How To Teach Kids That Ads Are Manipulating Them

There are ways to implement media literacy lessons into everyday life. 

Advertising is a multibillion-dollar industry, so it’s not surprising that it has a powerful influence on consumers’ habits and choices. This applies to both the youngest consumers and their parents.

Research has highlighted the effect of advertising on children, from getting them hooked on certain brands to ingraining gender stereotypes to heightening insecurities.

“Learning to think critically about the media messages we encounter is an essential skill for kids and adults alike,” said Erin Wilkey Oh, content director for family and community engagement at Common Sense Media. “Whether it’s a text message, a news article, a YouTube video, or a sign on the bus stop ― all media messages have an author and an agenda.”

Companies persuade people to buy their products in a number of different ways, she said. “It’s important for kids to learn how to break down ads to see how ads try to influence emotions, choices, and behavior. And on the internet, what’s advertising versus other content can be tricky to discern.”

Fortunately, families can exercise some control over the influence of ads. Below, Wilkey Oh and other experts share their advice for helping kids to understand advertising and empowering them to make smart decisions.

Start early.

Ads are everywhere today, and kids are exposed to them through modern platforms like YouTube, Google, social media and other apps, as well as older formats like billboards and TV commercials.

Parents and caregivers should try to limit young children’s exposure to ads by choosing commercial-free programming and fast-forwarding through or muting commercials when they can. But given the ubiquitous nature of advertising, it’s also important to lay the foundation to help kids recognize the difference between ads and other content.

“Even though children don’t completely understand the persuasive techniques of advertisers until around 7 or 8, that doesn’t mean we should wait to talk with them,” said Michelle Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. “At a very early age, we should be letting them know what is advertising and what is other types of media content: games, entertainment, news, etc. Helping them understand that there are different media that all are created for different reasons is a great way to build a media literacy foundation.”

Explain what ads are.

“Ads are different from other kinds of content because the purpose of an ad is to get you to really like this product and to ask somebody to buy it for you or to buy it yourself,” noted Cyndy Scheibe, a professor of psychology with a focus on media literacy at Ithaca College. “Help kids learn what makes something an ad. Teach them to recognize, ‘Hmm, is that an ad? Is that an entertainment program or something else?’”

Scheibe is the executive director of Project Look Sharp, which promotes the integration of media literacy lessons into school curriculums. She emphasized the value in kids understanding the objective of ads ― “to make you buy something” ― so that they can distinguish it from other content. Once they have this awareness, they can recognize the true purpose behind app downloads, links on websites, promotions and more.

“One of the things that I used to do with my kids when they were younger was to mute the sound and see who could guess what the ad was for just by looking at the visuals. We were almost always wrong!”

– Michelle Lipkin of the National Association for Media Literacy Education

“The moment a child first uses a connected device is the right time to start teaching them how advertising works on the internet,” said Diana Graber, founder of Cyber Civics and author of “Raising Humans in a Digital World.”

“For example, a parent and child could use Google together, and when the search results page pops up, the parent might simply point out the advertisements on the page and explain that this is how Google makes money.”

Point out commercials.

As kids get older (and in the moments when younger ones inevitably see ads), parents should identify them and start conversations about them.

“Encourage your kids to think critically about what they see by asking them questions like, ‘What product are they selling us?’ ‘Is everything in the commercial true?’ and ‘How did the commercial make you feel?’” Wilkey Oh suggested. “Point out the ‘tricks’ advertisers use to make kids want what they’re selling and how they try to get our attention.”

Adults can help kids identify different types of advertising and where they may encounter it. Explain that while ads are often disguised as games or other entertainment, they’re still ads and they’re still trying to sell something.

“Kids are going to see ads not only on TV, but also when watching online videos, using search engines, playing apps, or even just walking down the street,” Wilkey Oh noted. “Point out the advertising and explain to them how you knew it was an ad. Then ask them to spot some ads, too.”

Make it a game.

Developing media literacy skills can be fun. Multiple experts who spoke to HuffPost suggested making it a game to try to identify what different commercials are selling.

“One of the things that I used to do with my kids when they were younger was to mute the sound and see who could guess what the ad was for just by looking at the visuals,” Lipkin said. “We were almost always wrong! But it was a good way to explore the content and get my kids to start paying attention to persuasive techniques.”

There are ways to implement media literacy lessons into everyday life. 

Project Look Sharp often frames media literacy around the idea of encouraging kids to be “detectives,” said Scheibe. This applies to the “guess what they’re selling” game and as a general approach to content.

