KIDS
April 30, 2020

Turning Kids into Savvy Consumers

You can make screen time a learning experience. Show kids the marketing tricks behind the ads they see. It could change their eating habits.

If you are looking for things to do to keep your child entertained during this pandemic, here’s a way you can give them some screen time and help them become more aware of the kinds of tricks advertisers use when marketing foods and snacks to kids.

When children are taught to think more critically about advertising claims, they develop the kind of media literacy skills they need to make better food choices throughout life, a study shows. Not only are they likelier to eat more fruit and vegetables, it's possible they will pester you less for junk food.

Use this time at home to educate kids about the difference between food advertising and actual nutrition information.

From the time a child is born, he or she is a marketing target, and the media is a known contributor to childhood obesity. What if kids learned to understand the difference between a program and a commercial or advertisement; and what if they understood that the purpose of a commercial or ad is to sell a product and is not particularly concerned about their health?

Washington State University researchers used a community program called FoodMania! to teach parents and kids about the techniques companies employ to market food. Parents and kids armed with this information were able to make healthy food choices based on facts instead of being lured into buying something that might not be good for them.

Nearly 200 sets of parents and their children between the ages of nine and 14 took part in the six-unit program. They learned about good nutrition and how to identify the methods and intent behind food marketing. Pre- and post-tests assessed the success of the curriculum. Parents who participated did better at reading the nutrition labels. This meant they had a better ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods on hand after completing the program. Children who took part in the program reported eating more fruits and vegetables.

Improved family communication about food was perhaps FoodMania!'s most important contribution to eating better. Families practiced using media together to make more informed nutrition decisions, and children often initiated the conversation. Both parents were involved in teaching their children critical thinking skills — such as looking at where information comes from and questioning marketing claims — that can have a positive effect on kids’ nutrition, without even restricting screen time.

“Managing food and media together seemed to create opportunities for an overall supportive communication environment in the family,” said researcher, Erica Weintraub Austin, in a statement. “Children really like to know that their views are valued. It is really motivating for them when they can find out about something on their own instead of being lectured to.”

Take this time at home to sit with your child while they watch shows and use the computer to educate them about the difference between food advertising and actual nutrition information. Challenge them to find food ads or marketing from websites, video games or social media. Analyze them together. Point out the different marketing techniques such as animation, bright colors, celebrities, cutesy characters and music, as well as clever messages, that encourage them to invite their friends to share in unhealthy snacks and drinks. Look at how companies behind these foods disguise their identity or intent to sell a product.

Understanding how advertising and marketing work to make us want to buy something is a step in the right direction toward making informed food choices.

The study is published in Childhood Obesity.

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