Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Commercialization of Children!

Film review: Consuming Kids - a must-see documentary for all parents
Tara Green
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
(NaturalNews) Parents, educators and anyone interested in how children in the US are affected by the media will want to watch "Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood." The film, available for viewing online (, [see below] traces the connection between the full-scale media immersion children are subject to and rising levels of childhood obesity, hypertension, ADD and other diseases.
Advertising Unleashed
This brief (66 minutes) documentary looks at the explosion in US children's advertising following deregulation in 1980. The filmmakers delineate how the snowballing effect of increased advertising to children since that time, combined with advances in media technology, resulted in a 40% per year increase, over a thirty year period, in the level of consumer spending directly influenced by children. The film reveals that the annual amount of child-influenced consumer spending in this country reached an astounding $700 billion dollars in 2010.
Filmmakers Adriana Barbaro and Jeremy Earp interview a range of experts including child psychiatrists and family advocates about the effects of advertising on children. They intersperse these interviews with clips of marketing experts discussing how to use psychology to recruit children into brand loyalty. A clip of one child psychiatrist likening these marketing experts to pedophiles seems extreme -- but is followed by a clip of a marketing expert talking about "branding and owning children."
Stalking Children
The film reveals many facets of advertising to children that some parents may be unaware of, including how closely marketers study children and how they reach children without parental knowledge. "Scientific stalking" is how one expert characterizes marketing companies research into child behavior which now ranges from measuring blink rates of toddlers watching media clips to MRI observation of child brain activity while viewing films. Marketers employ child psychology experts who advise them on the different techniques to use to engage the toddler market or the toddler's slightly older siblings.
Stealth marketing takes place through an organization known as the GIA (Girls Intelligence Agency) which uses product placement at slumber parties. Marketing to children is ubiquitous, with many cash-strapped schools accepting sponsorship from corporations, meaning brand names are present even while children study. Cell phones which many parents buy their children for safety and communication purposes become another avenue for corporations to reach young consumers with games and other content. Many websites offering games for children are actually an opportunity for corporations to learn more about individual children in order to engage in "microtargetting."
The film notes that advertisers are reaching children at increasingly young ages. Only very high-end stores now carry baby products which do not bear the image of one media character or another, meaning most middle and lower income parents are forced to buy products imprinted with popular characters. Children are especially susceptible to these characters, explains one child psychiatrist interviewed in the film because the familiar faces form touchstones of stability which make children feel secure during changes of growth and development. The psychiatrist expresses his concern that the US is raising "a generation of superconsumers."
The film also debunks the myth of "good media as an antidote to bad media." Companies which sell videos such as Baby Einstein, filmmakers explain make millions of dollars yet there is no evidence that watching these films increases intelligence. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen media at all for children under two. There is evidence that prolonged and regular exposure to media can result in concentration difficulties.
Protecting Children
The filmmakers note that among industrialized nations, only the US lacks any regulations protecting children from this kind of aggressive advertising. The consequences of rampant advertising are visible in the physical and emotional health of a child as they participate less frequently in active, creative play and more often in passive screen time. As one child advocate interviewed in the film notes "We have laws about child safety, putting helmets on kids, tobacco marketing to kids, but somehow we think it's OK to make children fair game to marketers who want to profit from them, irrespective of the impact on their health and well-being."
Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills
by Alix Spiegel
February 21, 2008
On October 3, 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club debuted on television. As we all now know, the show quickly became a cultural icon, one of those phenomena that helped define an era.
What is less remembered but equally, if not more, important, is that another transformative cultural event happened that day: The Mattel toy company began advertising a gun called the "Thunder Burp."
I know — who's ever heard of the Thunder Burp?
Well, no one.
The reason the advertisement is significant is because it marked the first time that any toy company had attempted to peddle merchandise on television outside of the Christmas season. Until 1955, ad budgets at toy companies were minuscule, so the only time they could afford to hawk their wares on TV was during Christmas. But then came Mattel and the Thunder Burp, which, according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children's play became focused, as never before, on things — the toys themselves.
"It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object."
Chudacoff's recently published history of child's play argues that for most of human history what children did when they played was roam in packs large or small, more or less unsupervised, and engage in freewheeling imaginative play. They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes. Basically, says Chudacoff, they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all.
"They improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors... or whether it was on a street corner or somebody's back yard," Chudacoff says. "They improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules."
But during the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff argues, play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch they played Star Wars with a toy light saber. Chudacoff calls this the commercialization and co-optation of child's play — a trend which begins to shrink the size of children's imaginative space.
But commercialization isn't the only reason imagination comes under siege. In the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff says, parents became increasingly concerned about safety, and were driven to create play environments that were secure and could not be penetrated by threats of the outside world. Karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps — these create safe environments for children, Chudacoff says. And they also do something more: for middle-class parents increasingly worried about achievement, they offer to enrich a child's mind.
Change in Play, Change in Kids
Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here's the issue: A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids' cognitive and emotional development.
It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.
We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-
regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn't stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning says, the results were very different.
"Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago," Bodrova explains. "So the results were very sad."
Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."
The Importance of Self-Regulation
According to Berk, one reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what's called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.
