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.


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This paper is available on arxiv under CC 4.0 license.