Marketing to children is big business. Massive, really: Each year, companies spend $17 billion selling your kids food, alcohol, toys and more.
And, according to a new study in the online journal Pediatrics, the companies doing the spending are successfully targeting tweens and teens.
Especially when it comes to alcohol ads. The study, which surveyed nearly 4,000 students from seventh until 10th grade, found these ads influenced some kids to drink more and experience related problems.
"Marketing is a factor in many of the major public health problems facing children today," says Detroit native Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School.
The food industry also targets children with commercials, product placement and character licensing to entice them to try unhealthy food, notes Linn's campaign, founded in 2000.
And it's not just television or radio. Social media has created a new gateway for targeting kids – from Facebook "likes" to "advergames" on websites of popular food companies.
Children ages 8-18 consume over seven hours of entertainment-related screen time each day, Linn says. That's almost an entire workweek's worth of media consumption.
"New media isn't replacing the old media," Linn notes. "It's just adding to the time."
So whether it's TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter or video games, kids – and adults – are constantly exposed to media and marketing.
Just look to the right of your Facebook newsfeed – you'll see ads. Follow your favorite artist on Twitter, and they might tweet about a great pair of jeans from a high-profile designer.
The Center for Media Diversity, a California-based media educational organization, has created core concepts and key questions for "consumers" (us) and "producers" (marketers). Think of it as a beginner's guide to dissecting advertisements.
"Just like someone constructs a house, someone constructs the media we consume," explains Tessa Jolls, president of CMD.
For any media, her group sizes up who wrote it, the format, audience, content and purpose. That sheds light on how it works.
Parents can ask questions like, "Who created this message?" "Why is it being sent?" and "What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented or omitted?" Chat with your kids to help them get a better understanding.
"We've seen that once kids start realizing that they really are the target, and once they start understanding what works behind the scenes, they are a lot savvier," Jolls says.
Tips for parents
Ads are everywhere, but parents can combat them and teach kids to be smart consumers.
"They really, really, really need to limit media consumption – and they need to start from the time children are really young," Linn says. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two hours of screen time per day, max, for kids. No matter what age, "Co-viewing is really important," Jolls says. "Watching some things with your kids." This way, you can talk about what they are watching right at that moment.
Noting product placement also helps kids identify marketing techniques. When an actor drinks a Coke, bring it to your kid's attention.
Make a game of it, Jolls suggests: Ask your kids how many products they spot in a movie.
And don't forget the "ah ha!" moments.
"Let's say a big rock star dies of alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose, and it's a person your kid really admires," Jolls says. "That's a teachable moment." Maybe some songs reflected his abuse. Use them to discuss how his music may have encouraged kids to try alcohol or use drugs – and why this is bad.
Both Linn and Jolls agree that stressing your family's values is imperative. Let kids know what you think is acceptable. But recognize that they will have exposure to these forms of media when you're not around.
Linn urges families to celebrate Screen Free Week April 29-May 5, 2013. Unplug and play, create, explore and spend time as a family.
"It's a good way to try it out," Linn says, "and at screenfreeweek.com, you can download a whole guide for lots of ideas."
And then, why not print and power down?