"In fact, if we compare preschoolers' activities and the amount of private speech that occurs across them, we find that this self-regulating language is highest during make-believe play," Berk says. "And this type of self-regulating language... has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions."
And it's not just children who use private speech to control themselves. If we look at adult use of private speech, Berk says, "we're often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions."
Unfortunately, the more structured the play, the more children's private speech declines. Essentially, because children's play is so focused on lessons and leagues, and because kids' toys increasingly inhibit imaginative play, kids aren't getting a chance to practice policing themselves. When they have that opportunity, says Berk, the results are clear: Self-regulation improves.
"One index that researchers, including myself, have used... is the extent to which a child, for example, cleans up independently after a free-choice period in preschool," Berk says. "We find that children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that responsibility with... greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting."
Despite the evidence of the benefits of imaginative play, however, even in the context of preschool young children's play is in decline. According to Yale psychological researcher Dorothy Singer, teachers and school administrators just don't see the value.
"Because of the testing, and the emphasis now that you have to really pass these tests, teachers are starting earlier and earlier to drill the kids in their basic fundamentals. Play is viewed as unnecessary, a waste of time," Singer says. "I have so many articles that have documented the shortening of free play for children, where the teachers in these schools are using the time for cognitive skills."
It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage — to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them — our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that wasted time was not such a waste after all.

Selling to children
The impact of commercialization on children needs more research, an APA task force says
By Melissa Dittmann
Monitor Staff
November 2002, Vol 33, No. 10
In an era when textbooks ask young students to determine the diameter of an Oreo cookie or how many weeks of allowance is needed to buy a pair of Nike shoes, a group of psychologists are becoming increasingly alarmed at the impact commercialization may be having on the nation's children.
The advertising industry spends $12 billion a year marketing directly to children, leaving children viewing advertisements nearly everywhere--from magazines and television to the Internet and even their own classrooms. In fact, just on television alone, a child will view about 40,000 commercials a year, said Dale Kunkel, PhD, professor of communications at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"It's time to move forward with new policies and new research," urged Brian Wilcox, PhD, chair of APA's Task Force on Advertising and Children, at a session on commercialism and children during APA's 2002 Annual Convention. "The stakes are far too high for psychology to continue to ignore this issue."
APA's Task Force on Advertising and Children, formed in 2000, has been researching the impact of commercialization on children and examining the social and cognitive consequences. Committee members expect to release their recommendations in February, but their report must first be approved by APA's Council of Representatives.
Edward Palmer, PhD, a professor of psychology at Davidson College, said many of the products advertised by the mass media can be psychologically or physically harmful to children and are often items children do not need and cannot afford. Furthermore, advertising might also trigger materialistic attitudes by teaching children to measure personal worth by the products they own.
The effect of advertising in the school environment is an area that particularly needs to be studied further by psychologists, Palmer said. "The uniqueness of the school environment is that there is a captive audience that is required to be there," Palmer said. "[Advertisers] are able to focus on all children at one time and can do that in no other context."
Children also face indirect advertising in the schools, such as corporate-sponsored education materials, contests or incentives, teacher training, inclusion of brand-name products within textbooks, and advertisers who provide cars for driver education classes. More schools are also teaming up with companies in exclusionary contracts, such as Coke or Pepsi soda deals in which the school agrees to only offer that one product. The number of these deals has tripled in the last 10 years, Palmer said.
And while these deals continue to increase, young children lack the cognitive defense to guard against these commercial messages, Kunkel said. By age 3 or 4, most children are able to differentiate an ad from a program. But a child is unable until age 7 or 8 to understand the persuasive intent of the message. For example, a 1974 study by Thomas Robertson, PhD, and John Rossiter, PhD, showed that 65 percent of first-graders trusted all commercials, while only 7 percent of fifth-graders trusted all commercials.
The extent to which commercialization has affected children is difficult to determine due to gaps in the research knowledge: There have been only two empirical studies on the issue, the speakers said. "Psychologists have a major role to play in this," Palmer added.
Commercialization of Children's Television and Its Effect on Imaginative Play
American Academy of Pediatrics
Toy-based television programs, commonly known as program-length commercials, and television-activated toys exploit children as consumers. Of more urgent concern is their potential to promote violent and aggressive behavior, increase the intellectual passivity with which children view television, and inhibit imaginative play.1
Almost all of the 20 best selling toys on the market today are based on television programs. More than half of these toys have violent themes. Many glorify war. Clearly, the commercialization of children's television promotes violence as well as sales. It does little to entertain or educate our children.
Television-activated toys take the exploitation of program-length commercials one step further. These toys are activated by inaudible signals broadcast during a program. They are referred to as "interactive," but no descriptor could be more misleading. Although the television affects the toy and the child, no reciprocal interaction occurs.
Television-activated toys represent the third, and potentially most hazardous, phase in the commercialization of children's television. Initially, the promotion of toys on television was limited to commercials. After the toy was purchased, the child decided when and how to play with it. In the next phase, program-length commercials were developed to market toys and to show children how to play with them.
The development of television-activated toys almost completely eliminates the creative role of the child. Children need only to buy the toy; the television will play with it for them.
Parents should consider a child's playtime as an active, creative process that requires imagination. Television-activated toys interfere with this process.
Also See:
Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood