I’ll admit it—the first brand name my son recognized was Starbucks. This probably says something about the coffee habits in our family. However, it also says something about the advertising and branded world we live in. At the time of this recognition my son was about 2 or 2.5 years old. It just goes to show how powerful branded messages and advertising are for even the youngest members of our society.
After reading this disturbing article that explained that the 0-3 year old age range is now the prime target for advertisers, I started to delve more into the research on advertising to children.
What I found was not encouraging. It seems clear that advertisers focus a lot of their time and money on ads for food products targeted to kids, most of which are quite unhealthy. A study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that advertising on children’s television (aimed at kids under age 12) had the highest proportion of food ads (50% of all ads) compared to all other genres of TV. What types of foods do these ads promote? Much like you might expect, these food ads targeted toward children primarily focus on candy and snacks (34%), cereal (28%), and fast food (10%).
Unfortunately, this type of advertising works. Studies show that children who watch more ads for food products on television are much more likely to prefer unhealthy foods when offered a choice.
So why is this advertising to children so effective? One factor, of course, is the advertisers are smart—they have harnessed the knowledge of psychology and marketing to be able to market products (especially food) to children in just the right way to make it very appealing to little minds.
Additionally, as we all know, children are relatively impressionable. Young children, in particular, have very little power to resist advertising when they see it. They do not yet have the skills to understand the advertisers’ persuasive tactics.
Lastly, and perhaps most disturbing, advertisers are aware of and have harnessed the power of “the nag factor.” We all know what that means. Kids nag their parents incessantly for products that they’ve seen advertised, usually on TV. One recent study looked at the “nag factor” and found that kids who are more familiar with commercial television characters are more likely to nag their parents for the products associated with those characters.
For me, one of the most problematic aspects of all this advertising to children is that the advertisers are really trying to indoctrinate kids into the idea that life should be all about purchasing and getting material things.
The good news is that parents are not helpless in this battle with advertisers for their children’s minds (and stomachs). Although advertising, particularly related to food items, is very persuasive to children, parents can be quite persuasive too as long as they promote a constant message of healthy food choices.
In a new study just published, several researchers considered the role of parents’ messages in the food choices made by children ages 3-5 just after watching advertising for food products. In one part of the study, children watched a commercial for French fries and were then given the option to choose French fries or a healthier food option for a snack. Parents looked on and one group was told to encourage their children to make the healthier choice, while the other group of parents was told to remain neutral about the food choice. When parents remained neutral, 71% of the children chose the French fries over the healthy option. However, when parents encouraged a healthier choice, the percentage of kids choosing French fries dropped to 55%. While this is not a dramatic drop, it does show that parental influence does have power, even in light of direct advertising for unhealthy products.
I think it’s unlikely that this type of marketing will end or even slow down, but this research offers encouragement that we as parents can influence good choices by our children, as long as we adhere to a clear, consistent message. It is obvious that advertising has a strong impact on children, so limiting children’s exposure to commercials will most likely make your children’s choices better in the long run and perhaps your life a little easier as a parent (e.g., less nagging).
Additionally, as children get older, I could see it being helpful to explain to them how advertisers play their game. If kids can understand why and how advertising is so persuasive, they might be more likely to resist it.
With my older son, I have begun explaining how some things we see on TV or the internet are a “trick.” The people making the product are trying to “trick” us into spending money on something that is either unhealthy or useless (like a junky toy). I have been reminding him of times when he bought a cheap toy and was bored with it after a day or two. These lessons are starting to sink in but it is an ongoing battle with advertising.
Here are some good resources available for helping kids learn media literacy:
Homework is an important part of your child’s education and as a parent you can take steps to help them to get the most from it.
Managing homework can be a source of tension. Three parents share the tips that helped them.
Turn Off the TV During Homework
“Before I did this, my younger son would always be creeping off to watch cartoons. Now that’s not an option, it’s much easier to get homework done. Interestingly, his headmistress thinks that’s the best policy, too. She often sees a big improvement in overall mood and performance in children who have this partial ban.”
Don’t Help Your Children with Homework
“They’re not being marked on what you can do,” says Linda, 39, mum to twin eight-year-old girls. “I know people who virtually do their children’s homework for them, but what’s the point in that? It’s not a competition.”
Dr Susan Hallam of the Institute of Education also advises that you offer moral support, but only give help when your child asks for it.
Do Homework While Your Child’s Alert
“The golden rule with a seven-year-old is to get it done as soon as you get in from school, before tea (*dinner),” says Michael, who has a seven-year-old daughter. “The attention span deteriorates pretty quickly after tea for anything other than Barbie websites.”
Patricia agrees. “Some kids need a little downtime immediately after getting home from school, but if you leave it too late, they’ll be too tired to concentrate.”
Homework Tip: Use a Timer
“If you have one of those children who endlessly dawdle over homework, sharpening all their pencils, getting up and down or reading all their previous homework, it can sometimes help to set a timer,” says Patricia.
“If the school recommends 20 minutes a night, then set the timer for 20 minutes and say that’s the limit. This can sometimes backfire and result in hysteria though, so play it by ear.”
Let Children Know You’re on Their Side
“I find that if they’re complaining bitterly, it can help to sympathise with them,” says Patricia. “I do genuinely feel for them over homework and it does help them to know I’m on their side. But at the same time I feel I need to insist on it being done, so it’s a balancing act.”
Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.
Do you have a child who is often emotional or moody – or prone to anxiety or depression? If so, you might be familiar with the negative self-talk that often contributes to these conditions. And, actually, any child – or adult – is subject to these thoughts on occasion.
Negative or anxious self-talk – sometimes also called “automatic negative thoughts” – is unhelpful, often skewed thinking that tends to drive negative emotions and behaviors. For example, your daughter might react to a friend who gets angry while playing and goes home, by thinking “I’m no fun to play with….nobody likes me” – and might avoid inviting any other kids to come over and play.
I learned about the concept of negative self-talk years ago through cognitive behavioral therapy while dealing with issues from my childhood. But I was surprised when I first began noticing examples of this thought pattern in my young son. When Elliott was in his first couple of years of elementary school, he would often come home at the end of the day and report that his day was “terrible”.
After digging a little I would often find out that one “bad” thing had happened each of these days – which then tainted the whole rest of the day. This overgeneralization / all-or-nothing thinking is an example of negative self-talk – and caused Elliott to have negative emotions about school and resist going in the mornings.
There are several different types of negative or anxious self-talk. A good reference book on anxiety for teens and kids – My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic (by Michael A. Tompkins, PhD and Katherine Martinez PhD) – gives an interesting classification for these unhelpful thoughts (a summary is listed at the end of this post). This book was recommended to me by a child and family psychologist and is well worth a read.
As the book title suggests, there are ways to deal with and manage such unhelpful thinking – and it’s useful to start early with kids who are prone to negative thoughts. At a minimum, it helps to start by identifying and unpacking the negative thought.
For example, with my son Elliott and his “terrible” days at school, I started asking him if anything good happened during the day. This got him to go over all the events of his time at school and put the “bad” experience into context – and I suggested that one or two bad experiences might not make a whole day terrible. Pretty soon, when I asked him how his day was, Elliott would outline how different parts of the day went (great, so-so, neutral, awful, etc) – and this pattern has persisted for more than five years! Even better, he has generally been much more positive about his school days ever since.
Additional exercises for recognizing and dealing with negative self-talk are provided in My Anxious Mind. Another practical book, with useful exercise to help teens cope with negative thoughts and other drivers of anxiety, is The Anxiety Workbook for Teens, by Lisa M. Schab, LCSW.
Types of Anxious Self-Talk (from My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic)
This is anxious thinking that assumes there are only two possible outcomes of a situation – both at opposite extremes, with no possibilities in the middle. So, the child in the earlier example might be focused on how the play date with her friend needed to be perfect, and if that didn’t happen it would be a disaster.
