Born in the 90s, I count myself lucky that some of my formative years were internet-free. I also got to witness the rapid growth of technology and how it has woven its way into our lives. The kids of today, however, have grown up in a media-saturated environment. How has this affected their lives?
A study in the UK found that around 53 per cent of young people owned mobile phones by the age of 7; closer to home, a Singaporean study discovered that 12-year-olds in Singapore have close to six and a half hours of screen time a day.
With this increase in media consumption, parental control technology has seen great advancement, with apps such as Family Time and Norton Family going beyond location tracking to limiting screen time and blocking apps (convenient for the exam period) and tracking watched videos.
It’s natural to feel concern for the programmes and content children are taking in but let’s talk about an equally vital – and at times more insidious – part of today’s digital diet: advertisements.
While it is suggested that children below the age of eight are unable to comprehend the commercial motivations behind advertisements, it’s important to help them learn to distinguish sponsored content from other programmes.
In monitoring their exposure to media, choosing commercial-free content or muting advertisements are available options, but imparting the ability to digest and discern content is key to developing media literacy skills, which is defined as the provision of “a framework to access, analyse, evaluate and create messages in a variety of forms – from print to video to the Internet.”
It’s imperative that the development of media literacy starts young. With the rise of AI technology and phenomena such as virtual influencers, technology is finding ways to mimic life, and it is essential that we teach our kids how to navigate this world and separate the virtual from reality.
Whether that means taking the time to go through different forms of media – from social networking sites to traditional advertising forms such as television commercials – or even something as simple as going on Google together, incorporating this habit into daily life is crucial.
Psychology professor at Ithaca College Cyndy Scheibe explained that advertisements are inherently different from other media forms because of the intention behind it – to “get you to really like this product and to ask somebody to buy it for you or to buy it yourself”.
Teaching children to be able to recognise advertisements not only helps them to be more aware of the content they’re consuming but also teaches them to be more wary in their usage of media platforms and the concept of privacy, as they learn how advertisements are able to derive insights from their consumption habits.
Creating a safe space to explore
In helping children to be more cognisant of their interactions with advertisements, it’s important to create a safe space for children to explore these topics, one that lets them feel comfortable enough to consult trusted adults and learn how advertising shapes their perceptions.
Start simple, by opening up a conversation the next time an ad comes on in between watching a show on television. The next time an ad pops up while you’re online together, teach your child to recognise what an advertisement is, and prompt them to consider its message and what it hopes to achieve.
Erin Wilkey Oh, the content director for family and community engagement at Common Sense Media, suggests asking children to share their thoughts first to steer the conversation, rather than telling them your own opinions first.
Choosing relatable content is also important in helping to ease children into considering the role of advertising in their lives.
For younger kids, Michelle Lipkin, the executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education in the US, suggests that parents utilise toy and fast-food commercials as references, to help them discern the difference between products in real life and how they are advertised.
For teenagers, Wilkey Oh explains that marketers tend to appeal to this age group’s core characteristics, such as the desire for acceptance, to promote products, and suggests that parents and caregivers “pull back the curtain on these methods and ask teens what they think about advertisers counting on this vulnerability to sell things.”
Keeping things relevant
Traditional commercials aren’t the only medium to look out for; it’s important that we help children be aware of other forms of sponsored content as well, such as influencer marketing. As we adapt to the changing media landscape, keeping abreast of advertising trends and teaching children how to challenge perceptions is imperative to their development, and we must do our part to help them make sense of the media they consume.