How children view advertising and the Internet

In a rigorous, landmark 2006 study, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that children are exposed to 40,000 television ads alone in any given year. The problem with those numbers, aside form how very high they are, is that they have yet to be updated to describe a world in which our phones and tablets have become de facto babysitters. Today YouTube pre-roll ads are de rigueur and free apps for kids are lousy with popup ads for other apps.

“We advertise all the wrong things. We advertise and promote alcohol and junk food and fast food. We advertise toys that don’t work the way they are supposed to,” Victor C. Strasburger, distinguished professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, told Digiday. “It gets worse with digital advertising.”

With all of that in mind, I took it upon myself to interview my own daughters, ages 5 and 8, to see how aware they are of the advertising in their lives and to figure out what, if any, discernible impact it’s had. (It’s probably relevant to note that we’re cord cutters but avid consumers of digital and online media). Here’s what they had to say, lightly annotated because they are, after all, only 5 and 8 and therefore borderline insane. Excerpts:

What is an advertisement?
F, age 8: It’s about something that makes people want to buy it.
C, age 5: It’s a commercial that makes you want to do something that shops do. Or go to massaging places.

Massaging places?
C: Yeah, like where you go get a massage. [Ed. note: I’m not totally clear on where this is coming from, though there is a Qigong place in our neighborhood with a TV screen in the window that runs a perpetual loop of a person getting a safe-for-work-but-not-your-appetite back rub. So apparently that’s made something of an impression on her.]

Right. Moving on. Do you have a favorite commercial?
F: I haven’t really seen any commercials. [Ed. note: This is a lie.]
C: Yeah! Remember the thing, with the alien hitting itself in the head?
F: Oh that’s not an advertisement. That’s just a thing telling you a movie’s going to come out.

A preview. That’s an advertisement for a new movie, though, so that counts. Where else do you see advertisements?
F: Magazines and newspapers.
C: The Internet.

What is the Internet?
C: The Internet is on the computer and it shows videos, pictures and stuff you want to look up.
F: I would explain it as a place where you can text or email your friends. Whatever you’re looking something up, though you might get two things: trash and garbage, or something good.

What is trash and garbage on the Internet?
F: When you’re looking for pictures, some things are what you want. And other things are not what you want. [Ed. note to self: Delete search history tonight.]

What is something you’ve looked for on the Internet?
C: We look up stuff we can learn about, that we think is cool.
F: I look for pictures for computer class. Baby animals. Saber tooths. Pompeii. China.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve seen on the Internet?
F&C in unison: What Does The Fox Say.

What’s an app?
F: An app is a little piece of the Internet that allows you to play a game.

Do you have a favorite app?
F: Furby Boom. And Dragon City. [Ed. note: Blessed is the parent unfamiliar the digital water boarding that is Furby Boom.]
C: I have a favorite app, which is Temple Run 2, Subway Surfer and I like Games for Girls and Nick Jr.
F: That’s on the Internet. That’s not an app!

So advertising is basically trying to get you to buy something. What do you think of that?
C: I think all of them are good. [Ed. note: Wonderful. Is there a ripping-my-hair-out-by-the-fistful emoji yet?]
F: There’s an advertisement that I didn’t really like. It was about old phones and they give you, like, $100 back for them.

What happens when you see an advertisement for something you do what? What would you do?
C: You go to the bank and get more money. And if you have enough money, then you can go and say, ‘Hey I want to get this, do I have enough money?’ They will say yes or no.
F: You would bug your mother or father till they say yes. Or find some money on the street. Save your money so you can buy it. That’s what I do. [Ed. note: “Find some money on the street,” coincidentally, also describes their father’s retirement plan. It’s going great.]

What are you saving your money for?
F: An American Girl Doll or something. I’m going to get Isabella.
C: Yeah. I’m probably going to save for that too.

This will undoubtedly be the first of many conversations my girls and I will be having about advertising in the years to come. And I personally dread the day when unhealthy or unrealistic body issues might start rearing their heads. Lacking much in the way of regulatory oversight, the best thing any parent can do on their own is to educate themselves and their kids on what advertising is and does, Dr. Strasburger tells me. A visit to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood website is a good place to start.

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