The advertising our children see is very different.
Since the advent of the internet and mobile technology, ads can reach us anytime, anywhere, and target us based on what our online behavior reveals. This includes whether your phone’s GPS regularly goes to church; whether you make in-app purchases when you’ve lost too many games in a row; or whether you comment with emojis when your friends post about difficult experiences. These online behaviors say a lot about us, whether we know it or not.
While I agree that we shouldn’t be luring children with free toys in TV ads, as a media researcher I think we need to look much farther than TV. We are raising kids in the internet age, and marketing now goes far beyond predictable video spots.
Teaching our kids about modern advertising
We parents need to wrap our heads around the complicated ways that advertising shows up in apps and on video platforms and social media — particularly the aspects that aren’t visible to us, like data collection.
Once we understand modern advertising, we can translate it for our kids and mentor them to build critical thinking about the messages they are fed. Here’s a quick guide to the marketing children encounter in their digital experiences — and how to talk to them about it.
It’s also common for kids to earn rewards (such as virtual candy) for watching ads, and ad viewing can take up more time than playing the game itself. There are no laws restricting how many ads can pop up in children’s apps, so here’s how you can intervene:
• Set up permissions so that your child can’t download apps without you entering your password, so you can review apps before they are downloaded. You can read reviews on websites such as commonsensemedia.org, or check the reviews in the app store — people usually post complaints when apps are packed with ads.
• You can ask your child: “Do you ever get tricked by the app, like you think something is a present, and they just show you an ad? Do they ever force you to watch ads to get more fun things in the app?”
Video platform advertising
Free video streaming platforms are incredibly popular among kids. These platforms have user-generated content that can be really funny and creative, but can also try to grab eyeballs with outrageous (e.g., challenges) or high-pleasure content (e.g., unboxing) videos that keep kids coming back, which translates to more ad dollars.
• Teach them to skip the ads when given the option. If your child is an infant and can’t click the “skip” button, look for video platforms that are educational and ad-free, like PBS KIDS.
• When you can’t skip ads, talk with your child about them. You can say things like “that’s weird, why are you getting a software ad when you’re only 2?” or “That’s just an ad for dolls, we’re not going to click on it.”
• Influencers like social media personalities or streaming gamers are often paid to feature products. If your child has favorite influencers, ask them questions like “Do you think he really liked that toy/video game, or was he just acting?” “Do you think she got paid to try out that makeup? How can you tell?”
Data collection and profiling
• “What do you think (company/platform) knows about you? Does it know whether you are a boy or a girl? Does it know that you have ADHD (or other diagnosis)? How do you think it knows this?”
• “Have you ever noticed that when you searched for something online, it wound up in an ad on social media? Or you got a video about it?”
Raising kids in the internet age means teaching them to recognize when someone is trying to sell them new things or new ideas, from toys to misinformation. Let’s raise the next generation of critical digital thinkers.
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