In this unhelpful thought process, your child will “magnify” the effect of something bad – like failing a test – and assume that he won’t be able to go to college as a result. Or he might “shrink” the importance of something good, like all his excellent grades in other classes.
This type of self-talk involves your child thinking he or she can predict the future – usually thinking something bad will happen. For example, your child is engaging in fortune telling if she decides to audition for a part in the school play but spends the weeks leading up to the audition thinking “I’m not going to get the part”. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t – but she doesn’t know, and anxious self-talk won’t help the outcome either way.
In the earlier example, the girl whose friend got angry and went home assumed that she could read her friend’s mind; that the friend thought she wasn’t fun and didn’t like her anymore. This is the mind reading track – and it’s important for the girl to know she isn’t a psychic and her friend will probably be back to play the next day.
With overgeneralization, similar to binocular vision, your child will focus on something small (usually bad) to make broad conclusions or sweeping statements – like, if one friend gets angry at me then no one likes me. Or if your son has one bad soccer game, assuming he’s no good and will get cut from the team.
End of the World
With this anxious track, your child is always expecting something terrible to happen. This could be at school or in relationships with friends, but it could also be thinking that every noise around the house is a burglar.
Too many thoughts with “shoulds” and “musts” can set the bar for performance and life experience way too high – and make your child anxious and less confident.
In this type of unhelpful thinking your child will jump to conclusions (usually negative) without all the facts – like when hearing that he isn’t invited to a party at a friend’s house, your son assumes his friend doesn’t like him. Getting the facts might tell him otherwise, especially if he finds out it’s a family-only affair (for example).
We have heard the stories in the news all the time—some say kids are “overscheduled” and need more time to play. On the other side, parents of the “tiger mom” variety tend to want their children constantly in activities and lessons to encourage their growth and development.
Until recently, the one voice you hadn’t heard on this topic was the one of science. Child development researchers are now trying to delve into this topic and understand the relationship between structured activities and children’s development.
In one of the first studies of this kind, researchers at The University of Colorado (CU) looked at the connection between how kids spend their time (structured vs. unstructured activities) and the development of executive function.
As you may know, executive function is one of the key regulatory skills that develops during childhood and is crucial to children’s success and well-being later in life. Executive function includes things like planning ahead, goal-oriented behavior, suppression of unwanted thoughts or behaviors, and delaying gratification. These skills have been shown to predict children’s academic and social outcomes years down the road. Based on this, you can see why researchers (and parents) are interested in understanding anything related to how executive function develops.
In the recent CU study, scientists asked 6-year-olds to record their daily activities for a week. They then categorized these activities as “structured” or “unstructured” according to a classification system previously developed by economists.
For example, activities such as sports lessons, religious activities, and chores were classified as “structured activities.” In contrast, activities such as free play (alone or with others), sightseeing, or media use were considered “less structured.” Routine activities such as going to school, sleeping, or eating were not classified in either category.
The researchers then analyzed the relationship between children’s time activities and their level of executive function. The results showed that there was, indeed, a correlation between these factors. The more time children spent in structured activities, the lower their scores on the assessment of executive function. In contrast, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the higher their assessment of executive function.
First of all, it’s important to note that this is just one study in what I hope will be a whole line of research in this area. In social science, you cannot base recommendations on one study.
Secondly, this study was small (70 children) and was only correlational, meaning we do not know if structured vs. unstructured activities cause a change in executive function or if there is something else going on here. What this study does show is that there is some relationship between these factors that deserves further study.
What does this really mean? How could unstructured activities help in the development of executive function? Although researchers do not know for sure, it seems like this may be related to the research on boredom. More and more studies are showing how “boredom” or what adults would simply call “downtime” is related to a variety of positive mental states.
For example, boredom is likely associated with people being more creative. Boredom also allows for the development of new interests, self-reflection and goal-setting.
Additionally, some would argue that a lack of downtime or time for boredom allows kids to become so accustomed to a fast-paced lifestyle that anything less-than-exciting seems uninteresting. One philosopher put it this way,
“A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.”
