In this article we approach advertising, especially digital advertising, by covering its impact on children as viewed through the lens of a local nonprofit leader whose organization provides opportunities for youth to detach from potentially unhealthy environments and influences. We are also going to present a protocol for responsible, inclusive advertising to children.
Weekend-Adventures is a program that helps kids in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood see who they are beyond their neighborhoods by leading experiences in the arts, sciences and the outdoors. Founder and CEO Adama Bryant believes strongly in the power of mindset, and that pretty much summarizes her program. Children participating in Weekend-Adventures program not only get exposed to art, science, nature, and culture but also develop healthy self-esteem and social skills. Similar programs have shown significant impact in helping stop cross-generational poverty. Weekend-Adventures focuses on children 8-13 years old, which according to Bryant is a definitive age where a child develops their self image and lasting, perceived “truths” about who they are and how their lives are going to go. This age group often falls through the cracks, as most existing youth programs focus either on younger children or teenagers/young adults.
Advertising and Its Impact on Children
An average American adult sees 4,000-10,000 ads a day, but advertising is increasingly targeting children. I discussed the topic of often overwhelming levels of advertising targeting children with Bryant, and she agreed that online content, such as social media and YouTube ads can be especially deceptive and attractive for children. “Seeing these figures alone makes me feel overwhelmed. Can you imagine how this impacts a child?” Bryant noted. “Kids don’t have skills to block this noise out, and they can easily end up following the rabbit into the hole.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children are uniquely vulnerable to persuasive ad messaging due to their limited impulse control and critical-thinking skills. While children and teens might be able to recognize the messaging as an advertisement, they still may not be able to resist the impulse when the message is endorsed by popular influencers, placed alongside or within personalized content, or displayed within trusted social networks.
Between 2019 and 2021 the screen time among tweens and teens increased by 17% to record levels. While the pandemic contributed to this rise, a similar upward trend existed prior to COVID. Experts find the increased digital media consumption, especially among tweens (ages 8-12) particularly worrying, because children of this age are not ready to face some of the content they get exposed to. According to Bryant it is vital to create positive imaging for all social groups in order to grow a healthy environment. “I think what a person learns early on in life sticks with them longer and deeper. It almost lives as fact even if it is not,” said Bryant.
Bryant encounters these new digital challenges directly at her daily work around the Tenderloin community. She recounts an ordeal they recently went through to help a young child immersed in an online cult promoting self-harm and suicidal thoughts. “He left the group a while back, but he still sees their ads on his social media feed. Not only does he see ads from this particular cult, but also from other similar groups. How social media algorithms are built is very careless.” Bryant found this situation infuriating, as it was next to impossible for concerned adults to isolate the child from the content that was following him wherever he browsed. “Since social media companies were able to build these tracking algorithms in the first place, they should be able to reverse them as well.”
While digital platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook have become increasingly aware of the negative impact of their algorithms can have on youth (most infamously Instagram’s internal study of the negative impact its algorithms were having on teen girls’ body images and mental health), algorithms affect ads as much as they do organic content. Unfortunately, the ability to control the content children see can vary significantly between platforms, and features for blocking/limiting organic and paid content are often underpromoted or difficult to discover (especially for adults who often are less tech-savvy and unfamiliar with the platforms marketed popular with the children they’re charged with protecting).
What Does Advertising Teach the Children About Their Place in Society?
A Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that offline and online racial discrimination has been associated with mental health problems especially among Black youth. A similar study by Yale School of Medicine found out that every Black teen girl participating in their study had experienced racism and bias over social media. “I feel that the messaging has not changed much since the early 1900, but how that message is being conveyed has,” said Bryant.
Browsing through ads from luxury brands and comparing them, for example, to food bank ads makes one item very clear: the first ad group displays more White individuals while the second group pictures more Hispanic and Blacks. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that some advertisements introduce unhealthy “ideals” for body appearance along with cultural and racial biases. Moreover, the same paper notes that over a dozen studies have confirmed a positive correlation between alcohol ads and underage drinking, while other studies show that more candy, fast food, sugary cereals and drinks are advertised to Black, Latino, and low-income populations.
This is the narrative that Bryant wants to change. For adults it is easier to filter out messages, but for kids the repeated online micro-moments enforce a certain image of society, which could stick with them all the way to adulthood. While brands are beginning to wake up to this reality and becoming more sensitive with their messaging, there is still a lot more work to be done.
What Can We Do Better as an Industry?
“If they [the marketing & advertising industry] want to do better, they can by creating advertising that shows a true picture of America,” believes Bryant. “Show all the faces in all the places!” This includes specific actions marketers and agencies can take, often small, that can have a major impact on the kind of message our industry sends to youth.
Action Items for Marketers
- Add diversity, equity, and inclusion to your marketing messaging both visually and verbally. It’s helpful to begin the process with messaging that speaks to the needs and desires of all your audiences and that creates a sense of belonging for all young people.
- Be mindful about the type of content you publish. Ask yourself: “What kind of image is it depicting of society? Does this marketing message amplify racial, gender, socioeconomic, or other biases?
- Be an advocate: lobby for better protections for children, such as content age limits, at the industry level and (if relevant) within your company.
Bryant acknowledges that the advertising industry is only one piece of a very complex puzzle for explaining “how things are.” Nevertheless this is an industry that often has a major impact on how people of all ages see themselves and each other. As a consequence, marketers have a moral duty to make progress towards eliminating messages and technologies that create and reinforce unhealthy perceptions, especially when it comes to children.
Weekend-Adventures is fiscally sponsored by SocialGood, which works to create and establish positive influences for individuals, communities, and the environment. To learn more about SocialGood, visit them at socialgoodfund.org or contact them directly here.