Children, from the day they are born, are significant consumers. Think of the newborn in her crib complete with a hanging mobile, the 9-month-old watching a Baby Mozart video, the 2-year-old wanting the new Beanie Baby toy he sees on a toddler television program, the 5-year-old asking for the action toy pictured on the cereal box, the 9-year-old wanting cut-off jeans, the 15-year-old downloading the latest music from Madonna, the ultimate Material girl. Children have enormous power, both indirect and direct, in influencing what parents buy for them

Parents have few choices in dealing with the steady stream of want. They can resist demands they consider unreasonable or inappropriate, or they can give in, tired of the struggle or fearful that their children won't meet the standards of their friends. Advertisers capitalize on this dilemma. There is, however, a solution. Parents can educate themselves and their kids to be attuned to the impact, the truthfulness and the purpose of ads.

Background information

  • Industry spending on advertising to children has increased during the last decade from $l00 million in 1990 to more than $2 billion in 2000.
  • The average American child sees 40,000 commercials a year on television alone.
  • Sixty-six percent of children have a television set in their bedrooms.

These facts are good for business, but can affect a child's social, emotional and physical health, in various ways. Here are just a few:

  • Advertising can encourage a child to believe that his/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 commercials featuring candy and soft drinks contributes to overweight.

Tips for parents to sharpen their children's consumer awareness

  • Explain that commercials and other ads are planned to make people want things they don't necessarily need, as pointed out by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  • Discuss the products they see advertised in terms of what they actually do for people.
  • Have children discuss ads in children's magazines and television and help them critique what they see, from a favorable and unfavorable point of view.
  • Encourage kids to compare advertisers' claims with their own actual experience with the product.
  • Put the television set in a common room in the household so parents will be aware of what their children are watching.
  • Help kids understand that they can't always have everything they see advertised.

Special issues for younger kids

  • Limit the amount of television children watch to one to two hours of quality programming, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Children learn best through interactions with real people.
  • Keep in mind that young children watching television often can't distinguish between the program and the commercial.
  • Encourage watching public television stations.
  • Tape programs to be replayed without the commercials.
  • Be aware of what they're watching and talk about the characters and the stories in the programs.

Special issues for school-age and older kids

To help children become financially savvy, give them a budget with a hypothetical amount of money to spend, and ask them to fit their wish list into this budget by checking catalogues and Web sites.

Talk about techniques, such as free samples, recommendations of sports or movie stars, commercials during favorite programs, marketers use to target kids. Many children feel pressured to keep up with the latest fashion or toys that their friends have.

Advertisers take advantage of the typical anxieties and self-doubts of pre-teens and teens by making them feel they need their product to feel "cool." To sensitize them to this trend and to highlight the effect that 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 make 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 with the product the ad was selling?
  • Have children collect ads that promote a positive body image.
  • Discourage congregating in malls, which create an atmosphere of buying 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 some children don't have many 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 teaches them to take on responsibility for themselves. Kids can learn that wealth comes from what is shared rather than from what is owned.

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

Be aware of your own feelings

Parents need to think about their own buying habits. Their own history of buying affects their approach to buying for their children. Some people who may have felt deprived of material goods when they were younger may buy too much for their own children. Others may go in the opposite direction. Some may use gifts to make up for feeling they are absent from their children's lives.

Kids want more 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.

Helpful websites
A junior version of Consumer Reports where kids review and rate toys, crafts and games.

Don't Buy It!

Media Awareness Network

About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at