Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Media and Children: It’s not all about the parent

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Image by Toban Black via Flickr

Parenting is not done in a vacuum. Many people will say, “That toy/show/stereotype really isn’t that big of a deal. If children have good parents, then they will be fine.” But this type of reasoning assumes that parents have complete control over every message that their child receives from outside sources. Thinking about the theory of child development based on systems of influence, it is clear that as children develop, they begin to understand the world and their place in it not only from their parents’ perspective, but from the information and messages that they receive from macrosystems such as media and culture.

Parents and media have some commonalities in the things that they communicate to children. Both have a distinctive worldview that colors the way they see the world around them. A worldview is simply the lens through which we view the world, the assumptions that we make about truth, value, and humanity. Parents, knowingly or not, will teach their children how to look at and think about the world around them. Some parents emphasize the goodness of humanity, while others emphasize the basic evil of people. Media and marketing campaigns are developed by people who have their own worldviews as well, and on top of that, these campaigns are promoting consumption. The point behind them is to sell something, so of course they will work to make us feel that we need it, whether it’s a beauty product or the latest toy.

So how are media and marketing companies different from parents in their influence on children? First of all, they bring billions of dollars to the table to set up campaigns that are designed to entice children and adolescents into wanting their product. Marketers hired by companies to promote their products spend $17 billion each year marketing to children (Schor, 2004). Seventeen billion dollars! That’s a lot of money put into influencing a child, and a lot of thought goes into how that money is spent to get the biggest bang for the buck. Neuromarketing is used to understand just how to influence children and their decision-making. Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience techniques to analyze and understand how people behave in relation to advertisements (Lee, Broderick, & Chamberlain, 2007). Marketers use this tool by hooking EEG or MEG equipment up to children and looking at how they react to different ads and stimuli in them. What bothers me about the use of neuromarketing, especially when applied to children, is that it uses subtle ways of manipulating our brain that we might not notice. For example, the power of a well-known brand (such as Disney or McDonalds) can be used to persuade us that something is actually better than we might otherwise think it is if it did not have that particular brand on it. I myself have fallen into the trap of thinking, “Oh, this movie will be fine, it’s Disney.” What is frustrating is that often times these trusted brands just cannot be trusted when it comes to sending our children healthy messages about gender, such as Disney’s focus on princesses who are often passive and rely on men to save them or solve their problems.

We know that children and even adolescents are not always able to understand the way that advertising works. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has gone so far as to suggest that legislation that provides significant restrictions on advertising to children would be appropriate given their study of both the harmfulness of the message and the inability of children and adolescents to understand the purpose of advertisements (Report on Children, Adolescents, and Advertising, 2006).

So you see, the argument that if parents were only good enough, marketing and media wouldn’t influence their children is just ridiculous. Even with the best of intentions, there is no way that parents can fend off every message that their child is sent by media and marketing messages that have billions of dollars and heaps of research behind the way they influence children.

However, parents DO have the chance to be a huge influence in how their child processes all of these messages that they receive. So what can parents do to equip children to respond effectively to media messages?

  • Spend time with your child building your relationship. The number one way that parents influence children is by building a strong, warm relationship with them. This gives your child a good foundation in the worldview that your family espouses. If you have been building up the idea in their mind that their value comes from their character and kindness, they will be less likely to mindlessly adopt the message sent by media that their value comes from their physical appearance and ability to form romantic relationships.
  • Educate your child about media and marketing. From an early age, let your children know that advertisements are made to get them to want to buy something. You can do things like playing games trying to pick out the ads from a TV show or Internet game, then each of you can guess what the ad is selling. As your child gets older, spend time watching media with them and talking about what you see. The more you help your child learn to identify media messages and then critique them, the more active they will be in responding to those messages.

No, parents are not powerless in the face of media and marketing. On the other hand, the assertion that ONLY parents influence a child’s perspective about themselves and the world is not supportable. Our children deserve better than to be targeted in such a craven manner, and it’s up to consumers and activists to fight against that. This is a social justice issue, our children have a right to their childhood and it’s time for us to fight to take it back.

American Academy of Pediatrics (2006). Children, adolescents, and advertising. Pediatrics, 2563-2569.

Lee, N., Broderick, A.J., & Chamberlain, L. (2007). What is neuromarketing? A discussion and agenda for future research. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 63, 199-204.

Schor, J.  (2004). Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner, p. 21.

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9 comments on “Media and Children: It’s not all about the parent

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  2. Dawn
    January 25, 2012

    Great post. Thanks for being a voice of reason!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 25, 2012

      Thanks, Dawn. As the mother of 3 children who has worked very hard to deal with negative media, I have seen that it just isn’t true that “if the parents only….” Parents do have power and they can do a lot, but as long as children are being targeted by companies with billions of dollars and tons of research about how to influence our children, we cannot completely control the impact of media.

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