Some children have trouble distinguishing between their TV programs and advertising, which tries to capture their attention.

What Are the Dangers of Ads Aimed at Children?

by Alissa Fleck

Children face a barrage of advertising just about everywhere they turn -- on television, the Internet and even at school -- and often how much of it they see is beyond your control as a parent. Much of this advertising is specifically geared toward young, vulnerable audiences. While advertising which targets children can result in dangers to their health and well-being, there are ways you as a parent can help your child understand some of the truths behind advertising, and how to make good decisions regardless of what they see on TV.


William A. Ramsey notes in the "Federal Communications Law Journal" in 2006 that children, who are already subjected to a great deal of commercial advertising while watching television, may have difficulty distinguishing the program they are watching from the advertisements. It becomes particularly difficult to delineate when popular TV characters are used to promote commercial products, explains Ramsey. The study notes children who cannot distinguish between a TV program and commercials are more vulnerable to advertising and more likely to trust all commercials and desire the products they see on TV.

Food Advertising

According to a 2004 study in the "International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity," food and beverage companies in the United States view children as a significant market force, and much of their advertising is aimed at these young audiences. As a result, these companies target their advertising by building youth-friendly brands and product loyalty, and promoting product placement in areas frequented by children, including school environments or on television channels directed at kids. Studies have shown children exposed to these ads are more likely to choose products seen in the ads than children who are not. The dangers arise from the fact that often these foods are child-friendly in the sense that they are tasty, but high in sugar and fat and generally not nutritious. The IJBNPA reports there is a probable link between this youth-targeted advertising and higher rates of obesity. Ramsey's report states children who are already overweight are even more susceptible to this advertising and related health problems.

Other Advertising

Ramsey raises the issue of other, potentially less serious, consequences of ads aimed at children. These ads may reinforce certain problematic stereotypes, such as about race or gender, as well as promote materialism. If children are consistently bombarded with ads about toys, a logical leap might be that they need more and more toys. According to the American Psychological Association, children have a remarkable ability to recall product placement, and advertisers exploit this. Advertising targeted at children has the potential to influence their value system and even put strain on the parent-child relationship.

What You Can Do

To some degree, the government has taken measures to regulate how advertising can target children. However, there is much more you can do as a parent to help your child understand advertising and limit his viewing of it. Because you cannot ultimately control what your child might see, you can take measures to cut back on your child's exposure to advertising by limiting how much time he spends online or watching TV. Approve certain programs or channels for your child to watch based on their appropriateness for kids and monitor your child's Internet use. Most importantly, talk to your child about how advertising is used in terms he can understand. Explain that advertising is about making products look appealing so companies can make money and not necessarily about his health or best interests. Pick up on teaching moments -- if an ad for a fast food restaurant comes on the TV, talk about how unhealthy fast food can be and how it should only be consumed in moderation if at all.

About the Author

Alissa Fleck is a contributing writer for several community newspapers in New York City. She writes book reviews for an online magazine and hosts a monthly reading series. Fleck has also interned at a literary agency and worked as a university teaching assistant. She holds a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

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