Children and teens growing up in the United States are surrounded by commercial messages. They see them in television and movies, they surf by them online, they pass them on the street, and they frequently act as marketing messages themselves when they wear branded clothing or accessories. The reason for this message saturation is simple; marketers (and the companies that hire them) make a great deal money targeting young audiences. Children and teens spend billions of their own money on consumer goods and services; they also play a key role in directing the consumer spending of their parents; and marketers who are able to establish brand allegiances at an early age can potentially count on years of brand loyalty later on.
This exposure to commercial messages among children and teens is not entirely benign, however. First, young people’s exposure to marketing messages affects important health behaviors and psychological well-being. Second, due to children’s developing cognitive and emotional competence, they are not as well equipped as adults are to consider the worth of these messages. Third, marketers using new media platforms are pursuing children and teens more aggressively with serious implications for privacy protection.
With these issues in mind, what can be done to level the playing field for children and teens? For example, are there ways to teach children and teens to counter advertising messages? What strategies can parents and practitioners enact to bolster child defenses? Lastly, are there ways to use what we know about the advertising/marketing industry to encourage protective behaviors in children? This entry by the Advertising and Marketing workgroup examines the potential answers to these questions and explores where research in this area should be heading in the future.
Does a child’s emotional and cognitive development affect their ability to understand and/or react to commercial messages?
Yes, on both accounts. There is good evidence showing that children do not understand commercial messages at the same level that adults do. Specifically, younger children (i.e., those 8 or younger) are more likely to believe that the commercial messages they see are purely informative. There is also accumulating evidence that children’s development influences their ability to protect themselves from advertising messages.
Should we be concerned about advertising messages that are not targeted to children; for example, commercials for alcohol and nicotine products?
Yes. For example, children and teens who see more ads for alcohol products are significantly more likely to start drinking at an earlier age, and teens who see more of these ads typically drink more.
- The average American child is exposed to tens of thousands of commercial messages each year across an array of media platforms (e.g., television, online environments).
- Children’s advertising exposure has been linked to less healthy food consumption, increased materialism, increased parent-child conflict, and negative body image among girls.
- With children and adolescents turning to new media platforms for their media use, there are fewer safeguards in place to monitor their advertising exposure.
Guidelines for Parents
- Monitor and limit your child’s exposure to marketing content across media platforms including online platforms.[1, 2, 3] Carefully monitor and (within reason) limit your child’s exposure to advertising messages on the internet, on social networks, and on television. Practical initiatives include limiting the use of laptops, tablets, and smartphones to common areas within the home, encouraging children to view commercial free shows and movies (e.g., via Netflix and DVDs), and removing televisions from children’s’ bedrooms.
- Keep in mind that children (even older ones) struggle to understand and respond to marketing messages.[4, 5, 6] Remember that your child’s ability to understand persuasive content is shaped by their cognitive development. As such, even though your child may have developed some advertising literacy, they will still experience difficulty calling upon certain cognitive competencies to help them cope with marketing appeals.
- When possible, encourage children to think critically about persuasive messages by providing cues to help them process these messages.[7, 8] While it is still important to talk with your children about the purposeful intent of advertising and the tactics marketers use, there are two other things that parents can do to possibly help children handle persuasive messages. First, when children are using commercial based media with parents, parents should cue children’s commercial awareness (for example, by making comments about advertising), which will likely encourage children to critically evaluate messages. Second, parents should offer evaluative assessments of the commercial message (e.g., that food looks terrible) in addition to factual statements about the nature of the message. This will increase children’s skepticism about advertising, which motivates them to critically evaluate advertising messages. Given that many adults are still learning about how new media (such as social media) work as commercial vehicles, it may be especially helpful for parents and children to work together to uncover the ways in which persuasive marketing messages are embedded in new media environments.
 Buijzen, M., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2003). The effects of television advertising on materialism, parent–child conflict, and unhappiness: A review of research. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 437-456. Snyder, L. B., Milici, F. F., Slater, M., Sun, H., & Strizhakova, Y. (2006). Effects of alcohol advertising exposure on drinking among youth. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160(1), 18-24.  Zimmerman, F. J., & Bell, J. F. (2010). Associations of television content type and obesity in children. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 334.
 Lapierre, M.A., Fleming-Milici, F., Rozendaal, E., McAlister, A.R., & Castonguay, J. (2017) The Effect of Advertising on Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758V
The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.