By: Prof Ljupka Naumovska, Rennes School of Business
One of the main reasons why Christmas is a time for giving is to remind us of the baby Jesus receiving gifts of Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh from the Magi. But in a society where consumerism has taken over, it seems that the religious element is hardly remembered.
Presents for children is one of the main focuses at Christmas, and they have long been the primary target of advertisers, and the rise of digital use among even the youngest children, has been a game-changer for many companies. The Christmas season, and the social culture that surrounds it, creates the ideal environment for advertisers to target children.
With Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and, of course, video games, children now spend twice as much time online as they did a decade ago. This amounts to an average of around two hours a day during the week and three hours at weekends. And during the recent lockdowns, these figures increased still further. More than half of children have a profile on a social network, and online advertisers are spending millions to take every opportunity to attract those young customers.
Over the last ten years, digital advertising targeting children has increased by a staggering 1,000 percent, whereas the spend over traditional media such as television, radio and the press has remained unchanged. Many companies consider this to be a good investment as consumption habits are formed during childhood. Research also shows an immediate and significant impact on family purchases, where the influence of the children in the buying decision process is also significantly increased.
The size of the problem
In the UK, according to the 2019 Ofcom report, less than half of parents whose child uses a smartphone or tablet know how to use parental control settings. A staggering number of UK parents give their children unrestricted access to digital devices while still at primary school, with half of 10-year-olds owning their own smartphone, and many of those using social media platforms.
YouTube remains a firm favourite of UK children, with easily-relatable vloggers with a shared interest gaining increasing popularity alongside high profile or ‘celebrity’ influencers. However, the majority of children still don’t understand how search engines such as Google work or have the ability to recognise advertising on these sites.
Engagement, gamification and content are the key weapons to target children. Companies create games on social networks more to engage children in a relationship with their brands than to entertain them, so the line between entertainment and advertising is becoming increasingly blurred. Influencers with large followings of children are paid to promote products, and the children don’t necessarily realise this. One particularly worrying trend is the burgeoning demand for hypersexualized makeup and clothing among prepubescent girls, which stems from their desire to emulate their idols, who are often a few years older.
The central problem in the uncontrolled media space is the content children are directly and indirectly exposed to, which is especially worrying for children below the age of 9. Studies indicate that those below the ages of 9–10 years do not have the cognitive abilities to distinguish programme content from commercial content, even when separation devices are applied. In other words, the creative, interactive and advertising content is seen as the same by children under 9 years old, who can’t tell the difference between them. Their naïve credibility, and response to these messages can ultimately result in negative consequences, among them obsessive materialism and problems with self-confidence and anxiety. It also leads to family conflicts, with parents feeling forced to make purchases they don’t want. Pressure from advertising has also contributed to the current epidemic of childhood obesity. For example, one Canadian study found that 90% of the food products advertised on Canada’s top 10 websites were unhealthy.
Working class children more at risk
Our research shows that children from working-class backgrounds, whose parents cannot afford to offer activities such as sports, outings, paid leisure activities and so on, are subject to greater than average advertising pressure. Lone children are also more affected by online ads than those who have siblings to play with. Research also suggests that children who are given access to screens by parents as a reward for good behaviour are particularly susceptible.
This leads to the question: should we accept the manipulation of children by advertising at a time when the risks inherent in overconsumption are increasingly recognised? Should we tolerate a phenomenon that creates tension between parents and children, and working-class families in particular?
There are many initiatives and campaigns across the world that aim to control the advertising industry. Advertising to children is restricted in Great Britain, Greece, Belgium and Denmark, but in countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Quebec, advertising to children under the age of 12 is actually illegal. And in Canada, a helpline is available to report unauthorised advertising to children, while Greece has banned advertisements for toys, and in Ireland, children’s programmes must be advert-free.
But despite governmental interventions, the issue of fair and responsible advertising with regard to children is left up to industry self-regulation. So, what can be done to protect children? First, parents need to become more digitally literate in order to strike a good balance between controlling the content their children access, while giving them the digital independence they need in a fast-changing world. Second, children must be educated from early on to distinguish the differences between content and advertising, and crucially to understand how the advertising industry works. Thirdly, industry regulation must be better applied by both media and government. And finally, international standards to restrict the impact of advertising on children are urgently needed.