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:
In this short video, Dr Rupal Shah explains how to tell if your child’s fever and vomiting are a sign of a serious illness requiring medical attention or the result of a common virus with no cause for alarm.
Editor’s Note: Video Highlights
- Fever and vomiting are common symptoms in childhood and there are many possible causes
- The most important thing to consider is how well your child appears to be….
- For example, if they’re quite drowsy and floppy or if they’re not eating, then there’s a higher chance that they could be seriously ill with a nasty infection and you should see your doctor
- If your child appears fairly well and is still eating and drinking, is still playing and interested in their environment, then it’s less likely they are suffering from a serious illness
- Also, if your child isn’t managing to tolerate any fluids you should take them to the doctor, since children get dehydrated quite easily
- Fever and vomiting can be caused by fairly common viral illness, like a rotavirus infection – or tummy bug – and generally the child is relatively well and cheerful despite throwing up at times
- However, there are more serious causes of fever and vomiting – ranging from a bladder infection all the way to meningitis
- If you’re worried that your child is less responsive, more floppy, not themselves – then it’s always worth seeking urgent medical help
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.
Halfway through the school year, Maria** became aware that her daughter Sam** wasn’t being invited to her friends’ houses anymore.
“I talked to her about her friends and why they weren’t meeting up. Eventually, she told me that they didn’t get on anymore. I found out that her old friends were excluding her.
“For example, when she bumped into them in the street, one of the girls said directly to her, ‘This is the one we’re not talking to anymore’.
“They were also really nasty in the playground. They left her standing on her own. She was still trying to be friends with them but they just ignored her. She was very upset.
“Then I witnessed an incident one Saturday afternoon.
“Two of her old friends phoned her. They asked her if she’d started her periods. She said it was none of their business, but they kept her on the phone. She wasn’t strong enough to end the conversation.
“They were laughing and shouting, ‘We want to know, we want to know’. I was standing next to her, and felt disgusted. I felt really sorry for Sam. Afterwards, I thought of calling one of the girls’ mums, but I decided not to because I thought it might make things worse.
“I was very upset because I used to spend a lot of time with these girls, but now they didn’t think my daughter was good enough for them.
“I was worried about Sam because I thought it must be horrible to believe you’ve got really good friends and then they suddenly turn against you.
How Sam got Help with Bullying
“I told Sam that she should talk to Nicole, a learning mentor at her school. I knew that Sam liked Nicole, whose role was to sort out this kind of issue.
“Soon after, Nicole contacted me. Both she and Sam’s form teacher had noticed that Sam was being bullied.
“I found out that she wasn’t only being bullied by this group. Sam is half-Polish, and another girl was calling her a ‘Polish sket’ in class.
“The school intervened quickly. They cracked down on the racist comments and the use of the insult ‘sket’. After that, the problem with that particular girl was completely resolved.
“Nicole, the learning mentor, also set up a friendship group to understand the dynamic in this circle of girls who’d all moved up from primary school together. She asked the bullies and a few other pupils to talk together about friendship, boyfriends, fashion, puberty and growing up. A lot was revealed.
“It seems that Sam’s primary school (*elementary school) friends got to know other girls at secondary school (*middle school) and became more interested in fashion, make-up and boyfriends. Because Sam was more childlike, they didn’t want her in their group anymore. She wasn’t cool enough.
“Sam was different. I think that’s often what bullying is based on. She has her own style and doesn’t follow everyone else.
“Nicole had several chats with Sam, and helped to strengthen Sam’s self-esteem. When she was picked on, Sam used to get quite upset and would try to defend herself, but now she’s able to ignore it.
“When I spoke to Sam about the meetings with Nicole, I could see that things were improving. At home, I explained to her that friendships change, and primary school (*elementary school) friends don’t necessarily stay friends for life. I didn’t want to suggest that Sam was the victim because that can make you feel weaker.
“Sam has finally found a new set of friends and is really happy with them. She’s become more confident, and she no longer tries to be friends with girls who don’t want to be friends with her.”
**The names in this article have been changed.
Bullying: Information and Support for Parents
To find out more about how you can help your child if they’ve been bullied, read Bullying: advice for parents.
Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.
Learned helplessness is defined by Google as a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression. But I think we need to question ourselves and our children more often and challenge this assumed defeat. This helplessness can become a bad habit and we need to find opportunities to make new, better habits.
The other day I was (once again) at the orthodontist with one of my kids. I should have used the restroom before I left work, but I knew we had this appointment and I didn’t want to lose any time. I made my way in the usual ridiculous traffic, picked up my son and we rushed along to the dentist. I practically ran from my car to the lobby, rode the elevator and hurried across the hall to the office…where I saw a teenage girl take the women’s room key and leave. I know it is a one-person bathroom so I wasn’t going to get in until she was finished.
I sat down, crushed, but figured it would only be another few minutes. The time stretched out and she was still not back. Then it hit me – why was I torturing myself? What would happen if I didn’t follow the standard practice? I stood up and took the men’s room key. I mean, all I needed was plumbing – does it really matter what the sign on the door says? I knew it was single occupancy so I wasn’t going to go barging in on a group of guys.
I remember when my child was younger and would tell me that she couldn’t read, yet she managed to navigate the television’s on-screen guide to find the show she wanted to watch. Sometimes the familiar “I can’t read” response was an excuse to get out of homework, sometimes it was a plea for attention or assistance and sometimes it was just a bad habit that no longer served any purpose.
So I urge you to question everything for yourself and for your child with special needs. Re-examine skills from time to time. Check back in on tasks that were challenging in the past. And also, take a long look at your thoughts and assumptions.
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).