As a blogger, speaker, and activist, I often hear from people who do not believe that media and marketing really impact children. These people seem quite certain that children can be exposed to any kind of media, marketing, or product, and it just will not matter as long as the parents are teaching their child specific values. For example, several commenters on blog posts and my Facebook page have stated that as long as a parent teaches girls that their value comes from within, no amount of exposure to sexualized and objectifying media or marketing will impact that girl’s belief about where her value lies.
Hmm…I am not buying that. Let me explain why. You can see in previous posts that I’ve written that parenting is not performed in a vacuum, and that messages from the environment do matter. From a psychological perspective, it is important to understand how the environment impacts children, and the long history of research that supports that idea.
It is really helpful to use the bioecological theory as a model to understand how environmental factors affect a child’s response to sexualized media. This model was developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979; 1992, 2005; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998; 2006). From Bronfenbrenner’s perspective, both a child’s temperament and the setting in which she lives lead the child to learn, think, and grow in particular ways. This perspective provides us with a way of looking at the forces of influence in a child’s environment.
There are four components within this model that are crucial to child development. The ideas within the model are:
(PPCT; Bronfenbrenner, 2005, Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006)
The child develops through the process of interacting with things within the immediate environment, such as family and community, but also through interactions with things within the wider (or as Bronfenbrenner would say macro) environment, such as a media and marketing. Components of the person her or himself, such as temperament and past experience, influence the way the child interprets and responds to that interaction. The context of the systems of influence (micro, macro, and meso) will shape the child’s understanding of and ability to respond to interactions with media and marketing. The time in which he is growing and learning influence the type of environment that the child will interact with.
Children growing up today are living within a time that is different from any other when it comes to media and marketing exposure. From the car to the school halls, children are inundated with media and marketing messages. Both who a child is individually and the contexts of the variables within their lives, such as family and community, will shape the way the child processes her interactions with sexualized media.
The concept of process helps us understand the idea that mediating variables, such as family and community, within a child’s life influence his or her response to sexualized media. Bronfenbrenner says that “development takes place through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interaction between an active, evolving…human…and the persons, objects, and symbols in its immediate external environment” (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998, pg. 996).
It is through these everyday interactions with other people and the environment that the child begins to make sense of the world and understand her place within it (Tudge, Mokrova, Hatfiled, & Karnik, 2009).
This is why it is vital for caregivers to be aware of the impact that sexualized media and marketing have on a child’s development. Once the caregiver understands that sexualized messages promote the concept that female power comes from their sexual attractiveness and that males are sexual consumers, they can begin to harness the strength of the family and community to promote media literacy. This shifts a child away from being a passive consumer and into being actively involved in critiquing the messages they receive through media and marketing.
Bronfenbrenner viewed the process of development as one in which the child can learn to fit into the existing environment and expectations, but can also change the order of things through their own actions (Tudge et al. 2009). When we provide children with the tools to critique and challenge the messages from sexualized media and marketing, they can become change makers. Their actions through media literacy programs, activism, and creation lead to change in their environment.
That is how we help the children in our lives become world changers. First we must be aware of the way that media influences children, and then we can help them grow into active, fully engaged consumers and creators.