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'Greening' Our Children: Screens and Ads Don't Help

Barbara Biggins
Online Opinion
May 27, 2010

Children are spending increasing amounts of time with screens - up to four hours a day with TV, DVDs, videogames and the Internet. A concern shared by some, is the increasing exposure of children to commercialised content. What’s the impact of all those ads, product placements and marketing pressures?

We’ve long known that young children have great difficulty in coping with advertisements, as they don’t understand selling intent. In recent years we have learnt from Fine and others (Fine, C (2007) Vulnerable minds? “The consumer unconcious and the ethics of marketing to children” Res Publica; and Nairn, A and Fine C (2008) “Who’s messing with my mind? International journal of marketing) that even older children, who have increased understanding, are still susceptible to the commercial messages that tell them that to be a success, they have to buy: buy this, wear that, listen to this, play with …, watch …

We’ve learnt that education about techniques alone is not enough. Marketing typically targets portions of the brain that govern emotion rather than cognition, and while knowledge about advertising techniques can lead to scepticism about marketing, it does not necessarily affect actual consumer behaviour.
So we have a situation where children are being socialised into consumption from an early age, and we are unable to provide them with effective defences.

If we couple this problem with the outcome of children’s increased hours with media - a lack of contact with their outside world, and of exploration of their physical environment - it’s no wonder that some are increasingly concerned about how we will be able to engage the young in real concern about their environment and worse still, to be supportive of the changes in lifestyle and consumption patterns that will be required for environmental sustainability.

An article in the March 2 issue of The Solutions Journal by US writers Tim Kasser, Tom Crompton, and Susan Linn sums up the issue like this:

While not typically seen as an “environmental issue,” those concerned about the environment should be sobered by the increasing commercialization of childhood, as the same generation of children, that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions, is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction … (Kasser, Tim et al 2010)

Further they argue that:

By tackling the inflow of such materialistic messages, environmental organizations can work to diminish the values known to promote ecologically degrading attitudes and behaviors, as well as other personally and socially problematic outcomes.

The authors propose that:

… if the environmental movement is to reach its goals, it must directly address the problem of materialistic values and the means by which they are encouraged in society. Of the many possible solutions that are available towards this end, we suggest that one of the most promising approaches is to reduce children’s exposure to commercial marketing …. For these reasons, coalitions of civil society organizations could promote the removal of commercial messages from children’s environments. One place to start would be in the home …

These are goals that I, and many others who work with children, would support.

A couple of years ago, the Australian Council on Children and the Media ran a campaign with parents of children under the age of seven called Keep your children out of the firing line. It aimed to encourage the minimisation of children’s exposure to commercial TV with its 15 minutes of ads each hour, and if screen time was warranted, to view the ABC or use DVDs instead.

The context of that campaign was to seek to reduce the impact of food ads on children’s consumption of junk foods. Such a program could also work to reduce children’s “needs” for all sorts of consumer goods. And if combined with encouraging the recognition that children’s development would be enhanced by increased connection with their natural environment, could achieve greater benefits.

The US group Alliance for Childhood, in their 2004 paper Tech tonic: towards a new literacy of technology, recommend that:

… we need to colour childhood green to refocus education on children’s relationships with the rest of the living world.

The Alliance argues compellingly that:

Children’s lives are increasingly filled with screen time rather than real time with nature, caring adults, the arts, and hands on work and play. Yet only real relationships, not virtual ones, will inspire and protect them to protect the earth, and all that lives in it. (Alliance for Childhood, p1 Overview)

Would this not be an initiative worthy of government investment and wide community support?

Barbara Biggins OAM, is the Hon CEO of Australian Council on Children and the Media. The ACCM is a not-for-profit national community organisation whose mission is to support families, industry and decision makers in building and maintaining a media environment that fosters the health, safety and wellbeing of Australian children. Its patrons are Baroness Susan Greenfield and Steve Biddulph. Barbara also served as the Convenor of the federal Classification Review Board 1994-2001.





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