“I need some Gatorade!”. The request for five-year-old son Cindy Mary Jenkins surprised her because he had never asked for a drink before. When I asked why, his response was simple: “If I drink Gatorade, I’ll be great at football!” Apparently he saw an ad for a sports drink on YouTube, and as the kids do, he drank it at face value.
“Watching the commercials inside his shows almost broke the fourth wall for him,” she says. “It took a few commercial breaks before his mind figured out the faster editing method and the brighter one, and then he felt euphoric.”
Advertising has evolved far beyond traditional television advertising. These YouTube “free shows” usually come with several pop-up ads for the duration of the show. Influencers may or may not get paid to talk about a product. And ‘Sponsored Content’ that looks like a real article or video – but has actually been paid for by the advertiser – can be confusing to kids.
“It’s unpredictable, it doesn’t come in a 2.5-minute ad break during a network TV show, it’s embedded in content in ways that are hard to see, and it’s uniquely targeted to children,” says Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media.
A 2020 report by Michigan Medicine CS Mott Children’s Hospital and Common Sense Media found that advertising on YouTube occurred in 95 percent of videos young children were watching. As such, it is almost impossible to protect your child from advertisements. That’s why experts instead recommend that parents start talking to kids about what they’re seeing so they can identify content as commercials and begin to think critically about intent. With the Christmas season in full swing, now is the time to get started.
The science behind the advertising
In the past decade, researchers have learned a lot about how media and content productions, including advertisements, are designed to elicit responses in the brain — without the viewer knowing it. This also applies to children’s ads.
says Paul Bowles, dean of research and graduate studies at the Edward R. Morrow School of Communication at Washington State University.
Bowles says baby ads often target two completely incomplete areas of a child’s brain. One is the limbic system, which controls many of our emotional responses. When the brain receives intense sensory input, such as loud noises, bright colors, and rapid movement—things ingrained in many infant advertisements—neural pathways send messages that create excitement and joy. This stimulates feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine. (These chemicals are also released when a child hangs out with a good friend, a feeling similar to the “love” of an influencer or character.) The feeling of complacency when watching an advertisement creates a strong desire for the product so that the viewer can continue to feel good.
Another target brain area is the prefrontal cortex, which helps control cognitive behavior such as self-control and decision-making skills. Adult prefrontal cortex will help regulate strong emotions from advertising, provide realistic product inspection, and reduce temptation to buy. But children’s prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully form until they are about 25 years old. That’s why kids often interrupt or cause tantrums – and why they’re so prone to advertising.
Take, for example, unboxing videos. says Matthew LaPier, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona who researches the impact of media on children’s health and well-being. “It gets kids excited, and they don’t have that ability to get past their response and say, ‘Wait. I don’t really need this product. Do I want this?'”
Ages and stages
As a child’s brain develops, the ability to distinguish between ads and content also develops. Here’s what stage of media literacy your child might be in right now.
Ages 3 to 6 years old. At this point, children are not mature enough to know the difference between advertising and reality. In fact, research shows that children under the age of seven have a severely impaired ability to comprehend disguised intent, or the concept that someone is trying to influence them to buy something they may not need or want.
Ages 7 to 11 years old. Children at this stage can begin to understand the intent to persuade a little more with the help of parents. For example, it can be difficult for kids to understand influencer ads on their own because good influencers build an emotional bond with viewers. “Once these bonds are established, it’s easier for them to get the kids to want to buy something,” Rob says.
Ages 12 and up. By the age of about 12, kids can more logically identify ads as well as the fact that someone is trying to get them to buy something. But this undeveloped prefrontal cortex still comes into play, so kids can’t necessarily make the best choices.
Talking to children about advertising
The bottom line is that children have less life experience than adults to critically evaluate advertisements. Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping children survive (and thrive) in their digital world. That’s why it’s so important for parents to have an ongoing conversation about ads, she says.
Start young. Teaching children to critique advertisements begins with talking about them. “It’s very important to have conversations even with young children,” says Michelle Lipkin, executive director of the US National Association for Media Literacy Education. Asking questions like ‘What are they trying to convince me to buy?’ or “Do you think this game really does all that?” A great way to get kids thinking.”
Robin Stern, co-founder and co-director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, suggests questions like, Someone created this ad, why do you think they made it? Who is the advertisement intended for? What do you think the person who wrote it wants you to feel at the end? What are your thoughts and feelings after seeing the ad? Is the advertisement believable?
“Kids just need to be smart consumers,” says Stern. “And the way to become a smart consumer is to ask questions and notice how you feel.”
Express your feelings. To help children understand that ads are meant to elicit emotional reactions, express your feelings about the ads they see.
“This helps kids understand that we all interact with ads and notice that there is an intent behind the ads,” says Stern. For example, you might say, ‘I’m watching this and I feel some pressure right now. Do I need to look like this to enjoy this product? or “Boy, everyone in this ad looks really happy. I don’t always feel happy when I play with my toys.”
Uncover the hidden language. Ads don’t drive viewers towards products – it’s more like a gentle push. Jim Wasserman, co-creator of the series Learn about media literacy: How educators can bring economics, media and marketing to lifeAnd Parents are advised to refer to these subtle advertising techniques.
• Ambitious Buying: Buying a product because someone you like buys it or uses it
• Call of the cart: A message that makes you feel like everyone else does, so you should too
• Aggregation: Buy things together in a package, even if you don’t want some of these
Eye candy: Anything with pictures shown
• Compliment: message says,You deserve the best – you deserve it.
• Hedging: Words like ‘maybe’, ‘maybe’ or ‘maybe’ indicate that anything can happen
Once children familiarize themselves with these techniques, Wasserman suggests having children express advertising intent in real terms. For example, if the product has the allure of a cart, get him to think about what that might mean in real life.
“For example, select an ad that says you’d be great if you used their product,” he says. Then say, ‘If one of your friends didn’t use this product, wouldn’t you like it? “It helps them know what the ad is trying to do – and not feel bad if they don’t use the product.”
Unmask the influencers. Like the cool kids in school, influencers are people that kids want to imitate. This is not necessarily bad. But Rob says that by helping kids realize that these creators are often not what they seem — just like an actor who plays a character in a movie — parents can teach kids that these celebrities can do more than just make fun videos.
For example, kids usually don’t realize that an influencer often receives free products or is paid to promote certain brands. To help them understand, Wasserman suggests indicating when the influencer drinks a branded beverage in an educational video or mentions products while playing a video game. To expand the learning, visit the influencer’s webpage with your child and search for a language like “I’m looking for sponsors.” Your child can then search for examples of sponsorship within their favorite influencer content.
Spot hidden ads. Online ads are usually much more difficult to spot for kids than TV ads. Wasserman therefore suggests treating digital content as a puzzle to be solved. “Scooby-Doo,” he says. “Look for clues as to who is winning and how.”
For example, freeze scrolling under a YouTube video and challenge kids to find pop-up or banner ads, or even product placements. Or find content that looks like a fun video but is actually paid for, and see if the kids can tell how you can find out. For example, the word (AD) may appear in the video title or contain a brief message at the beginning of the video. (This is an example from the Nat Geo Kids YouTube channel.)
“If we do this enough, our children will start to identify hidden advertisements themselves,” Wasserman says.