Investigating Ad Targeting on YouTube: Implications and Legal Analysis

26 Jun 2024


(1) Tinhinane Medjkoune, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Grenoble INP, LIG France;

(2) Oana Goga, LIX, CNRS, Inria, Ecole Polytechnique, Institut Polytechnique de Paris France;

(3) Juliette Senechal, Université de Lille, CRDP, DReDIS-IRJS France.

Abstract and Introduction


Legislation on Advertising to Children

Mechanisms for Targeting Children

Usage of Placement-Based Targeting


Related Works

Conclusion, Acknowledgements and References



This paper investigates the mechanisms through which advertisers can target their ads to children on YouTube and whether real-world advertisers are actually employing such mechanisms. Our experimental methodology showed that advertisers could target children through placement-based targeting. This targeting technique allows advertisers to specify the videos on which they want their ads to be shown. Our measurement methodology provides evidence that supports that real-world advertisers employ these techniques to target children with ads. We also discovered that placement-based advertising can be combined with targeting based on user profiling.

We performed a legal analysis of the different texts regulating children’s advertising in the E.U. and the U.S. According to COPPA and DSA, placement-based advertising on children-focused videos is not forbidden; however, targeting children based on user profiling is restricted (in the case of COPPA) and forbidden (in the case of DSA). The DSA, which was published in October 2022, is supposed to come into force gradually, and platforms have until 2024 to comply. As many countries are updating their legislation to protect children from online harm, we hope our study raises awareness of the possible targeting mechanisms that advertisers can exploit to target children and allows lawmakers to refine the legislation.

Given the fact that targeting children is permitted through contextual advertising and that ad platforms allow advertisers to place an ad under a single piece of content specifically targeted at children (e.g., a particular cartoon or a particular video clip dedicated to children), this can make verification of the content of the advertisement very difficult in practice, as it will only be seen by children who have seen that content, with very little possibility of adequate verification of the content of the ad by adults. Therefore, we strongly believe that we need transparency mechanisms that allow researchers and the civil society to scrutinize these ads. For example, ad platforms could provide ad libraries for ads shown on children-focused videos as they do for political ads.

Google has set up a streaming platform dedicated to children, YouTube Kids, with increased ad and content restrictions to protect children. This is a very positive initiative. However, surveys are showing that YouTube might still be more used by parents; hence, we encourage Google to adopt the same restrictions on the main platform YouTube for children-focused videos and have efficient algorithms to detect children-focused videos that are not labeled as such by content creators.


We thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. This research was supported in part by the French National Research Agency (ANR) through the ANR-17-CE23-0014, ANR-21- CE23-0031-02, by the MIAI@Grenoble Alpes ANR-19-P3IA-0003 and by the EU 101041223, and 101021377 grants.


[1] Muhammad Ali, Piotr Sapiezynski, Miranda Bogen, Aleksandra Korolova, Alan Mislove, and Aaron Rieke. 2019. Discrimination through Optimization: How Facebook’s Ad Delivery Can Lead to Biased Outcomes. In ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 2019.

[2] Muhammad Ali, Piotr Sapiezynski, Aleksandra Korolova, Alan Mislove, and Aaron Rieke. 2021. Ad Delivery Algorithms: The Hidden Arbiters of Political Messaging. In ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining (WSDM) 2021.

[3] Athanasios Andreou, Márcio Silva, Fabrício Benevenuto, Oana Goga, Patrick Loiseau, and Alan Mislove. 2019. Measuring the Facebook Advertising Ecosystem. In Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (NDSS) 2019.

[4] Athanasios Andreou, Giridhari Venkatadri, Oana Goga, Krishna Gummadi, Patrick Loiseau, and Alan Mislove. 2018. Investigating ad transparency mechanisms in social media: A case study of Facebook’s explanations. In Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (NDSS) 2018.

[5] Michael J. Austin and Mary Lynn Reed. 1999. Targeting children online: Internet advertising ethics issues. Journal of Consumer Marketing (1999).

[6] Tammo Bijmolt, Wilma Claassen, and Britta Brus. 1998. Children’s Understanding of TV Advertising: Effects of Age, Gender, and Parental Influence. Journal of Consumer Policy (1998).

[7] Emma Jane Boyland and Rosa Whalen. 2015. Food advertising to children and its effects on diet: review of recent prevalence and impact data. Pediatric Diabetes (2015).

[8] Xiaomei Cai and Xiaoquan Zhao. 2010. Click here, Kids! Journal of Children and Media (2010).

[9] Xiaomei Cai and Xiaoquan Zhao. 2013. Online advertising on popular children’s websites: Structural features and privacy issues. Computers in Human Behavior (2013).

[10] Pew Research Center. 2023. Many Turn to YouTube for Children’s Content, News, How-To Lessons.

