Kids today are bombarded with a constant barrage of advertising, often camouflaged as entertainment, and not even the top researchers in the field know exactly how it might be influencing them. That's because there's scant research on how many of the newer types of ads, such as online games created by companies or viral marketing, might be affecting young minds.
"No one knows what impact these new media platforms will have, and there's clear evidence that media and screen time can affect kids' brain development," says James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides education and advocacy around media issues affecting kids. He adds that research shows teen girls can suffer from body image issues and eating disorders related to media and advertising messages.
According to a research brief published by Common Sense Media this spring, kids age 8 and older spend an average of over seven hours a day watching TV, using the computer or engaging with other types of screen time. Kids between ages 2 and 8 spend almost two hours a day watching or interacting with a screen. Almost all types of screen media involve some kind of advertising, the report notes, adding that there is a dearth of research on just how those marketing messages impact kids and teens.
Previous research has found that children lack the ability to view marketing messages skeptically -- or even identify them as marketing messages versus pure entertainment -- until they are teenagers. That means they can perceive advertising messages as truths, and those messages can stick with them into adulthood.
In fact, a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research found that the impact of exposure to childhood advertising can linger well into adulthood, continuing to influence how even grown-ups perceive brands. "So much of the advertising oriented toward children is about fun," says Merrie Brucks, co-author of the paper and professor of marketing at University of Arizona's Eller College of Management. On an unconscious level, adults continue to perceive those same brands and their products as not only fun, but also as healthy , which might not be the case.
"They have a perception of how healthy [the food] is, and that's the unconscious bias," Brucks says. The study focused on advertising around sweetened cereals, soft drinks, snacks and fast food, including the mascots Tony the Tiger and Ronald McDonald.
Brucks adds that her findings can be applied to public health and safety goals. If children learn how to prevent forest fires from the lovable Smokey Bear as children, then they are more likely to continue to embrace that message even as they age. "I would advise that for safety and health campaigns, targeting some dangerous teen behaviors like texting and driving while kids are young enough to be very open to messages from mascots [can be an effective strategy]," Brucks says.
Because the study focused on how today's adults are affected by advertising from their youth, it did not look at the newer forms of advertising online and through social media, which is often designed to create a greater degree of engagement among (even the youngest) customers. "Kids are becoming part of the product-selling cycle," notes Steyer, referring to the fact that companies engage them in their marketing techniques by directing them to tweet, like and otherwise share their products with their social circles online. "That can be particularly troubling for kids and teens, who are less able to differentiate advertising from entertainment, and their sense of self is still developing," he adds.
Steyer says he would like to see legislation from Congress as well as regulation from the Federal Trade Commission that further restricts advertising aimed at kids and teens and also does more to protect their privacy. In the meantime, parents can also help kids think more critically about advertising messages.
Their young brains might not have developed the cognitive ability to respond to media messages with skepticism yet, but parents can explain how to identify ads, as well as to protect their privacy. "Help them learn to think before they send, and pause before they post or tweet," Steyer says. Otherwise, they might be unwitting accomplices to a bigger media campaign.
[Read: How to Protect Kids' Privacy Online.]
Websites like Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) and PBS Kids (pbskids.org/dontbuyit/advertisingtricks/) also provide tools to help parents and kids understand and protect themselves from potentially harmful media and advertising. Common Sense Media rates movies, TV shows, games and other media forms across a variety of measures, including consumerism. For the Disney movie "Frozen," for example, Common Sense Media's generally positive review notes that while there aren't commercial messages in the movie itself, there are many "merchandise tie-ins," including costumes, figurines and accessories.
Parents can also turn to new technology for help. Some apps, like Kidoz, which is available on Android, put smartphones into a kid-friendly mode that prevent them from seeing inappropriate content, including ads. "It creates a safe environment for kids, like a child-lock," says Kidoz CEO Gai Havkin.
That kind of kid-friendly environment can be an elusive haven in a media world filled with hidden -- and overt -- marketing messages.
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