All of this is definitely food for thought in terms of parenting. While we do not know for sure how these factors impact each other, it looks like there is some relationship between level of structured activities and the development of executive function. This is something to consider as you plan activities for your child.
The next time your child says, “I’m bored” consider looking at it as an opportunity to support their creativity and problem-solving abilities.
If your child is asking questions about sex, they’re ready for truthful answers. It’s never too early to start talking about it – find out how to go about it.
Young children are naturally curious about their bodies and other people. By answering any questions they ask, you can help them understand their bodies, their feelings and other people’s feelings. This is a good basis for open and honest communication about sex and relationships, growing up and going through puberty.
Talking to children about sex won’t make them go out and do it. Evidence shows that children whose parents talk about sex openly start having sex at a later stage and are more likely to use contraception.
How Much Should I Tell My Child About Sex?
You don’t have to go into detail. A short, simple answer might be enough. For example, if your three-year-old asks why she hasn’t got a penis like her brother, you could tell her that boys have penises on the outside and girls have vaginas on the inside. This could be enough to satisfy her curiosity.
Work out exactly what your child wants to know. For example, if they ask a question, such as “Where do babies come from?”, identify what they’re asking. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
You could answer by saying: “Babies grow in a woman’s tummy, and when they’re ready they come out into the world”. This might be enough.
If not, your child’s follow-up question could be, “How does the baby get in there?” You could answer, “A man puts a seed in there”. Or your child may ask, “How does the baby get out?” You could answer, “It comes out through a special passage in the woman’s body called a vagina”.
What do Children Need to Know About Sex?
They need to know that it’s OK to talk about sex and relationships, and that you’re happy to talk about it. They’ll learn this through your tone and manner when you talk about sex, so try to treat sex as a normal, everyday subject.
Beyond sex, your child needs to know the following main topics:
- The changes to expect during puberty – find out more about girls’ bodies and boys’ bodies
- How babies are made
- How pregnancy happens and how contraception can prevent it – find out more about getting pregnant
- Safer sex and how to use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Where they can get information and advice about sex and relationships – find out more about getting contraception
- Sexuality, and that it’s OK to be gay
Girls need to know about periods before they’re around 10 years old, and boys need to know about the changes they can expect before they’re around 12. There’s no reason for girls and boys not to learn the same things. For example, boys can learn about periods, and girls can learn about erections.
If your child is approaching the age where they need to know about puberty or sex and relationships, but they’re not asking questions about it, use everyday situations to lead to the conversation. For example, you could talk about a story in a TV programme, or bring up periods when you see sanitary pads in a shop.
Tell your child that they’re growing up, there will be some changes that happen to everyone and you want to let them know what to expect.
Why Your Child Should Know About Sex
Children need to know about sex, pregnancy, contraception and safer sex before they start any sexual activity. This is so they will know what to think about, such as safer sex and not doing anything they don’t want to do. This way, they can make decisions that are right for them when the time comes.
Most young people in the UK don’t have sex until they’re at least 16. Those who have sex before that age will need to know how to look after themselves.
Everyone needs to know about safer sex, whether they’re straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Women can pass STIs on to women and men can pass STIs on to men. For more information, see sexual health for women who have sex with women and for men who have sex with men.
Have an Answer Ready For Awkward Situations
No matter how open you are about sex, there will be times when you need a quick answer to deal with awkward questions, for example, in the supermarket queue or on a bus.
Say something like, “That’s a good question. I’d like to talk about that when we get home”, or “That’s a good question, but we need to talk about it in private”. Make sure you remember to talk about it later.
Read a useful leaflet on talking to your child about sex and relationships (PDF, 1.54Mb).
To find out where to get more information on sex, relationships, contraception and STIs, see Who can I go to for advice?
Course on Talking About Sex and Relationships for Parents
Researchers from Coventry University have designed an online course to help parents talk with their children about sex and relationships.
Parents can choose three modules covering the importance of communication and skills and timing for how they talk with their child.
