How to Protect Your Kids From Commercial Culture

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A sample of the overwhelming merchandise related to the Harry Potter book series and movies.

I recently walked through the children‘s section of a big box bookstore for the first time in a long time, and I was stunned. Then depressed. Then angry.

Everything was branded. Nobody wants a children’s book anymore. Now you need the accompanying website, movie, activity pack, fruit snack, backpack, and iPhone app. I called up Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to ask her about it: how childhood got so commercialized, why it matters, and what we can do about it.

What really set me off was my recent bookstore experience. What’s that all about?

One of the things that has happened with children’s entertainment and children’s books is that it’s really hard to find entertainment for children that isn’t selling something else. We can’t really think about a television program or a film or a book anymore — what we have to think about are brands. The message that children get in a commercialized culture is that nothing is enough in and of itself. You can’t play Harry Potter without the official Harry Potter wand or the video game. That’s problematic in all sorts of ways. Nothing is enough and everything is designed to make you want something else. It’s immersion in products, and in particular in screen media. It takes away children’s need to play creatively. It also sends them the message that their own creations and their own imagination aren’t good enough. The loss of creative play is terrible for children and also terrible for society and for our future.

How important is this widespread growth in branding?

Leaving children unprotected in the marketplace is harmful to them in a whole variety of ways. Many of the major public health and social issues harming children today are linked directly to advertising and marketing. It’s a factor in childhood obesity, eating disorders, the acquisition of materialistic values, youth violence, family stress, precocious sexuality, and the erosion of creative play – the foundation of learning, creativity, and constructive problem solving. It’s important to remember that it’s not products alone that are marketed to children; it’s also values and behaviors. The values that dominate a commercialized society are antithetical to most democratic and spiritual values. Children learn behaviors and values from not just their parents but from the society around them. Right now the culture of childhood is dominated by commercial interests and commercial values, which include impulse buying, unthinking brand loyalty, conformity, “me” first and self-indulgence.

What advice do you have for parents?

One of the best things parents can do is to postpone infants and toddlers’ immersion in commercial culture and to limit it for older kids. The best way to do that is to limit screen time and exposure to media-linked toys—especially the electronic kind. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two. But 40% of 3-month old babies are regular viewers of television. Nineteen percent of children under 1 have a television in their bedroom. And that was a few years ago. There is no data on parents handing cell phones to babies, but we know it’s happening quite a lot and that there are even iPhone apps for babies. There are several problems with that: One of them is that when babies are put in front of screens, they grow to depend on the screens for stimulation and soothing and they don’t develop the essential capacity to amuse themselves or soothe themselves on their own. Instead, they become dependent on screens for stimulation and comfort, which is exactly where the media and marketing industries want them.

This is scary stuff, isn’t it?

The current and unprecedented combination of unregulated commercialism and ubiquitous mini-screen exposure is one of the major public health problems for the 21st century. From the beginning it’s important for parents to build in time outside, time and experience with materials that engender creativity rather than inhibit it. The best toys for children are the ones that just lie there until the child makes something out of them. And for very little kids, that can be pots and pans, water, sand, Tupperware.

How can parents have this conversation with their kids?

I think you can start pretty early. It’s important to establish a relationship where you can talk about anything. There are a couple of caveats though. It’s essential to talk to kids about commercialism and materialism, but children are not adults in little bodies. They don’t have the same cognitive wherewithal and reasoning power as adults. Very young children can’t distinguish between a commercial and a television show. Until the age of 8, research shows that kids don’t understand persuasive intent. They don’t understand the fundamental basis of advertising. What the brain research shows is that marketing bypasses cognition and targets emotions. Knowing how marketing works can increase skepticism, but there’s no evidence that skepticism has an impact on consumer behavior.