Can You Buy That For Me? The Effect of Advertising on Our Children

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Several years ago, I taught a class at UofSC called “Using Information Resources.” One of the topics I covered was Media Literacy. My students all hoped to be future classroom teachers, so in this particular lesson, I focused on advertisements and pop-up ads that are found on television during children’s programming and in magazines, comic books, apps/websites for children.

I invited Media Literacy expert, Frank Baker, to speak to my students, and he led them in a hands-on activity about advertising to children. Baker has been a media educator for 20+ years – having first worked in broadcast television and then in public education as a specialist in instructional television. The information he shared was eye opening then, as an educator, and now that I am a parent, I see first hand the effects advertising has on little brains! My daughter is five, but I was seeing the effect of advertising on her from as young as two years old. As she grows older, it just gets worse. 

When my daughter is watching television (and with the current pandemic, let’s be honest – she is watching more than before), in particular “live” television, like Nick Jr or Disney Channel, she not only has the influence of the program she is watching but, she has the added bonus of commercials. It does not matter what the commercial is for (last year – it was non-stick pans), I hear, “MOMMY! Come look!” or “MOMMY! I want that!” or, even better, “MOMMY! Buy that for me!” Advertising on apps is even worse. 

Because Frank Baker was such a wonderful resource to me as an educator, I asked him what I can do, as a parent, to help with the barrage of media on my five year old’s brain.

Baker says his first piece of advice might be the most important:

“Every parent should be co-viewing with their child–sitting alongside watching. So, for example, if a child sees a commercial for a toy that’s doing impossible things on screen, the parent could interject that the commercial is not realistic: that the people who made the commercial want to make it desirable so that children will beg their parents to buy it.”

(See The Benefits of Watching TV With Young Children

For older children, he says, “Parents could go online with their child and read reviews of toys before considering the purchase.”

Baker also says, “Parents should know these (toy) ads are highly persuasive and deceptive. Young eyes and minds cannot yet recognize the techniques being used to make the products look better than they really are. In media literacy workshops I do with teachers and students, we learn how a camera angle (for example) might make a toy look larger than it really is. (Another tip: notice that frequently children who are portrayed playing with the toy are actually older than the age the toy is intended for.) Next, parents should really be aware of the small print (if they can read it) in ads. Often times, you might hear the words ‘batteries not included, some assembly required.’ ”

The Effects of Screen Time on Children

For more information about the effects of screen time on your little’s brain (and not just on your budget), Baker recommends reading The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines to parents

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

Additional Resources

Websites you can visit to learn more about the media and children:

What experiences do you have with your children and media? 

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Valerie Byrd Fort was born in Florida, but when she was four years old, her family moved to the midlands and never looked back. She is mom to Katy (human) and to Lucky, Mozzy, and Penny (rescue dogs). She is married to Marty Fort, owner of the Lexington School of Music, Columbia Arts Academy, and Irmo Music Academy. She is an Instructor for the School of Library & Information Science at the University of South Carolina, where she teaches Children’s Literature to future classroom teachers and librarians. She is also Coordinator for Cocky's Reading Express, the University of South Carolina's literacy outreach program. Valerie is passionate about books, literacy, libraries, and reading aloud with children of ALL ages. She writes about books and other literacy related topics on her blog, Library Goddess. In her free time, Valerie enjoys reading, Barre3, going to Target and endless scrolling of social media  

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