Advice and examples are given for children aged 5 to 10, and also for tweens and teens.
Check out the course: Besavvy About Having Difficult Conversations.
“Watching TV for three hours a day will not harm your children”, The Independent reports. However, The Daily Express contradicts this, saying “Too much television turns children into monsters”. In this case, The Independent is closer to the truth.
It has long been said that too much TV or video games could be bad for children. The study reported in the news set out to discover whether there is any truth in this belief.
It was a large UK study, tracking children aged from five to seven years of age, to see what – if any – effect TV viewing and video game playing had on their behaviour, attention span, emotions and peer relationships.
- Researchers found that regularly watching three hours a day was linked to a tiny increase in ‘conduct problems’ (essentially ‘being naughty’) after adjusting for many factors. This was just one of many outcomes the researchers examined. There was no evidence that TV viewing affected other issues, including hyperactivity, emotions and peer relationships.
- Interestingly, there was also no association between time spent playing video games and any emotional or behavioural problems.
Unfortunately, this research can’t conclusively tell us if there’s a link between watching TV and psychological and behavioural problems. From these limited results, it seems that any such link is likely to be small. Other influences are very likely to play a more significant role in children’s developing emotions and behaviour.
How much TV should my child watch?
Unlike some other countries, including the US, there is no official UK recommendation on how much TV a child should watch. (Editor’s Note: click here for US screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics)
A common sense approach suggests ‘everything in moderation’. Many programmes aimed at children are now designed to be stimulating or educational, so you may want to think about what programmes your kids watch, as well as how much. However, other activities such as regular exercise, playing with others, and reading are also important to their development.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the Medical Research Council/SCO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow. It was funded by the UK Medical Research Council.
The media reported this story from two opposing angles, with headlines either suggesting that watching TV does not harm children (The Independent, and BBC News), or concentrating on the small increase in conduct problems and suggesting that TV watching is linked to behavioural problems or that children are naughtier (The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail).
While a case could be made that the Telegraph and Mail’s headlines are accurate at face value – there was a very small increase in naughty behaviour – the tone of their headlines are not really a fair reflection of the findings of the study. However, the Daily Express claim that TV turns ‘kids into monsters’ is totally inaccurate.
What kind of research was this?
This was a cohort study. It aimed to determine whether there was a link between the amount of time spent watching TV and playing computer games at five years of age, and changes in psychosocial adjustment at seven years of age.
Cohort studies are the ideal study design for this type of research, although they cannot show causation. For example, in this study we cannot be sure that TV watching causes the increase in conduct problem score, as it could be that other factors, called confounders, are responsible for the link.
What did the research involve?
Mothers of 11,014 children in the UK Millennium Cohort study (a study of a sample of children born between September 2000 and January 2002) were asked questions about their children’s behaviour.
They were asked the typical time during term-time spent watching television and playing electronic games when children were five years of age. This was categorised into:
- Less than one hour per day
- Between one and less than three hours
- Three hours to less than five hours
- Between five hours and less than seven hours
- Seven hours or more per day
Using the ‘Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire’, when children were five and seven years of age, researchers assessed:
- Conduct problems
- Emotional symptoms
- Peer relationship problems
- Prosocial behaviour (helpful behaviour)
The researchers collected information on maternal characteristics, family characteristics and family functioning (potential confounding factors), including:
- Mother’s ethnicity, education, employment, and physical and mental health
- Family’s household income
- Family composition
- Warmth and conflict in the mother-child relationship at three years of age – as assessed by interview
- Frequency of parent-child joint activities at five years of age
- “Household chaos” – a psychological term used to describe how chaotic or not daily life in the house tends to be in terms of issues such as sticking to set routines, household noise and how crowded the house is
The researchers also collected information on the child’s characteristics at five years of age, including:
- Cognitive development (assessed by the researchers)
- Whether they had a long-term illness or disability (reported by the mother)
- Sleeping difficulties
- The amount of physical activity they performed
- Negative attitudes at school
The researchers then looked to see if there was an association between time spent watching television and playing electronic games and psychosocial problems, after adjusting for maternal characteristics, family characteristics and functioning, and child characteristics.
