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What can parents do?

Valerie Kuklenski, Los Angeles Daily News, 8/24/06


From birth, children are bombarded with commercial messages - from the Disney character mobile dangling from the nursery ceiling to the Winnie the Pooh sheets covering the crib.

As the child grows older, the assault continues from television ads and shows - reinforced by exposure to billboards, bus signs, radio spots and the Internet so that young children have an increasingly difficult time fighting the urge to buy - or whine for - everything in sight.

Even before a toddler can read, he can identify brand names. And sometimes parents don't realize how much their kids are being sold.

One Ventura mother recounts how - to her horror - after telling her 2 1/2-year-old son that she loved his daddy and him, he chimed in with, "And I love Target."

"The problem is, until the age of 8, kids can't understand the persuasive intent (of advertising)," says Susan Linn, a psychologist at Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the Campaign for Commercial-free Childhood. "Cognitively, they just can't get it."

Linn adds that because marketing appeals to emotions and not intellect, it's harder for parents to defend against it.

"We have these multinational corporations really actively preying on children, and then we have parents who are more stressed than parents ever have been, at least in modern times, feeling really guilty about their children's exposure to all this stuff and not knowing where to draw the lines."

But parents may be compounding the dilemma by letting more and more media into their children's lives.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, parents have created an environment where the TV is a nearly constant presence in many homes, from the living room to the dining room and the bedroom. One in three children 6 and younger has a TV in his or her bedroom.

The most common reasons cited by parents in the study for putting a TV in their child's bedroom is to free up other televisions in the house so the parents or other family members can watch their own shows, or to keep the child occupied so the parent can do things around the house.

While that may help the frazzled parents, they're paying in other ways.

Food advertising aimed at children rarely focuses on taste or nutrition, instead portraying kids who eat this fruit chew or that cereal as more fun, more popular and cooler because of it. Clothing ads tout the latest looks, and awareness of the constant evolution in personal electronics prompts a desire for one next-generation gadget after another. Brand logos are found in strange new places, from the Hello Kitty credit card to Nickelodeon cartoon characters on bags of produce.

Linn, author of "Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children From the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising," endorses eliminating a large amount of commercial noise in kids' lives by restricting television viewing.

Joe Kelly, president and co-founder of the nonprofit Dads and Daughters, encourages parents to do something else with their kids in a free moment - go for a walk, shoot hoops, dig in the garden - "something that does not involve electricity."

"Tens of billions of dollars are being spent each year to influence me or influence (my daughter) to buy stuff that none of us need to make our lives meaningful," Kelly says. "The bottom line is still that the context that is going to have the most influence on her life is the context of her family, of her home."

But the power of the "nag factor" - as one study cited in Linn's book dubbed it - shouldn't be underestimated. Conducted by a marketing research firm (so you know where they're coming from), the study found that "the impact of children's nagging is assessed as up to 46 percent of sales in key businesses that target children."

And, according to Linn, it's likely to get worse as the children get older.

Both experts say parents have a duty to say no at least some of the time and to talk to their children about spending, about peer pressure to acquire stuff, and about the singular goal of advertising messages - to sell you something.

"And it's not just about talking the talk. I have to walk the walk, too. I have to try not to meet all my emotional needs by going out and buying something too," says Kelly.

Linn of Harvard says decisions on which children's requests to fulfill may be harder if two parents have differing ideas on, say, whether the 12-year-old actually needs a cell phone. She suggests forming a network with other families who have similar values and come to some agreement about what you will and won't let your child have.

"If you know the parents of your kid's friends, you can find out whether they're really the only one (without a phone or an iPod)," she says. "It's hard if you're in a community that doesn't support your values. It's important for families to seek out communities, if not from where you live, then through ethical networks or spiritual networks, where your values are being reinforced."

Kelly says parents need to consider their own responses to marketing, packaging and advertising, and what messages they are relating to their children by responding.

"I think that we parents have been marketed to, and too often have bought the idea that discomfort is inherently bad, and that if I'm ever uncomfortable or ever uneasy or ever uncertain, then there's something wrong with me and I'd better go buy something quick to fix it," he says. "Well, guess what? Parenting is entirely about ambiguity and uncertainty. If you can't get comfortable with being uncomfortable, then don't be a parent."

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