The Effects of TV Advertising on Children

By Cat Reynolds
Studies show that children under the age of eight do not understand that advertising is trying to sell them something.
Studies show that children under the age of eight do not understand that advertising is trying to sell them something.

Planting your child in front of a television set is not altogether a bad thing, provided that you limit the time that your little one spends watching TV and you monitor the programs watched. However, here's some food for thought: Media Awareness Network (see References 4) cites research estimating that American children receive a total of $6 billion in allowances each year. And there's no doubt that advertisers want as much of it as possible. So it would be wise to take a proactive role in teaching your child about the difference between advertising and television shows as soon as your child starts watching advertising.

Advertising Encourages Materialism

All people are materialistic to some degree. However, television advertising aimed at children encourages heightened materialism at an early age. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a variety of studies indicate that after as little as one exposure to an advertisement, children may develop a product preference. For example, instead of asking for a teddy bear, your child will be more likely to ask you for a more expensive brand-name teddy bear, like a Care Bear, after seeing it advertised on television. And the more often the child sees Care Bear advertising, the stronger he or she will want a Care Bear. The APA points out that childrens purchase requests do influence their parents purchasing, and that several studies have found that parent-child conflict is common when parents deny their children's advertising-based requests (see References 1).

Advertising May Affect Self Esteem

Advertising aimed at children not only encourages materialism, but also, according to psychologist Allen D. Kanner, PhD, inflicts the "narcissistic wounding" of children. "Thanks to advertising, children have become convinced that they're inferior if they don't have an endless array of new products," states an article in the APA's "Monitor" magazine, discussing Kanner's take on the ethics of advertising to children (see References 2). .

Advertising Affects Diet

Most of the food and beverages that are advertised to children are fast food products, soft drinks, candy, and other non-nutritious snacks. The University of Michigan Health Services office says that “two-thirds of the 20,000 TV ads an average child sees each year are for food, and most are for high-sugar foods” (see References 2).

The American Psychological Association voices the same concern, pointing out that overconsumption of these types of products is linked to obesity and poor health. They argue that “several studies have found strong associations between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity” (see References 1). Snack food advertising often includes product placement, an insidious form of advertising that puts products into the hands of admired characters during a television show. Advertisers also use character licensing to encourage children to ask for their products. For example, they may offer a free character doll with a purchase (see References 2).

Advertising Encourages Early Drinking and Smoking

Children who are exposed to tobacco and alcohol advertising are more likely to have positive feelings about those substances, and to begin using them while still young. The American Psychological Association's report cites a a variety of studies that found "a substantial relationship between children's viewing of tobacco and alcohol ads and positive attitudes toward consumption of such products" (see References 1). The report also says that children develop high positive brand awareness of product ads that use characters, such as the Budweiser frogs. Although cigarettes and other tobacco products are no longer advertised on television in the United States, beer still is. The APA also cites the Surgeon General's conclusion that advertising encourages youthful smoking and drinking.

Advertising Promotes Violent Games and Videos

Thousands of studies have shown that there is a link between watching violence on television and desensitization to violence, as well as increased aggressive behavior, according to the University of Michigan Health Services (see References 3), Today's advertisements aimed at children promote violent movies and video games. The APA says, "three reports by the Federal Trade Commission found considerable support for such charges, and while studies have not directly assessed the impact of such advertising, it is highly likely that such ads do affect children's media preferences" (see References 1). Children whose parents purchase these games and videos for them in response to the advertising, then, would likely be affected.

About the Author

Cat Reynolds has written professionally since 1990. She has worked in academe (teaching and administration), real estate and has owned a private tutoring business. She is also a poet and recipient of the Discover/The Nation Award. Her work can be found in literary publications and on various blogs. Reynolds holds a Master of Arts in writing and literature from Purdue University.