What were the basic results?
Almost two-thirds of children in this study watched between one hour and three hours of TV per day aged five years old, with 15% watching more than three hours of TV and very few children (<2%) watching no TV. The majority of children played computer games for less than one hour per day, with 23% of children playing for one hour or more.
Initially, the researchers found that exposure to either TV or games for three hours or more was associated with an increase in all problems, and three hours or more of TV with reduced prosocial behaviour. However, after maternal and family characteristics, child characteristics and family functioning were adjusted for, the researchers found that:
- Watching TV for three hours or more per day at five years of age, compared to watching television for under an hour, predicted a 0.13 point increase (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.03 to 0.24) in conduct problems at seven years of age (after adjusting for the amount of time spent playing computer games).
- No association between time spent watching TV and emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention and prosocial behaviour was found.
- The amount of time spent playing electronic games was not associated with any emotional or behaviour problems.
- When television watching and time spent playing electronic games were considered together, it was again found that three hours or more per day of screen time was associated with a 0.14 point increase (95% CI 0.05 to 0.24) in conduct problems compared to scores for those who watched less than an hour, but that screen time was not associated with emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention or prosocial behaviour.
- There was no evidence that screen time had different effects on boys and girls.
The researchers report that the relationships remain the same when current (at age seven years) screen time was adjusted for.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers concluded that “TV but not electronic games predicted a small increase in conduct problems. Screen time did not predict other aspects of psychosocial adjustment.” The researchers go on to add that further work is required to establish the cause of these relationships.
This large UK cohort study has found that watching TV for three hours or more daily at five years predicted a small increase in conduct problems between the ages of five and seven years compared to watching TV for under an hour (0.13 point increase, on average). However, the time spent watching TV was not linked to hyperactivity/inattention, emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, or prosocial behaviour.
The time spent playing electronic games was not associated with any emotional or behavioural problems.
Strengths of this study include the fact that it was large and well designed. It also accounted for many of the potential “confounding” factors (although there may still be others that weren’t accounted for), and examined TV/video/DVD watching (considered passive activities) and playing computer games (active activities) separately, which many previous studies have failed to do.
However, this study does have a significant limitation in that it relied on the mother’s reporting of both watching TV or playing computer games, and the child’s emotional and behavioural problems.
Although increased television watching was associated with an increase conduct problem score, it is not known whether the minimal point increases in average score for this sample between the ages of five and seven would actually make any noticeable difference to an individual child’s overall functioning and behaviour.
The study also suggests that family characteristics and functioning, and child characteristics also play an important role in the development of emotional and behavioural problems and that it may not be down to TV viewing alone.
Adjusting for confounders such as family composition, mother-child relationship and child’s activity levels had a significant effect on the initial results. This arguably suggests that these types of factors may have a considerable influence on how a child develops, rather than TV watching.
Given the lack of significant associations found between TV viewing and game playing and child psychosocial problems, no conclusive answers can be drawn from this study alone.
Further work is required to examine the child and family characteristics which could be targeted to improve outcomes.
“Watching TV for three hours a day will not harm your children”, The Independent reports. However, The Daily Express contradicts this, saying “Too much television turns children into monsters”. In this case.
Links to Headlines
- Watching TV for three hours a day will not harm your children, parents told. The Independent, March 26 2013
- TV time ‘does not breed badly behaved children’. BBC News, March 26 2013
- Too much television turns children into monsters, British study finds. Daily Express, March 26 2013
- More than three hours of TV ‘makes youngsters naughtier by the age of seven’. Daily Mail, March 26 2013
- Television link to behaviour problems in young children. The Daily Telegraph, March 25 2013
Links to Science
- Parkes A, Sweeting H, Wight D, Henderson M. Do television and electronic games predict children’s psychosocial adjustment? Longitudinal research using the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Published online March 25 2013