Before having kids, I never thought I'd be the kind of mom who would let her preschooler watch television after school each day. Even the educational, 20-minute shows without advertising that my 4-year-old daughter enjoys. But I do let her watch a brief program after school, because it helps her unwind, and it helps me feed her younger brother his dinner without too much chaos.
The problem, though, is that ad-free doesn't really mean ad-free. When I select a kids' program for her through the Comcast On Demand kids' shows, there are no advertising breaks in the midst of programs, but there is a short promotional spot, often for other kids' shows or related apps, both before and after the show. After her show wrapped up one recent afternoon, she glimpsed a promotional spot for a new reading and writing iPad app. She immediately informed me that she needed it.
Never mind that the app seemed to be aimed at kids with learning disabilities who were behind their peers when it came to recognizing letters -- a challenge that my daughter does not struggle with. Never mind that the app was completely unnecessary for her, since she enjoys reading chapter books with me each night, without the assistance of an electronic gadget. The ad convinced her that she needed this product, and she needed it now. And as anyone with a preschooler can tell you, 4-year-olds can be very insistent when they want something.
I managed to distract her with dinner that evening, but thought of her reaction to that ad as I interviewed advertising experts for my story, " How to Protect Kids from Powerful Advertising." I learned that young kids don't even have the cognitive ability to distinguish between ads and entertainment. That makes them perfectly gullible consumers, unable to treat advertising messages skeptically.
While no harm might come out of my daughter wanting an educational iPad app, other types of advertising aimed at kids can have more nefarious results. Research spearheaded by Merrie Brucks, professor of marketing at University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, found that the sugary cereal mascots aimed at kids can continue to affect how they think about those brands into adulthood. They might find themselves drawn to those sugary cereals, even mistakenly thinking they are healthy, because of advertising messages and their bond with those childhood mascots.
James Steyer, who feels so passionately about protecting kids from advertising and harmful media messages that he founded Common Sense Media dedicated to that mission, had an even scarier warning. He points to research suggesting that advertising and media messages can contribute to body image issues and eating disorders among teen girls. "Their sense of self is still developing," he says, noting that advertising messages can reach them at a particularly vulnerable time.
Busy parents like me need tools to help us navigate this minefield, and fortunately, some good ones exist. After making the mistake of turning on the movie "Finding Nemo" for my daughter, only to have her petrified when Nemo loses his parents in the opening scene, I now always check the Common Sense Media ratings before showing my daughter any movie or television show. They are rated for a variety of measures, including consumerism, violence and scariness, educational value and positive messages. It's what let me know my daughter was ready to watch "Tangled," but not "Peter Pan." (If only I had checked the site for its "Finding Nemo" review before pressing "play," I could have saved us from that traumatic moment.)
I'm still struggling to find my way around the very modern parenting dilemma of limiting screen time, especially when smartphone and other digital devices abound, and how to explain that some types of apps and shows are OK to watch and some are not. Certain games, like "Angry Birds," might seem OK , but then adult advertising pops up , and it quickly crosses the line to inappropriate. New apps like Kidoz are designed to help protect kids from adult-themed content on parents' phones, but I haven't yet found one that works for me.
I'm also very frustrated with Comcast On Demand , which doesn't let parents bypass the extremely violent and disturbing advertising aimed at adults when selecting kids' shows. I have officially complained to Comcast about this over Twitter, and the customer service rep resentative said other parents have made the same complaint and it has been passed on to the company. I hope the Comcast executives listen and decide to take action. In the meantime, I just press "mute" and instruct my daughter to avert her eyes. When her show ends and I'm in the middle of giving her brother a bath or otherwise engaged, though, the adult ads pop back up -- it's a serious problem.
For now, I am sticking with a policy similar to the one my parents applied to me some 30 years ago. I try to limit my daughter's media consumption as much as possible, steering her toward imaginative play and books instead, and when she does watch a show or glimpse ads with confusing themes, we try to talk about it.
If you've come up with better strategies in your own household, I would love to hear them -- please share in the comments below.
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