Troublingly enough, Ofcom’s results clearly demonstrate that, most times, children simply can’t differentiate ads from regular content.


Nichole earned a Master's in Sociology from Texas State University and has publications in peer-reviewed journals. She has spent her career in tech and advertising. Her writing interests include the intersection of tech and society. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Communication and Media Studies at Murdoch University.

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