[11] Helen Clark, Awa Coll-Seck, Anshu Banerjee, Stefan Peterson, Sarah Dalglish, Shanthi Ameratunga, Dina Balabanova, Maharaj Bhan, Zulfiqar Bhutta, John Borrazzo, Mariam Claeson, Tanya Doherty, Fadi El-Jardali, Asha George, Angela Gichaga, Lu Gram, David Hipgrave, Aku Kwamie, Qingyue Meng, and Anthony Costello. 2020. A future for the world’s children? A WHO–UNICEF–Lancet Commission. The Lancet (2020).

[12] Common Sense. 2020. The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight, 2020. report/2020_zero_to_eight_census_final_web.pdf

[13] Common Sense. 2020. Young Kids and YouTube: How Ads, Toys, and Games Dominate Viewing. research/report/2020_youngkidsyoutube-report_final-release_forweb_1.pdf

[14] Lara Spiteri Cornish. 2014. Mum, can I play on the internet? International Journal of Advertising (2014).

[15] Robin Banerjee Dawn Watling. 2007. Children’s Differentiation Between Ingratiation and Self-Promotion. Social Development (2007).

[16] Laura Edelson, Tobias Lauinger, and Damon McCoy. 2020. A Security Analysis of the Facebook Ad Library. In IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (S&P) 2020.

[17] European Commission. 2022. COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS A Digital Decade for children and youth: the new European strategy for a better internet for kids (BIK+). 212:FIN

[18] European Commission. 2022. European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children.

[19] FCC. 2023. Sponsorship Identification Rules and Embedded Advertising, MB Docket No. 08-90, Notice of Inquiry and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 23 FCC Rcd 10682, 10687, para. 6 (2008); 1991 Memorandum Opinion and Order, 6 FCC Rcd at 5094-99, paras. 3-34; 1991 Report and Order, 6 FCC Rcd at 2111-13, paras. 2-1 FCC.

[20] FCC. 2023. Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations 73.3999 Enforcement of 18 U.S.C. 1464 (restrictions on the transmission of obscene and indecent material). FCC. subpart-H/section-73.3999

[21] FCC. 2023. Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations 73.670 Commercial limits in children’s programs. FCC.

[22] FCC. 2023. Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations 76.225 Commercial limits in children’s programs. FCC.

[23] Federal Trade Commission. 2017. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule; Final Rule.

[24] Frans Folkvord, Doeschka J Anschütz, Emma Boyland, Bridget Kelly, and Moniek Buijzen. 2016. Food advertising and eating behavior in children. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences (2016). Diet, behavior and brain function.

[25] Sara C. Folta, Jeanne P. Goldberg, Christina Economos, Rick Bell, and Rachel Meltzer. 2006. Food Advertising Targeted at School-Age Children: A Content Analysis. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (2006).

[26] FTC. 2019. Case 1:19-cv-02642: FTC against Google and YouTube on COPPA settlement.

[27] FTC. 2019. YouTube channel owners: Is your content directed to children? [28] Google. 2022. Advertising on YouTube Kids. youtubekids/answer/6130541?hl=fr

[29] Google. 2023. About audience expansion.

[30] Google. 2023. Add age targeting to ad groups.

[31] Google. 2023. Advertising on YouTube Kids. answer/6168681?hl=en

[32] Google. 2023. Google Ads.

[33] Google. 2023. Google Ads Help: Targeting your ads. google-ads/answer/1704368?hl=en

[34] Google. 2023. Google Ads Settings.

[35] Google. 2023. My Ad Center. ?hl=en#topic=11616697

[36] Google. 2023. Videos in YouTube Kids. answer/6172307?hl=en

[37] Google. 2023. YouTube Kids.

[38] Bridget Kelly, Jason C.G. Halford, Emma J. Boyland, Kathy Chapman, Inmaculada Bautista-Castaño, Christina Berg, Margherita Caroli, Brian Cook, Janine G. Coutinho, Tobias Effertz, Evangelia Grammatikaki, Kathleen Keller, Raymond Leung, Yannis Manios, Renata Monteiro, Claire Pedley, Hillevi Prell, Kim Raine, Elisabetta Recine, Lluis Serra-Majem, Sonia Singh, and Carolyn Summerbell. 2010. Television Food Advertising to Children: A Global Perspective. American Journal of Public Health (2010).

[39] Bridget Kelly, Ben Smith, Lesley King, Victoria Flood, and Adrian Bauman. 2007. Television food advertising to children: the extent and nature of exposure. Public Health Nutrition 10 (2007).

[40] Matthew A. Lapierre, Frances Fleming-Milici, Esther Rozendaal, Anna R. McAlister, and Jessica Castonguay. 2017. The Effect of Advertising on Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics (2017).

