Evils of Advertising – And Your Kids

Ah, advertising to kids. It’s everywhere nowadays. You can’t get through a YouTube video, TV show, internet article, or anything else without seeing ads. I found this scary article over on AdWeek that says not only does the average eight year old spend 2.5 hours per day watching TV, and another 1.5 hours on the internet, but they see over tens of thousands of ads per year. Ouch.

What’s the problem with all this advertising to our kids – and what can we parents do about it? How does this affect kids and their money? Lets explore.

What’s The Problem

There are actually a number of issues with rampant advertising directed at kids. Here are the top four that really annoy me as the mother of three.

Greed: It makes them want more, and more, and more. Most advertisements are for toys, unhealthy food, electronics, and games. These are almost always things kids don’t need – and didn’t even know existed before they saw the commercial. Commercials are full of smiling, happy kids with all the latest toys and gadgets. Kids can feel inadequate and like “everyone else” has whatever is being advertised.

Whining: If you’re a parent, you’re intimately familiar with this. This is when your kids suddenly develop an urgent need for a “something”, where they MUST HAVE IT RIGHT NOW, even if they’ve never seen or heard of it before. This often happens in the checkout aisle of the grocery store, when they see some candy. But it most certainly can come from advertisement. Every parent has heard their kids suddenly start talking about something they saw on TV non-stop. If you cut down on the advertising, you cut down on the whining. Although you still need to avoid that candy in the check-out.

Gullible: Sorry to say it but our kids are gullible. What do I mean by this? They can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. According to “The Cut“, “it isn’t until kids are 11 or 12 that they can fully recognize that people trying to sell them something might not be telling them the truth, and kids younger than that often have trouble even distinguishing commercial from non-commercial messages.” Being the mother of several older children (14 and 10) and a little one (2) I can say for sure this is true. When they’re small they basically think of ads as real, and don’t necessarily have the critical thinking skills to distinguish fantasy from reality. You need to help them with this until they’re old enough to do it themselves.

It’s Everywhere: Advertising is literally everywhere your kids turn. If you have cable, it’s rampant – there are about 15 minutes of commercials per hour. On the internet, 87% of popular children’s websites contain ads. Children’s magazine sport ads, including for products like alcohol and cigarettes. There are even advertisements in schools!

Here’s an info-graphic to represent what I think are the saddest facts about kids and ads.

Kids and ads infographic

Affects on Kids and Their Money

All this advertising consumption teaches kids that there’s one thing to do with your money – to spend it on stuff.

Think about the lessons kids learn here. That other parents are out there getting their kids all this amazing stuff, and they’re missing out. Or that the only thing you do with your money is use it for consumption. It also shows a false view of the world – there are no commercials for apples and carrots, but plenty for fast food. There’s also no commercials touting the fun of saving your money and investing it for long-term growth, but lots for buying new toys, apps, video games, and other such things.

So it’s no wonder that kids often spend money like water. No sooner does a dollar enter their pocket than it’s burning a hole, just begging to be spent.

Money burning a hole in kids pockets
Money goes down the hole

What We Can Do

So as parents interested in raising less materialistic kids, what can we do to help? I have a few ideas, and things I do in my household.

Cut the cable cord. If you still have cable, getting rid of it will cut waaaaay down on the number of advertisements your kids watch. If you’re not sure how to cut that cord, check out my reflections on being a cable-free family, or my 11 steps to cut cable. There are so many better, advertising free (or light) options available nowadays. And bonus, they’re almost always less expensive too!

Talk to your kids. Long time readers know that I’m a big fan of having money conversations from everyday events with my kids. You can check out my frugal family fun page for more times I’ve deployed this strategy. Advertising is the perfect opportunity to do this. If your kids ask for something, or talk about how cool something is – ask them about it! Ask them what makes it so cool. Why the kids in the ad would be saying it’s fun. How long would they play with that thing? Asking these kinds of questions helps teach your kids to think critically about the ads they see. Remember that we live in an advertising laden world, so I prefer to teach my kids to deal with it rather than restrict everything.

Restrict their screen time. Even though I teach my kids to deal with ads, I still don’t want them in front of a screen all day. This becomes increasingly difficult as they get older – at age seven they’re fine with half an hour a day of screen time (computer plus TV), but at 14 and 10 they have stronger objections. After all, none of their friends have this kind of restriction, and they have so much fun watching YouTube and… OK mostly watching YouTube. Still, I keep fighting the good fight. When we talk about it, I tell them that I want them to become interesting young men with varied interests. Someone who watches some videos while reading books, doing art, working on their Eagle Scout merit badges, and so on both has diverse interests and less time being exposed to unrealistic versions of the world.

I Want To Know

Let me know what you think – how do you protect your kids from advertising? What was the most annoying advertising-related experience you’ve seen with your kids? Let me know in the comments!

If you haven’t already, be sure to swing by my comprehensive Kids and Money page.  Don’t see an article or resource you’re looking for? Drop me a note at liz@chiefmomofficer.org to recommend future articles or request resources.

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28 thoughts on “Evils of Advertising – And Your Kids”

    1. I think there are a lot more. When I was growing up, at least, internet advertising didn’t exist. Television didn’t have quite so many ads on it. And there were no ads in schools.