“Get them used to recognizing the difference between the program they’re watching and the commercial break where people want to sell you something,” she said. “Also, point out ads on cereal boxes and other places. Ask, ‘What do you think they want you to think about this? What are they saying is in this product?’ That’s useful.”

Highlight the difference between ads and actual products.

“A great way to teach kids about advertising is to use toy commercials and junk food commercials that are targeted to them,” Lipkin said. “There is no better lesson than purchasing a toy and having them realize that it doesn’t quite do what the ad said it could! Or to buy the sugar cereal and realize that the character in front actually doesn’t sit down and eat breakfast with you! Showing young kids that there is a difference between advertising and reality is super important.”

By observing the difference between the ad and the actual product, kids learn to question the truth of what they see in advertising. They may observe how commercials omit important information that makes a product less desirable or how the illustrations or words on the packaging can be code for something else.

“Toys might look bigger, or they may make you think there’s fruit in something like Froot Loops by calling it that or showing pictures of fruit in a commercial,” Scheibe noted. “Kids can be detectives and look for clues about what it really is. They can ask a grownup to read the ingredients on the package or do it themselves and see if there’s any fruit in the list. They can learn that ‘frosted’ probably means ‘frosted with sugar.’ It’s not about a moral issue of good and bad or making kids suspicious so much as skeptical of what’s being advertised and realizing, ‘They want you to like this and buy it, so this is what they’re saying about it.’”

Talk about endorsements.

“As the digital world gets more sophisticated, advertising becomes more ingrained within our media systems,” Lipkin said, pointing to the role of influencers in particular.

If an Instagram influencer posts about how yummy some new breakfast cereal is, look for hashtags like #sponsoredpost and teach older kids to do the same, she advised. She believes it’s particularly important for teens to understand the ubiquity of advertising in social media.

“Rather than telling your kids what you notice, ask them questions about what they think. Kids will have a lot to say, and you can also point out what you observe, too!”

– Erin Wilkey Oh of Common Sense Media

Similar lessons can apply to younger children and the ads they see with beloved child actors or cartoon characters.

“Talk about celebrity or character endorsements,” Wilkey Oh advised. “Are your kids more likely to want something if their favorite character is in the ad? Help your kids connect the dots so they recognize how they’re being influenced.”

Ask questions instead of lecturing.

When addressing advertising with kids, try not to monopolize the conversation but rather let them guide it by asking about their thoughts.

“Media literacy is all about inquiry and asking questions,” Wilkey Oh said. “So rather than telling your kids what you notice, ask them questions about what they think. Kids will have a lot to say, and you can also point out what you observe, too!”

Encourage critical thinking by asking kids if they know who created an ad, how the ad makes them feel, and what words, images or sounds attract their attention.

“There are so many ways to get the conversation going and to instill curiosity,” said Lipkin, who recommended questions like “Why do you think they chose this popular singer to sell this makeup?” “Do you think if I wear that coat I could look as cool as that model?” “Does this make you interested to learn more about this product?” and “How come ads never tell us how much something costs?”

Modeling this kind of question-asking with regard to media and advertising teaches kids to be curious as an everyday habit. It’s also a more engaging experience for children, who don’t always respond well to long lectures.

“When my daughter was growing up, we’d be watching a show and I’d open my mouth to comment on a stereotype or something, she’d say, ‘Stop! I don’t want to do media literacy right now. I just want to watch it!’ So I learned to just ask questions,” Scheibe recalled. “Asking, ‘Hmm, what do you think about the way that mom handled that situation?’ led to great conversations because I led with questions, not my opinion. See what your kids think first.”

Build on these lessons as kids get older.

By the time they’re teens, many kids have their own money to spend and also see more ads as they engage with social media. With each passing year, parents can expand the advertising and media literacy conversation ― highlighting that advertisers don’t have to follow the same rules on Instagram as they do on TV, for instance.

“Marketers are very smart in how they advertise to older kids and teens ― they use this age group’s need for peer acceptance to manipulate them,” Wilkey Oh explained. “For example, advertisers actively recruit teen followers on social media to market products. Parents and caregivers can pull back the curtain on these methods and ask teens what they think about advertisers counting on this vulnerability to sell things.”

Another important lesson for older kids and teens is the way tech companies like Google and Instagram use our data and how that relates to advertising.

“Tracking teens’ digital trails helps companies precisely determine their tastes, interests, purchase histories, preferences, and even their locations so they can market products to them or sell that data to other companies,” Wilkey Oh said. “Ask teens what they think. Is the ‘cost’ of being tracked and giving away their private data worth the ‘benefit’ of what the app provides?”

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