Dr. Deborah Gilboa suggests strategies for how parents can talk to their kids about the unrealistic and often inappropriate messages that can be found in modern commercials.
Some parents think their children can avoid commercials by using ad-free streaming services like Netflix.
Think again, says Deborah Gilboa, MD, also known as Dr. G.
Even if children don’t watch television spots at home, they still will see them elsewhere. At a friend’s house. In movie theaters. During video games. Even on YouTube. That means parents must prepare their children to process them in ways that illustrate their meaning, message, and impact.
“A kid needs to learn to watch ads with a skeptical eye,” Dr. G says. “Commercials are becoming harder to distinguish from stories. We want our kids to be a little bit savvy.”
Today’s TV ads are better produced than their predecessors as companies fight to compete with ad-zapping services. The real concern for parents, Dr. G says, is how modern ads reflect the advancing standards for acceptable content.
In other words, expect more nudity, violence, and harsh language in today’s commercials compared to the spots today’s parents grew up watching.
Are Your Kids Ready for the Talk?
Talking to your children about commercials demands maturity and engagement. Dr. G compares it to the reaction a child has to a magician’s act. If the boy or girl stares at the tricks with wide-eye wonder, then they likely aren’t ready to break down the reasons commercials exist. If the child asks, “How did they do that?” then it’s time to educate them on how companies pitch their wares.
That awareness generally arrives between the ages of four and six. Before then, children don’t differentiate between fact and fiction the way adults do.
“The trick is to look at these commercials and make our kids a little bit more inquisitive, more thorough and demanding [about what they see],” says Dr. G, author of the upcoming book, Get the Behavior You Want … Without Being the Parent You Hate!
A good place to start is with car advertisements, which appear to be real but feature outlandish stunts most drivers couldn’t duplicate. Other ads are best left unwatched, she says, such as ones filled with bone-crunching violence.
“You can’t ‘unsee’ violence or ‘unring’ that bell,” she says. “We know seeing violence on television is disturbing for kids, especially if they live in a chaotic environment.”
Another area of concern involves body image issues. Consider those beer ads where toned men and women frolic on the beach while gulping down the latest light beer. She says her own children, who likely caught some of those spots while watching the family’s weekly football game, have suddenly discussed “six packs”—the abs, not any beverage—after a steady diet of similar ads.
Are All Commercials Created Equal?
The news isn’t all bad for parents trying to help their children process commercials. Dr. Gilboa recalls an American Express campaign promoting a nonprofit involving light-yielding soccer balls. The spot transfixed her children, and the family later embraced the nonprofit behind the ad—Uncharted Play.
Or, consider a recent advertisement featuring a mixed race family that never brought up race. It simply showed a happily family enjoying breakfast.
“Great commercials can have a huge impact,” says Dr. G, who answers some of parents’ most common questions via her YouTube page.
Concerned parents can find some information on the latest ads via Common Sense Media (for transparency’s sake, she says she also blogs for them on occasion). Dr. Gilboa also recommends The Lolita Effect, a book which explores the media’s sexualization of young girls.
Ultimately, Dr. G says commercials can be avenues to build critical thinking skills in your children.
“Rather than shielding my kids from most things … I’d rather talk about it with them,” she says. “Most commercials are not dangerous but conversation starters.”