By David Z. Morris
March 10, 2018

Netflix is testing a system that would grant collectible “patches” to children who watch shows such as “Trolls,” “Fuller House,” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” The collectibles, which could be described as ‘gamifying’ kids’ TV viewing, may or may not become part of Netflix. But the test could resurrect a wave of controversy about how digital media companies interact with children.

The tests were reported by Variety after Netflix viewers who were part of the test group pointed them out on Twitter. A Netflix spokesperson told Variety that the feature “introduces collectible items for a more interactive experience, adding an element of fun and providing kids something to talk about and share around the titles they love. We learn by testing and this feature may or may not become part of the Netflix experience.”

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If Netflix has been paying attention, the patches are unlikely to wind up a part of the service. They could be seen as encouraging kids to watch more TV as a way to ‘complete’ collections – though collecting the patches doesn’t currently lead to any reward, according to Variety. Studies have shown that excessive television viewing can harm children’s mental and physical development.

More recently, debates have focused on the impact of interactive media on kids. Many prominent voices – including Apple CEO Tim Cook – have said excess “screen time” can be harmful. Most notably, recent studies have partly blamed a widespread upswing in anxiety and depression among teens and kids on the interactive social media that Netflix seems to be imitating with these tests.

Netflix testing the ‘gamification’ of children’s TV habits is also reminiscent of two specific recent controversies. In early winter of 2017, Electronic Arts was pilloried for the inclusion of so-called “loot crates” in a game that appealed to children, which some critics said amounted to encouraging kids to gamble. Around the same time, YouTube was found to be rife with videos that exploited children and showed them bizarre and violent imagery, revelations that led major advertisers to suspend buying on the platform.

Finally, the “patch” program could remind viewers of a perhaps uncomfortable fact about the streaming company – Netflix tracks the viewing habits of users, including children. Reminding parents of that by putting the tracking right onscreen could provoke anxiety and increase the risk of a backlash.

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