War for the Hearts and Minds of Our Children

Published: Tue 29 Jan 2008 03:47 PM
War for the Hearts and Minds of Our ChildrenBy Mark Rais
Today, neither parents nor government are the primary influencers of children’s behaviours. As much as parents and even those in government believe that they have the ability to effectively influence children’s motivations and actions, there is a far more effective influencing agent at work in the hearts and minds of our children.
The bombarding of thousands of messages across media has instructed children in ethics, moral principals, and priorities often in conflict with those of parents and government.
A Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report on the exposure to media messages sheds light on the true intensity.  The report titled Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds, notes “that a typical 8 to 18-year-old is exposed to 8.5 hours of recreational media content daily.”
It is very difficult for either parents, or government role models and authority figures (teachers, counsellors, law enforcement officers) to effectively convey information that is contrary to such a thorough barrage of communication.
Today’s children are being programmed through the consistency and proliferation of advertising messages -- not in the dozens, or hundreds, but by the tens of thousands per year.
Children have always had a tendency to reject authoritative voices.  They have always had a tendency to desire immediate physical gratification, whether it is exercised in sex, alcohol, food, etc.  However, never before have parents and government had their voice so thoroughly dampened by countless messages and ethics of someone else.
It is a very real war for the hearts and minds of our children, a war fought between those who care about how well children grow up to be adults and those who care how well they grow up to be consumers.
What happens to a society when inner wants are profoundly emphasised and constantly encouraged is that there is an unforeseen and significant change in behaviour.
Children may be instructed subtly to accept a desire or motivation over what is a parental voice, or even the law.  When this is combined with the pressures and bullying that often accompanies children among peer groups, the force to act on negative desires is extraordinary.
Not all advertising pushes the boundary so far as to provide teaching on a divisive form of ethics or morality. However, there are substantive numbers of messages promoting behaviours directly in conflict with the intent of parents and those in government.
Parents and government are potentially seen as fundamental inhibitors to a child’s desires.
As a result, parents and government become the key barriers to selling products to children because they have the power to:
1. Restrict the level of influence a third party can have over desires and actions
2. Impede the successful conversion of marketing dollars to product sales
For this reason, many messages are subtly encouraging children to challenge voices that do not give them the coached desires.  The result is an increase in anti-social behaviour, because social norms and authority voices are now considered negative by such children.
In a summary of how strong the influence of advertisements are on children, a New American Dream article notes it is often the case for children nagging parents that “No Means No…Until It Finally Means Yes."
In a recent NZ Herald article on violence and video games, it was reported that: “Ministry of Justice figures… showed sharp increases in the number of young people aged 14 to 20 caught by police for violent behaviour in 2005 and 2006.”
Such anti-social behaviour is increasing in prevalence throughout New Zealand, in large cities and small communities alike.
It is substantive enough that leaders such as Taupo’s Mayor Rick Cooper have begun new plans to respond to the growing anti-social behaviors.
In the United States alone, the advertising market now exceeds over $150 Billion per year.  It is estimated that approximately $12 Billion is spent for advertising explicitly targeting children.
Billions of dollars in advertising expenditures targeting children occurs because it is effective at influencing people. However, few are willing to make the association between influencing children and the results of their behaviours.
A growing pool of research now indicates that advertising is a significant influencing agent, especially among children.
In an article in The Nation, Steven Manning reports:
‘The sheer amount of advertising [children] are exposed to today is "staggering and emotionally harmful," says Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School psychologist who studies media at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.’
Today’s advertising is not simply creating direct links between consumer and product.  Instead, advertising has taken on a role as ethical instructor.  Advertising now poses as the role model, mentor and cultivator for children.
There is minimal quantifiable evidence that a particular media message can invoke anti-social or dangerous behaviour in children.  However, the reason is because marketing is not effective when isolated in terms of a message, or an image, or one ad.
Effective persuasion occurs when multiple media are used to convey multiple levels of the same message in coordination.
For this reason it is often impossible to prove that a particular media message was behind specific behaviour in a child.
However, if you observe a child, who for example may have a predisposition to sadism, and then have that child observe violence in ads, play violent video games, listen to violent music, watch violent television shows, attend violent sport events, and view violence in movies, a unique formula appears.
Total number of messages appealing to a desire in child +
child’s susceptibility to that desire =
likelihood of acting on that desire
This is a key formula for advertising, or it would not be a billion dollar industry.  Notice that even if a child has negligible predisposition, they may still act on the desire when exposed to sufficient messages.  The point of emphasis is that exposure to the message is a key influencer.
What few people understand is the cost to society when children are exposed to so many, often unhealthy or anti-social messages.
Having advertisements and media messages as the primary influencing agents in the development of a child’s desires can directly impact the costs associated with education, health care, law enforcement, justice, corrections etc.
The American Psychological Association declared in a task force report that television advertisements targeting children leads to “unhealthy habits” and those children are “unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages.”
Another cost is the decline of children’s maturation into productive and responsible adults.
This is not a new point. This has been conveyed for some time by leading psychologists and other medical professionals. The American Association of Pediatrics recently took a direct stand against marketing to children.  In a policy statement the AAP notes that, "Research has shown that young children are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising."
The Pediatric doctors have been expressing their concern for years, including a statementfrom their Committee on Public Education, stating that, “In the scientific literature on media violence, the connection of media violence to real-life aggressive behavior and violence has been substantiated.”
Today we face an increasingly violent, sexual, anti-social messaging that is targeting children.  Of course, children have always had a tendency to want to go around authority, to play games and place fun over responsibility.  However, never before have the parents and the government had their voice so thoroughly dampened by the messages and ethics of someone else.
The war we face to help our children develop into socially responsible adults is not between parents and government.
It is a very real war for the hearts and minds of our children, a war fought between those who care about how well children grow up to be adults and those who care how well they grow up to be consumers.
The most profoundly effective power both parents and government have today is the power to protect children from the bombardment of messages that are often neither beneficial nor benign.
The responsibility that government has is to invoke and enforce laws that ensure children are not the explicit target of media messages that promote anti-social behaviour.  Similarly, parents play an important role in helping to encourage and protect children from messages that are often not beneficial for their development.
Fundamentally, the real issue is whether either government or parents understand that their own voice is being replaced with the voice of another.
Mark Rais is a writer for the information technology and science industry. He currently serves as a senior editor for an on-line technology magazine and has written articles on the influence of technology on society.

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