[41] Legifrance. 1992. Décret no. 92-280 du 27 mars 1992 pris pour l’application des articles 27 et 33 de la loi no. 86-1067 du 30 septembre 1986 et fixant les principes généraux définissant les obligations des éditeurs de services en matière de publicité, de parrainage et de télé-achat. JORFTEXT000000346165/

[42] Marisa Meyer, Victoria Adkins, Nalingna Yuan, Heidi M. Weeks, Yung-Ju Chang, and Jenny S. Radesky. 2019. Advertising in Young Children’s Apps: A Content Analysis. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics (2019).

[43] Sudip Basu Mithun Das, Sisir Ghorai. 2018. A Study on Effects of TV Advertising on Children. International Journal of Research and Scientific Innovation (IJRSI) (2018).

[44] Elizabeth S. Moore. 2004. Children and the Changing World of Advertising. Journal of Business Ethics (2004). 66617.f5

[45] NScreenMedia. 2020. YouTube used by more children than YouTube Kids. https: //

[46] Official Journal of the European Union. 2022. Regulation (EU) 2022/2065 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 October 2022 on a Single Market For Digital Services and amending Directive 2000/31/EC (Digital Services Act - DSA). 32022R2065&from=EN

[47] European Parliament and Council. 2010. DIRECTIVE 2010/13/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 10 March 2010 on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive).

[48] European Parliament and Council. 2018. DIRECTIVE (EU) 2018/1808 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 14 November 2018 amending Directive 2010/13/EU on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive) in view of changing market realities. HTML/?uri=CELEX:32018L1808&qid=1689960710955#d1e1811-69-1

[49] Jenny Radesky, Yolanda (Linda) Reid Chassiakos, Nusheen Ameenuddin, Dipesh Navsaria, and COUNCIL ON COMMUNICATION AND MEDIA. 2020. Digital Advertising to Children. Pediatrics (2020).

[50] Jenny Radesky, Yolanda Reid-Chassiakos, Nusheen Ameenuddin, and Dipesh Navsaria. 2020. Digital Advertising to Children. Pediatrics (2020).

[51] P. S. Raju and Subhash C. Lonial. 1990. Advertising to Children: Findings and Implications. Current Issues and Research in Advertising (1990).

[52] Irwin Reyes, Primal Wijesekera, Joel Reardon, Amit Elazari, Abbas Razaghpanah, Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, and Serge Egelman. 2018. Won’t Somebody Think of the Children? Examining COPPA Compliance at Scale. Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETS) (2018).

[53] Filipe N. Ribeiro, Koustuv Saha, Mahmoudreza Babaei, Lucas Henrique, Johnnatan Messias, Oana Goga, Fabrício Benevenuto, Krishna P. Gummadi, and Elissa M. Redmiles. 2019. On Microtargeting Socially Divisive Ads: A Case Study of RussiaLinked Ad Campaigns on Facebook. In FAT* 2019.

[54] Márcio Silva, Lucas Santos de Oliveira, Athanasios Andreou, Pedro Olmo Vaz de Melo, Oana Goga, and Fabrício Benevenuto. 2020. Facebook Ads Monitor: An Independent Auditing System for Political Ads on Facebook. In The Web Conference (WWW) 2020.

[55] Statista. 2023. Websites and mobile apps used to watch video content online by children in the United Kingdom (UK) as of January 2021. https://www.statista. com/statistics/1251996/platforms-online-videos-uk-children/

[56] Thomas V. Petros Stephen R. Levin and Florence W. Petrella. 1982. Preschoolers’ Awareness of Television Advertising. Child Development (1982).

[57] Mary Story and Simone French. 2004. Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity (2004).

[58] U.S. 117TH CONGRESS. 2022. Banning Surveillance Advertising Act. https: //

[59] Eva A. van Reijmersdal, Esther Rozendaal, Nadia Smink, Guda van Noort, and Moniek Buijzen. 2017. Processes and effects of targeted online advertising among children. International Journal of Advertising (2017).

[60] Washingtonpost. 2020. YouTube overhauls advertising, data collection on kids content.

[61] Brian Wilcox, Dale Kunkel, Joanne Cantor, Peter Dowrick, Susan Linn, and Edward Palmer. 2004. Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children. Section: Psychological issues in the increasing commercialization of childhood (2004).

[62] Samantha L. Yeo, Alexandria Schaller, Michael B. Robb, and Jenny S. Radesky. 2021. Frequency and Duration of Advertising on Popular Child-Directed Channels on a Video-Sharing Platform. JAMA Network Open (2021).

[63] YouTube. 2020. COPPA and YouTube: Answering Your Top QuestionsA. https: //

[64] YouTube. 2020. Important Update for All Creators: Complying with COPPA. https: //

[65] Fangwei Zhao, Serge Egelman, Heidi Weeks, Niko Kaciroti, Alison Miller, and Jenny Radesky. 2020. Data Collection Practices of Mobile Applications Played by Preschool-Aged Children. JAMA Pediatrics (2020).

This paper is available on arxiv under CC 4.0 license.