  1. haltcatchfireblogger

    Maybe I am too permissive and restrictive on the topic at the same time. We don’t have a TV and no subscription besides internet. However I let my daughter to watch cartoons on a TV/monitor attached to a laptop (maybe a little bit too much). This way I am the censor who have full control on what does she watch (not a single Ad). For now (she is 5yo) this works, but I am sure will need more ideas for the future. YouTube is allowed too, but I have an eye always on what she is watching. Oh, and there was one time when the AdBlocker (hint: use one!) was disabled and YouTube started to play an ad (some lady stuff if I remember well) and she literally burst out in tears that her cartoon is broken 🙂

    1. Aw that’s sad and cute. Getting rid of cable helped with the ads a lot. Sounds like you have a good system going for her age

  2. Our kids watch about an hour of screen time at home a week and it’s all Netflix streaming. So except for school they are not exposed to this. The upside is hey don’t whine based on what they see on tv. The down side is it seems somewhat worse when they are exposed to these things while we are out and about.

    1. Yeah that’s true-I noticed that when my kids watch cable at their grandparents, they get cases of the “I wants”

  3. That’s why we love our DVR- skips all those obnoxious commercials! We don’t watch anything live anymore since every hour long show includes 15 minutes of commercials…such a waste of time!

  4. My kids are definitely susceptible to those ads! They generally just watch Netflix, but if they do an online portal with ads, it’s really terrible (and was especially bad when they were younger–3 to 5 year range). We used to watch Channel 1 when I was in school, and I remember thinking as a senior that we shouldn’t be watching commercials during school!! 🙁 I think, since it’s impossible to shield our kiddos from ads totally, then we have to have ongoing conversations about what people’s motives are when advertising to them (once they get old enough, that is).

    1. So true-those conversations and teachable moments are key. Otherwise if you just completely protect them from all ads, they won’t deal with them well in the real world

  5. Great thoughts on an important topic.

    Advertising is everywhere and extremely hard to avoid. As parents we can protect our children from some, but it’s the reality of the world we live in.
    We really need to be teaching our kids to be aware of the advertising and marketing around them. It’s not just the actual commercials but also product placement, peer pressure and sale marketing that we have to be aware of to help our children ask questions about what are they trying to sell me and why do I want these items?
    If we’re not teaching our kids, someone else will. And they’ll sell them something while their at it.

  6. We don’t have cable (and have literally only had it for 6 months of the 8+ years of our marriage), so we aren’t used to advertisements at all. When the occasion arises where we end up watching cable at someone else’s house, usually during football season, my husband and I can’t get over the advertisements. They seem 100x more awful when you don’t see them regularly.

    I wonder at what point kids usually start asking for toys from advertisements, because we haven’t seen that from our three year old yet. I know it’s coming, but I’m hopeful it will be less extreme since he really doesn’t see it.

    1. My boys only asked for things from advertisements when they saw commercials at family members homes. And they were somewhere between 5 and 7, if I remember correctly. Streaming has been a lifesaver in cutting down on ads

  7. In the talking to them step, do you think it would help to discuss that the kids (or adults) in the ad are actors, being paid to look like they are having fun? No one I know enjoys doing lady -THAT- much or takes a gigundo sniff of freshly laundered towels.
    Most of the ads I experience are on Pandora. I don’t mind the ones trying to sell me cars or furniture or even clothes, because I have enough or will make a mindful purchase if needs arise, not just because some Honda guy shouts well on the radio. The 2 that bug me are (1) for tanning places. It’s not healthy and it says me embracing my paleness isn’t the way to be, with their spray tans. And (2) the fertility: ‘are you running out of time, because omg if you aren’t having kids or can’t right now, freeze your eggs, or get ivf, and if you’re not popping out babies you’re an inadequate human’ is just not what I want to be subjected to. Advertise McDonald’s to me instead.
    I buy things based on price, quality, and if I like how it smells (as applicable), & will wait for sales or coupons if I can. In the end I do make enough money that if this week I need to buy tomato sauce I can afford the $0.99. I’m not going to buy 20, but I’m also not going to hinge my meal plan on waiting for it to drop 10 cents.

    1. Oh yes, talking about how the people in the ad are paid, and aren’t realistic, would be very helpful. After all, young kids can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. I always tell them that the kids in the ad aren’t having THAT much fun playing with their toys

  8. Agree – it’s truly insidious isn’t it! I thought “Youtube Kids” would be safe for my toddler occasionally – no! Most if not all of the ‘educational’ videos she watched were just advertising. It hit me one day when she made a beeline for the Kinder Surprises at the supermarket – she had been watching ‘egg opening’ videos. So, deleted that insidious app for good! We don’t have a TV, and have ad blocker on anything on the internet 🙂

  9. Advertising is insidious indeed. It’s not good for adults either but you lay out why it’s worse for kids. I would add to only let them use the internet with an ad blocker. Ad blockers are very effective

  10. We need to be better at restricting screen time with our daughter. We let her use our iPad sometimes. Earlier this year, she somehow discovered YouTube and it became almost like an addition to her. We ended up having to completely delete it and not let her ever use it. Its amazing how screens can suck kids in and put them in such a daze.

  11. My son is turning 2 in a few weeks and already likes to watch children’s songs on YouTube on our phones. The good thing is that he mainly likes going through our pictures and videos. We don’t have cable at home and limit him to watching PBS for like an hour a week. So he’s getting a enough media exposure for his age. We’re planning to get him a kid’s tablet in the next couple years.

    1. My two year old only watches streaming videos with the occasional YouTube songs. Right now he’s on a Littlw Einstein’s kick

  12. Doctors On Debt

    This is a great post!

    In “The Opposite of Spoiled” Ron Lieber talks a lot about the dangers of advertising on young minds. If you haven’t already I’d really recommend you check out the book.

    Awesome, practical advice here. Thanks for writing this!


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