girl in fairy princess costume

Kids are consumers from the day they're born. Think of the infant in her newly purchased crib complete with a hanging mobile, the 3-year-old wanting the new toy he sees on a toddler television program, the 5-year-old asking for the action figure pictured on the cereal box, the 9-year-old wanting a cell phone, the 13-year-old downloading music from the latest teen pop idol. Children have enormous power, both indirect and direct, in influencing what parents buy for them.

Parents have several choices in dealing with the steady stream of wants. They can outright refuse demands they consider unreasonable or inappropriate, they can negotiate a reward system based on good behavior, or they can give in, tired of the struggle or fearful that their children aren't keeping up with the standards of their friends.

Advertisers capitalize on these anxieties, but parents can fight back; they can educate themselves and their kids to be attuned to the impact, the truthfulness and the purpose of advertising. It won't make these issues disappear, but it will help kids be more conscientious and thoughtful consumers.

Kids are big business
In addition to substantial influence over their parents, many children have their own spending money through allowances, gifts from relatives, babysitting or yard work, or more official part-time jobs. As a group they are highly susceptible to advertising campaigns. New forms of technology mean there are more ways than ever for advertisers to get their messages across.

  • By 36 months of age, many children can recognize at least 100 brand logos.
  • The average 8- to 18-year-old spends 7-and-a-half hours a day using various forms of media, from playing video games, to watching TV, to surfing the Internet, to using social media such as Facebook. Kids spend more time sitting in front of electronic screens than in any other single activity besides sleeping.
  • Teens spend about $160 billion a year, children up to 11 years of age spend about $18 billion a year, and children between the ages of 8 and 12 influence $30 billion of spending by their parents.

These facts are good for business, but not always good for a child's social, emotional and physical health. Here are just a few reasons:

  • Advertising can encourage a child to believe that his or her personality and likeability can be expressed in things.Excessive materialism can affect the development of children's self-image and values.
  • Aggressive marketing of fast food, candy, and soft drinks contributes to children being overweight.
  • Violence depicted in the media, including video games, has been linked to increases in aggressive behavior.

How to raise an educated consumer: Tips for parents  

  • Explain that commercials and other ads are created specifically to make people want things they don't necessarily need, as pointed out by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  • Discuss the products kids see advertised in terms of what they actually do for people.
  • Have children discuss ads in children's magazines and on television and help them critique what they see, from favorable and unfavorable points of view.
  • Encourage kids to compare advertisers' claims with their own actual experiences with the products they own.
  • Put television sets and computers in a common room in the household so parents will be aware of what their children are watching. 
  • Help kids distinguish between wants and needs, and to understand that they can't have everything they see advertised.
Special issues for younger kids
  • Limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of 2 watch no television; young children learn best through talking, singing, reading, listening to music or playing.
  • Help children understand that television is make believe, not reality.
  • Keep in mind that when watching television young children often can't distinguish between the programs and the commercials.
  • Encourage watching public television stations, whose programming tends to have more educational content.
  • Build up a video library of high quality programs and movies. Record favorite programs so they can be replayed without the commercials.
  • Be aware of what kids are watching and talk about the characters and the stories in the programs. 
  • Make shopping lists before you go shopping; talk about what you're going to buy.  If the child wants to buy something she saw advertised, tell her it's not on the list. Explain why you think it's not a good purchase.
Special issues for elementary school-age kids
  • Watch television or go online with your kids and ask questions about the messages in the ads you see: How do they make you as the viewer feel? Do they make you want to buy the product?
  • When programs include violence, discuss what happens as a result. If no negative consequences are depicted, talk about whether this is realistic.
  • Call attention to offensive ads; some are sexist, promote stereotypes, or make outrageous claims.
Special issues for older kids
  • Advertising encourages instant gratification and impulse purchases. Discuss with kids the pros and cons of taking the time to think before they buy. Encourage them to consider purchases for at least a day or two, which may help them avoid mistakes and regrets.
  • To help kids become financially aware, give them a hypothetical amount of money to spend. Ask them to fit their wish lists into this budget by checking catalogs and websites.
  • Have kids keep an eye out for product placements — a brand of soft drink, food, clothing, cell phone, car, etc. —  in television shows and movies. Talk about other techniques, such as free samples, recommendations from sports or movie stars, and commercials during popular programs, that marketers use to target kids and make them  feel pressured to keep up with the latest fashions or gadgets.
  • Introduce kids to publications that rate products such as cell phones, tablet computers, mp3 players, digital cameras, etc. You also might point out that the most expensive models are not always the ones that perform the best.
  • Talk with kids about how advertising appeals to emotions. Point out advertisements that take advantage of the typical anxieties and self-doubts of pre-teens and teens by making them feel they need the product to look or feel "cool" or to be socially accepted. To sensitize kids to this tactic and highlight the effects ads can have on people, discuss the following questions (adapted from the Media Awareness Network) with individual children or in a group:
  1. Do you ever feel bad about yourself for not owning something?
  2. Have you ever felt that people might like you more if you owned a certain item?
  3. Has an ad made you feel that you would like yourself more, or that others would like you more, if you owned the product the ad is selling?
  4. Do you worry about your looks? Have you ever felt that people would like you more if your face, body, skin or hair looked different?
  5. Has an ad ever made you feel that you would like yourself more, or others would like you more, if you changed your appearance using the product the ad was selling?
  • Have children collect ads that promote a positive body image.
  • Discourage congregating in malls, which encourages consumerism as a social activity.
  • Talk about the effects of consumerism on the environment, such as waste accumulation and disposal problems.

Cultivate the pleasure of giving

Make children aware that many kids don't have a lot of toys or material things. Donate old toys and games to local community centers. Giving children money to donate to a cause of their own choosing instills the value of giving and teaches them to think about which charitable causes are important to them. Kids learn that wealth comes from what is shared rather than just from what is owned.

Projects such as donating time or money to a charity can be a family tradition and teach children that we are all responsible for helping others; collecting toys at holiday time, or collecting art supplies and warm clothes for needy children, are examples of activities the family can do together.

Be aware of your own feelings

Parents need to think about their own buying habits. Parents' attitudes towards consumerism affect their approach to buying for their children. Adults who felt deprived of material goods when they were younger may buy too much for their own kids. Others may go in the opposite direction. Some may use gifts and material possessions to make up for feeling they are absent from their children's lives.

Kids want more quality time with their parents, not more things. Be a good role model — although kids are influenced by pop culture, media, sports personalities and movie stars, parents are still the most potent influence in children's lives. Spend time, not just money.

Date Published: January 5, 2006. Updated December 2011.