Adproofing Your Kids

Tania Andrusiak and Daniel Donahoo, parents and authors of Adproofing Your Kids: Raising critical thinkers in a media-saturated world, began their book full of deep concerns about the effects of targeted marketing on young children…including their own.

Over the course of research for their book, Tania and Daniel quickly discovered that concerns over junk food advertising, childhood obesity, the internet, body image and exposure to violence, are common for many parents.

Concerning statistics from the authors’ research include:

  • Average amount of TV watched daily by 4-month-old-babies: 44 minutes.
  • Amount of free-to-air TV watched daily by children 0-4 years: 154 minutes.
  • Number of violent acts every hour in TV cartoon/action programs: 20.
  • Percentage of preschool children using the internet: 23 per cent.
  • Number of TV ads the average child is likely to see while watching commercial networks each year: 10,000 – 23,000.

Tania Andrusiak talked to KidsLife about the book, the authors’ concerns and their passion to help parents to raise critical thinkers in a media-saturated world.

What started you thinking about writing this book?

Many years ago, I worked as an advertising copywriter and had always found the way people communicate through symbols (including brands) fascinating.

In early 2000, I watched the way marketers and advertisers infused brands with deeper messages, like belonging, autonomy and meaning. In effect, brands were being given specific ‘personalities’, and were no longer limited to status symbols, or symbols of a product’s origin.

This in turn saw consumers using brands to communicate abstract, intrinsic things about themselves (like edginess, eccentricity, daring and so on) to show people aspects of their personalities that they wanted to convey.

A few years later, we became parents ourselves and we were naturally concerned about how advertising and other media influenced children’s perceptions of themselves, brands and wider cultural values, and that kind of flowed onto the wider debates surrounding children and media use.

We found that many other parents shared our concerns, and through these discussions, Adproofing Your Kids was born.

How extensive was your research?

We interviewed  more than 250 parents, through online surveys, email, formal interviews and informal discussions.

I also interviewed academics in the fields of psychology and education, and researched the development of media literacy skills in children. Research was drawn from a wide range of sources, including academic papers, articles, books, podcasts, videos, documentaries and short films.

Did it come as a surprise that so many parents felt as you did?

Yes and no.

It did surprise us because some media organisations insist that parents simply aren’t concerned with the amount of ads targeting kids, the sexualisation of childhood through media environments, or the amount of violence aimed at young children. They draw this conclusion based on the small number of complaints received about these issues by regulatory bodies. But it’s not that simple.

Many parents we spoke to told us that they didn’t know how the systems worked. They didn’t know how to make a complaint or who to complain to.

Many felt they didn’t have the time or energy to figure out the system. Many again expressed their frustration over a system they felt was confusing and difficult to use. And some felt that the systems were useless, based on experiences they’d had when they had made a complaint that was dismissed or poorly dealt with.

They felt powerless about making any sort of positive change. So in a way, it was surprising to find that so many parents did have problems with the media messages our children are being exposed to.

On the other hand, we weren’t surprised because parents care very deeply about protecting their kids from anything that might harm or upset them.

I think part of the problem in speaking up about some of these issues – sexualisation in particular – are the stereotypes that are foisted upon parents who do complain about these issues.

Many parents were worried about being labeled ‘prudes’ or ‘wowsers’ if they expressed concern about bras being sold to four-year-olds in department stores, or ‘soft porn’ music videos screened during TV viewing time that may not specifically be scheduled for children’s viewing, but during which children routinely watched anyway – like Saturday mornings.

Do you believe children today are more immersed in media than a generation ago?

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) certainly recognises that from a very early age, around three to four years old, children are increasingly engaged in, or exposed to, electronic media such as TV, DVDs, computers and gaming systems in the family home.

Parents are marketed ‘smart’ videos and DVDs to put babies in front of from the moment they bring them home from hospital. And of course, this exposure doesn’t include children’s access to screens in public places, cars, portable DVD players or parents’ smart phones while the family is out and about.

Neither does it include children’s access to other media, like radio, magazines or books, and it doesn’t include children’s exposure to the mountain of marketing and advertising aimed at them today in every conceivable location and format, like premiums, fundraising, billboards, sports sponsorships, in-store displays, food packaging, flyers, and so on.

