Publishers of many major children's Web sites should do a better job disclosing sales and advertising information to parents, especially as more kids at younger ages go online to play and meet friends, says a study released Tuesday by Consumer Reports WebWatch and the Mediatech Foundation of Flemington, N.J.

For the study, parents in 10 families used video cameras to keep journals, providing insights into the way children use sites such as Club Penguin, Webkinz, Nick Jr., Barbie.com and others. Footage from those journals illustrates how young children respond to advertising and marketing tactics online.

The study, "Like Taking Candy from a Baby: How Young Children Interact with Online Environments," used ethnographic methods and focused on young children, ages 2 1/2 to 8.

Some key findings:

  • Children as young as 2 1/2 years of age are able to go online.
  • The most popular young children's sites are moderately to heavily commercialized. When rated by test parents on a scale from 1 (not commercialized) to 5 (extremely commercialized), the 21 sites considered in this study scored a mean rating of 3.47.
  • Web sites frequently tantalize children, presenting enticing options and even threats that their online creations will become inaccessible unless a purchase is made. Some sites show attractive options that invite a click, but lead to a registration form instead. Some sell a child's prior experience -- a room they've built for a virtual pet, for instance -- back to them, using statements such as, "If you cancel your membership, then your belongings will go into storage and will be automatically retrieved when you re-subscribe."
  • Most sites observed promote the idea of consumerism. The most common technique uses a reward-for-work basis, awarding "points, coins or dollars" for success and achievement that can then be used to "buy" items such as clothing, makeup, big-screen TVs or other accessories for virtual pets or avatars.
  • The games observed vary widely in quality, in educational value, and in their developmental match with children's abilities. Such mismatches often result in frequent cries for help.

"There's no doubt young children love to go online, and we observed examples of wholesome, good quality, Web-delivered content," said Warren Buckleitner, the study's author. "But after watching ten hours of typical online play, we were shocked at the extent of manipulative behavior. This study shows that no one -- neither parents nor publishers -- really knows what is going on when children start up a browser. Ideally, the sites kids encounter should be designed by people with degrees in child development instead of MBAs.

"There's nothing more painful than watching a young child cry," Buckleitner continued. "But unfortunately, that's the end result for too many children who are spending time with 'state-of the-art' children's online content."

The study makes these and other recommendations for parents:

  • Keep an eye on the screen. Set up the home computer in a central location so you can see what your child is doing. Lend a hand or suggest an activity that matches your child's interests or abilities and pay attention to the directions his or her activities take.
  • Be suspicious of "free" offers. As in the real world, free lunches are rare, and this is a concept children can't understand. Don't expect young children (and many adults) to understand the well-worn caution: "If something looks too good to be true, it probably is."
  • Read before you click. Before you or your children click on the "I agree" button, scour terms-of-use agreements and privacy policies to make sure you aren't agreeing to share information you don't want known. At worst, publishers make such disclosures inconvenient to read and awkward, so you are tempted to click an agreement and move on. Those emotions can be amplified when you have an anxious toddler pressing you. Also, don't download software before verifying that it won't alter your computer's settings.

"We believe parents need a more complete picture of the Web sites where their young children are spending an increasing amount of time," said Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch. "One test family spent $1,316 in a year on stuffed animals on a single site. Some sites play for profit on a child's emotions to the degree we saw begging, tantrums and even tears in the videos."