We live in what can only be described as a consumer culture and your child is a target market for big marketing companies. So much of the world we inhabit is designed around encouraging us to spend money—from the old-school ads we see on television to the new-school ads that follow us around online as we click from one website to another.
And today’s marketing messages don’t just take the form of advertisements. They’re woven into the storylines of TV shows, movies, and even comic books and video games.
While many marketing messages are helpful, highlighting products or services that are worth knowing about, many others are designed to foster dissatisfaction. They tell us that without this product or that brand, we don’t have enough, and even worse, that we’re not enough.
Many of those messages are aimed squarely at our kids, and they’re having an impact.
One study found that by age three, kids can identify an average of over 300 brand logos. According to a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Michigan, it isn’t just brand recognition that’s coming through; it’s brand identity. Lead researcher Anna McAlister said, “Children as young as three are feeling social pressure and understand that consumption of certain brands can help them through life.”
Which begs the question: How, exactly, are these brands helping kids? Feeling good about themselves? Feeling like they’re part of the “in” crowd?
What’s a parent to do? Here are four suggestions.
1 – Limit screen time. Social media is today’s primary conduit of consumerist messages, so it’s important to establish healthy screen time habits.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time other than video chat with family for children younger than eighteen months. The group recommends a maximum of just one hour per day for children up to age five. Parents should also watch shows with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing. The AAP recommends parents of children six and older “place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media.”
What is a reasonable limit? New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, who has researched and written extensively on the impact of social media on today’s youth, recommends no social media until high school and daily time limits for the use of electronic devices.
2 – Empower your kids to interpret marketing messages. Gatekeeping is an important part of parenting, but ultimately, we want our kids to make their own good choices.
Up to age seven, that starts with helping them distinguish between programming and promotional messages. According to the AAP, even older kids, including teenagers, “often are not able to resist [a marketing message] when it is embedded within trusted social networks, encouraged by celebrity influencers, or delivered next to personalized content.”
So, here again, talk with your kids about the various ways marketing messages are being delivered today and help them interpret the messages. Is the product being promoted for its functional benefits (it’ll save you time) or is there more of an emotional “benefit” (you’ll be more well-liked) being conveyed? Is the message true?
If you have a child who is about 12 years old or older, a popular documentary to consider is, The Social Dilemma. Watch the documentary, together, then discuss it afterwards. The film has a reputation of doing a good job showing how social media platforms work and it features interviews with several people who used to work at some of the most popular platforms. It’ll be eye-opening for you and your kids. Hopefully it will help motivate them to make different decisions about how they use social media.
3 – Fill their hearts with the Truth. With social media amplifying the comparison game, it’s important for our kids to know who they are. If they have placed their faith in Christ, the Bible says they are children of God. They are fully loved, fully valued no matter what brand of clothing they wear, or where we can afford to take them on vacation.
Teach them this Truth by reading 1 John 3:1: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” Encourage them to memorize that verse. Perhaps consider placing this Scripture in visible places around the house such as: kids room door, bathroom window, in their lunchboxes, as a wallpaper on their devices, etc.
4 – Practice gratitude. Many marketing messages are designed to foster a sense of discontentedness. We can counter that by regularly giving thanks for all that we have and encouraging our kids to do likewise. As you pray with your kids, encourage them to thank God for several things they’re grateful for.
In brief, especially today, with so many destructive, consumerist messages coming at young people, taking the steps above should help your kids learn how to live in the world without becoming of the world.
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