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Researcher Shows Negative Effects of Advertising on Children


Advertising should be banned on all children’s television programming, according to a British developmental psychology researcher who spoke at Fordham.

Delivering the keynote presentation at the Conference on Human Development 2010, Mark Blades, Ph.D., presented research to support such a ban. He said that because children are more impressionable than adults, they were fertile ground for advertisers.

“In the United States, children spend $30 billion annually and directly influence an additional $250 billion in family spending,” said Blades, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield. “Advertisers aim for children because they want to establish tastes and preferences that will last a lifetime.”

Children younger than 6 are especially susceptible to television advertising because many of them can’t tell the difference between a commercial and a program, Blades said.

He cited a 1982 study that exposed children to a series of 20-second extracts from television shows and 20-second commercials. Only 66 percent of three-year-olds could correctly distinguish between a program and a commercial. That rate was 64 percent for four-year-olds and 79 percent for five-year-olds. By the time they reached 6, the rate had jumped to nearly 100 percent.

“Advertisers said today’s children were so much more media savvy than their counterparts from 25 years ago. So we ran the study again in 2008,” Blades said.

The results were much the same, he said, with 57 percent of three-year-olds, 66 percent of four-year-olds and 72 percent of five-year-olds able to tell the difference between commercials and programs. Again, nearly all six-year-olds performed the task flawlessly.

In another research project, Blades asked a group of six-year-olds to explain the purpose of advertising and gave them four choices. Their responses are as follows:

• don’t know – 31 percent
• for a break – 33 percent
• for information – 36 percent
• to persuade – 0 percent

“At six years old, children don’t show awareness of advertising’s persuasive intent,” he said. “Most do by eight years old, but even when children are aware of persuasive intent, they still see it as a benefit to the customer and not as a benefit to the seller.”

Blades called on the conference attendees to delve more deeply into the affects of advertising on children. He pointed out that in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology from 1983 to 2008—a span that included 800 papers—there were three that dealt with the media. Likewise, U.S. and U.K. textbooks on developmental psychology published from 2004 to 2009 had roughly 615 pages each, but only six devoted to the media, on average.

“Children are exposed to tens of thousands of adverts each year,” he said. “They spend some time at school; they spend some time asleep; but they spend most of the rest of their time in front of a screen.”

The Conference on Human Development 2010 was held from April 9-11 at the Lincoln Center campus and was sponsored by the Graduate School of Education.


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