is director of the Media and
the Developing Child Sector
at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania
I am a fan of the Bravo TV program
in which charismatic young chefs compete week after week by creating inspired dishes for a panel of easy-on-the-eyes judges.
Sometimes my 13-year-old daughter, Julia, watches with me, rooting for her favorite chef. Recently, she also figured something out about the commercials aired during the show. "Did you ever notice all the ads for food and restaurants during this show?" she asked.
I teach at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and this was, as we like to say, a teachable moment. For the next 90 seconds, Julia received a little lecture about how most TV shows and magazines exist solely to deliver consumers to advertisers.
Sure, media entertain us, they distract us, and they sometimes inform us. But their true reason for being is to make money. Hence, shampoo ads next to stories on hair, and Clearasil ads next to complexion tips in Cosmo Girl.
I'm sure I'm not the first parent to have had this conversation. We all worry about how media affect our kids. Somewhere close to the top of the list of worries (after sex and violence) is concern over excessive commercialism.
In having these conversations, we are teaching our children critical viewing skills - for example, what advertisements are or how mass media are economically structured.
This kind of "media literacy" can be very eye-opening for kids. But does it make them less likely to pester their parents to buy the toy, the candy bar or the Clearasil? Probably not.
A recent study by former Annenberg student Ariel Chernin, now at the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard University, found that kids who understood the persuasive intent of advertising were no less likely to want to buy the junk-food product Chernin showed them in a TV show than kids who did not know the true purpose of ads.
This is not to say that these conversations aren't helpful. But it does suggest that our job is not finished once we've had them.
This generation of kids has more purchasing power and makes more independent decisions about what to buy and where to buy it than generations past.
Like adults, young consumers buy things they think will make them feel better about themselves and more popular with their peers. But unlike adults, children and adolescents have fragile self-esteem, little self-control, and are willing to do almost anything within their spending power to fit in.
Ads beckon young audiences to pack snacks that will make them the envy of their friends and to eat fast food because it will be an enjoyable family experience.
The conversations we have with our children must be about more than what an advertisement is.
We must remind our children early and often that the world shown on TV is not the world we live in. We must eat meals as families (with the TV off) so our children can know that a balanced meal is not a burger, fries and a shake.
Finally, we must talk about the values we have for ourselves and the hopes we have for our children that are not about buying. Media actually can help us do that.