By Brandon Laxton
Have you ever scrolled through your Instagram feed and suddenly found yourself wanting a product you never knew existed? Or you’ve watched a YouTube video and bought something an influencer spoke highly of. If you answered “yes” to either, then you’ve fallen victim to social media advertising – and chances are, you didn’t even realize it.
That’s because advertisers know our preferences and sponsored content is disguised as genuine posts to lure us in. While many users are aware of this, a significant number of people still don’t. Failing to recognize the power of digital advertising puts you at considerable risk, and the consequences are only amplified in children and teens.
SOCIAL MEDIA & BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
According to the American Psychological Association, a person must meet two requirements to understand advertising messages fully:
- Have the ability to distinguish between commercial and noncommercial content.
- Have the ability to recognize the persuasive intent of advertising and to apply that knowledge in their understanding of the message.
However, research from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that the human brain only finishes developing once a person reaches their mid-to-late twenties. Additionally, the prefrontal cortex – “responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, and making good decisions” – is one of the last parts to mature.
Children can only realize advertising messages’ persuasive intent if they look at it through a critical lens. “Kids are very egocentric, meaning that they tend to relate everything directly to them,” says Fallon Kane, a Clinical Psychologist for children and adolescents. “They don’t understand the idea that people are trying to sell something to them. They just think this is something they should have because of the egocentric way that they’re processing information.”
Adolescents are constantly bombarded with advertising messages for different products and services online, so it’s easier for them to get influenced by what they see. “There’s a lot of subliminal messaging on social media,” says Jennifer Persaud, a Graphic Artist and parent with teenagers. “It kind of forces you to click on it, like clickbait, because the ads are always in your face.”
THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCERS
Social media has also opened the door for influencers and content creators, who may be viewed as friends or role models to kids. These perceived relationships can lead them to imitate a content creator’s behavior or have unrealistic expectations in their own lives. “A child’s sense of morality at a very young age is still very black or white,” says Kane. “They’re going to be drawn to things that look fun and exciting and cool because they want to be approved of by their peers.”
Because there aren’t many effective methods of filtering out content on the internet, many adolescents get exposed to inappropriate advertisements for their age group, including messages from celebrities and businesses. “Some celebrities have dangerous things like alcohol and vapes that they’re endorsing. That bothers me,” says Persaud. However, it’s not just influencers that we should be worried about.
Mascots are another factor to consider when viewing advertisements. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that “at as young as age 2, a child can easily identify a familiar character as well as correctly connect them with an endorsed product.” This kind of marketing is especially prominent in products such as alcohol, cigarettes/vapes, and marijuana. By creating cartoon characters that serve as a mascot, companies are able to create a more inclusive or “fun” environment.
HOW ADVERTISING AFFECTS YOUR BUYING DECISIONS
This kind of exposure has life-long effects on children’s future spending habits. The American Psychological Association states, “product preference has been shown to occur with as little as a single commercial exposure and to strengthen with repeated exposures.” Companies want to establish brand loyalty in new consumers as soon as possible, and the vulnerability in children’s brains makes them the perfect target.
In addition to becoming valuable customers in the future, kids can also influence their family’s spending decisions about what to buy in the present. “It’s very well known amongst advertisers that kids are going to be drawn to things that look fun and exciting and cool,” says Kane. “They want to be loved and accepted by their peers, so they’ll demand a product from their parents. Parents are very vulnerable and susceptible to that kind of behavior.”
It’s important to consider that social media algorithms are designed to show users content tailored to their interests. Children are more likely to engage with misleading or false advertising and may not be aware of the potential biases that come with sponsored content. “It’s really tough. That’s why my kids don’t have social media. That’s why I got off social media as well,” says Persaud. “Advertisers want to sell something to you, and they’ll do anything to do that.”
PROTECTING KIDS FROM DIGITAL MARKETING
So, how can we prevent the harmful effects of advertising? “Not going on social media is the easiest way, but it’s also the hardest way,” says Kane. “It’s the social atmosphere for kids, so they can feel really socially isolated if they’re not on it.” As an alternative, parents can set rules and monitor the content their child is watching. “Kids are young and impressionable. So, you’re in control as a parent,” says Persaud. “Mine won’t have social media until they’re old enough to understand the risks involved.”
It’s easy to fall victim to social media advertising, but with increased awareness and self-control, we can protect ourselves from the subtle tactics of digital marketing. If you see a harmful ad or would like to learn more about online safety measures for children, check out the Children’s Advertising Review Unit.