Saturday, July 11, 2015

Commercialized Children

Who gets to shape the way our kids think?
Well, we as parents do, of course.  Is that all?
Then there's school, teachers, and peers, of course, but who is the biggest player in the game?

Who has the right to instruct my kids?  
Who gets to tell them what life choices to make?

Surprisingly, a significant impact is made by industry and child-targeted advertising.  (see:  When Childhood Gets Commercialized, Can Children Be Protected?)

For starters, we have an epidemic of childhood obesity and the related rise in medical diseases such as hypertension and type II diabetes. (Surgeon General's report)  Curious how that happened?

fast-food-advertisingReputable children’s advocates have pointed to food marketing as a major cause of the shift to unhealthy diets of sugar, fat and salt. They point to the billions of dollars of food marketing directed at children; it is on television, in schools, on the internet, and in the grocery store. 

The critique goes beyond food to include the marketing of violence, unhealthy body images, and materialism. Social scientists and pediatricians have compiled an impressive array of research results about the effect of our consumer culture on children. 

Vocal industry opponents argue that children are suffering from "marketing-related diseases” and that marketers are engaging in a “hostile takeover of childhood.”  

Beyond the products, scholars point out that advertising to children is inherently inappropriate, even exploitative. Research shows that kids can't objectively evaluate persuasive intent, they don't grasp the basis of advertising, and that marketing bypasses cognition and targets emotions.

Children caught up in materialistic behavior
will make 3000 requests per year for
 products and services.
A researcher asked a group of six-year-olds to explain the purpose of advertising and gave them four choices. Their responses are as follows:

• don’t know – 31 percent
• for a break – 33 percent
• for information – 36 percent
• to persuade – 0 percent

“At six years old, children don’t show awareness of advertising’s persuasive intent,” he said. “Most do by eight years old, but ... they still see it as a benefit to the customer and not as a benefit to the seller.”

"Advertising is a massive, multi-million dollar project that's having an enormous impact on child development," says clinical psychologist Allen D. Kanner, PHD. "The sheer volume of advertising is growing rapidly and invading new areas of childhood, like our schools." The advertising industry employs psychologists to exploit things like why 3- to 7-year-olds gravitate toward toys that transform themselves into something else and why 8- to 12-year-olds love to collect things.

According to Kanner, the result is not only an epidemic of materialistic values among children, but also something he calls "narcissistic wounding" of children. Thanks to advertising, he says, children have become convinced that they're inferior if they don't have an endless array of new products.

Can children be protected?

Self-regulation by the media has been counter productive.  The public demand for PG-13 and R rated entertainment soared after the standard's implementation.  Young children (2-12) and children (12+) are increasingly exposed to unregulated sources via cable, satellite, and internet.

Attempts at protective regulation have been successfully countered by industry in the courts and Congress.  The family, community, and church have less of a role in the development of a child than ever before.  Character formation is, at best, a period filled with aggressive conflict between parents and an increasingly intrusive world.

Successful strategies:
  • Parental involvement, thoughtful access controls along with frequent discussions on the rationale.  Make the strategy a family effort with a good goal for all.
  • Parental example of rising above the celebrity and materialistic messages along with thoughtful and perhaps light-hearted discussions about why.  Limit 'screen' exposure for the whole family, perhaps as a collaborative decision.
  • Stay focused; use opportunities to point out and discuss how advertising is exaggeration, overstatement, and an attempt to get money, nothing more.  Do the same with celebrity issues, famous for being famous.
  • Live on a thoughtful budget, and include the kids in the planning.  Do some discount and thrift store shopping; it can help put brand and style in perspective.
  • Be part of a community and church that does a lot of things outside, together, and apart from the 'style' culture.  Sports, ballet, and gymnastics can be great motivators.  Worship and getting together with like-minded folks in church is a great way to refocus on what matters.
  • Leave the country.  Go live for a while in the developing world with maybe one television channel and no internet.  Live like the other 80% of the world and learn how survival works.  Okay, that's not for everybody.
  • Have a goal; discuss it, write it down, do the work for your own life and for the person your child will become.  It is not a small thing.  
Kids are smart; with help, they can learn how to make their own decisions about such things with objectivity and a good conscience.

For a cultural counterpoint: in the airport between flights, I met an interesting Middle-Eastern fellow with whom I shared a conversation for perhaps half an hour. His wife and children were with him, but I didn't have permission to speak with them nor were they inclined to join in the conversation with me, being that I wasn't family or community. That's the way his culture works.

Currently, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Tennessee, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico allow advertising on their school buses.  Additional states are considering overturning their long-standing prohibitions on school bus ads in a misguided attempt to solve their budget deficits. That's the way our culture works.

Note:  McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast food restaurant chain, reportedly spends $500 million a year on ads, of which approximately 40% is targeted to children. They serve 60 million customers a day.  (Horgen et al, 2001).   Virtually all children’s food advertising is for junk food, and in addition to child-targeted ads, children are heavily exposed to food advertising nominally directed at adults. (Byrd-Bredbenner and Grasso 1999). Nationwide, schools are reported to receive $750 million a year in marketing dollars from snack and processed food companies. (Egan 2002).