There’s absolutely no doubt that from birth, children are exposed to a deluge of marketing and advertising messages that we, their parents, were never exposed to.

Kids routinely see tens of thousands of ads every year – and that’s just on television.

Is your book designed to be a bridge to help connect parents and their children with popular culture?

That’s a really important part of ‘adproofing’. But it’s also designed to equip parents with the tools to show their kids how to ask questions and be critical about the media environments that surround us, and to encourage parents to keep informed about the ever-changing media environments our children are growing up in.

Many parents told us it was difficult to keep up – particularly with constant changes in internet use, different technologies (like smart phones) and social media.

We wanted to show parents that keeping in touch with these changes, while difficult, not only helped their kids but could also introduce the parents to some of the really positive aspects of digital media that they may not be as familiar with.

As parents, we need to move beyond the fear-based messages about internet use, and start helping our children to become responsible digital citizens, because they are the ones shaping the digital environments and cultures of tomorrow.

Do you believe that media messages today are proving to have negative effects on the behaviour and development of a significant number of children?

Media use is one of many factors that influence children’s health, development and behaviour.

We do know that media use is implicated in a range of problems that children experience, and that media messages do influence children’s social behaviour, perceptions of gender and sexuality, attitudes, brand and food preferences, snacking behaviour, body image and so on.

These problems are concerning enough to motivate many children’s health professionals to include children’s media diets in their health assessments, and for the Rudd Government to introduce the first official guidelines on screen time for children through its Get Up and Grow report.

Just like we need to mediate children’s sun exposure, their diet, their opportunities for play and exploration, and carefully screen who we allow to take care of our children, we need to stay aware, informed and on top of our children’s media exposure.

We need to make healthy media choices for our children, and balance their media use with lots of non-media related activities.

It’s been said that all TV is educational – it’s just a matter of what our children are learning from it. In much the same way, media messages have the potential to influence our children in many different ways, both good and bad.

In your experience, do many parents feel they need strategies to help adproof their kids?

A great many parents told us that they would like strategies to help manage their children’s media use, but that conflicting messages, peer media use and the stresses of daily life made things difficult.

In terms of which strategies are most effective, it does depend somewhat on the individual parents, their own values, and the individual family structure. With a two-parent, one-child family, many strategies will be easy to implement. But with families with one parent, and/or children across a range of ages, things get trickier.

It’s clear that our own values, family dynamics, family composition and cultural backgrounds will influence how we measure and respond to our children’s media habits, and that our own values will greatly influence how we talk to our kids about media messages, what we say, and what we want them to learn.

In general though, the more parents are aware of the sheer volume of advertising directed at this generation of children, the more concerned and in need of strategies they are.

As a practical text, is your book an appropriate resource for use in schools?

We wanted it to be a really useful introduction to the issues surrounding children and media use, so we would certainly recommend it as a resource in schools.

Are under fives too young to be adproofed, or is it the case that the sooner you adproof your kids, the better? 

Even though we say ‘adproofing’, it’s more than just advertising we’re talking about. We really mean understanding children’s media environments, enhancing the positives and limiting the negatives.

In this context, we can start ‘adproofing’ as early as we like – and there are certainly many practical strategies included in the book specifically for this age group. But we do need to be aware that at that very young age, children just don’t see or understand media in the same way adults do.

No matter how we explain it, children under about eight years old don’t understand that the advertiser intends to persuade us to do, or buy, or prefer a certain brand or product. They don’t understand that because of this, they can’t take that information at face value, or that the advertiser benefits from only presenting the information they want us to know, while deliberately withholding things they don’t want us to know.

Young children also don’t understand the many different ways media is constructed. So there are real limits to what we can expect younger children to deal with and understand.

In itself, that’s another great reason to make choosing age-appropriate media a very big part of ‘adproofing’ young children.

However, under-fives are already veterans at observing our behaviour, and they learn a great deal just from watching us. So one of the other great ways to ‘adproof’ young children is to be aware of what they are picking up from us, and making sure our media habits are ones that we’re happy for them to learn.

The other advantage is that the younger the child, the more control we have over the media they consume – so take advantage of this. And the more we can show our children that we think it’s important to ask questions about all kinds of media messages, the more our children will grow to accept this as normal and practice it themselves as they grow up.

Parents can do so much just by leading by example. We’re certainly not powerless – not by a long shot!

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