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CHILD CARING

Protecting kids from marketers' clutches

Coming soon to your daughter's sleep-over party: viral marketing.

It sounds ominous, and it is. Viral marketing is when a manufacturer gives products away in the hope of creating a buzz that spreads via the peer group. It's already infiltrated the adult world, and now it's targeting our children.

The best example may be "Slumber Party In A Box" offered by Girls Intelligence Agency, a Los Angeles-based marketing firm. Here's the breezypitch it makes to girls at GIAheadquarters.com: "You and your 10 best buds hangin out all night with the hottest, yet-to-be-seen-in-stores, stuff for chicas like you! . . . Enter to win a chance to be a GIA Slumber Party Host."

When potential clients visit girlgames.com, the come-on sounds more like a pitched battle:

"40,000 secret agent influencers and their closest friends . . . Your product only, all night long . . . Behind enemy lines -- GIA gets you into girls' bedrooms . . . Obtain immediate, candid data from the trenches."

For 8- to 13-year-old girls who are in the vulnerable stage of development where fitting in is paramount, this is a chance to be cool, to be a trend-setter, to get free stuff, and to be "special": As a "secret agent," you tell GIA what your friends think. For GIA's clients, they get a personalized focus group and they can watch their product spread by direct injection into the $75-billion female youth market. Trouble is, many girls don't see that they are being used, that their friendships are being exploited. By 11 or 12, they may already be so deeply into the consumer culture that they have absorbed its values: Stuff can make me happy. The more I have, the better it is.

Trouble is, the opposite is true.

"The more involved children are in being consumers, the more [likely they are to be] dissatisfied with life," including having low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, a more distant relationship with their parents, and psychosomatic symptoms, says Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor. In her just-released book, "Born to Buy" (Scribner), she details the psychological effects of consumerism on 300 Boston-area 10- to 13-year-olds, the first study of its kind on this age group.

In a similar study on teens, psychologist Tim Kasser of Knox College in Illinois says students who place a high value on materialism are more likely to have conduct disorders and to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, and sex, at early ages.

Schor's research disputes the link most of us imagine exists between consumerism and unhappiness in children.

"It's not that depressed children are more attracted to consumer culture, but that those who consume more are more likely to become depressed," she says. "It's not that kids who have a poor relationship with their parents buy more, but that the more they consume, the more the relationship goes downhill . . . as [two value systems] come into conflict."

Often, the process starts at birth. "What's marketed to babies are characters that they become attached to. But the characters are attached to products," says psychologist Susan Linn of the Judge Baker Children's Center.

When Sesame Street characters are on diapers, Disney characters are on window shades, and Barbies are on socks, young children come to rely on these characters to feel good about themselves. The quiet time you buy when you plop your toddler in front of the TV so you can cook dinner comes back to haunt you in the grocery store when he has a meltdown because you won't buy macaroni and cheese with SpongeBob SquarePants on the box. Does he think that macaroni will taste better? No. He thinks he will feel better.

When products don't meet up to the TV commercial, young children just buy into the next pitch: "This will be as fun as it is on TV." Lacking the cognitive skills to understand the psychology of marketing, they can't think about why the product wasn't fun, or turn to their own creativity to find enjoyment. In other words, the danger isn't just that children are consumers. It's that, through osmosis, they buy into the values of consumption: gimme, gimme, more, more.

"In this value system, what gets crowded out is creativity, sharing, kindness, altruism, and compassion," says Linn. She also has a new book for parents, "Consuming Kids, The Hostile Takeover of Childhood" (The New Press).

As marketers tune in more to childhood development, they're doing a better job of pulling our children in.

Consider Neopet (neopet.com), a site where you create an appealing, fantastical pet for whom you are responsible. It's popular among 8- to 12-year-old girls, Linn says, because it feeds into their developmental interest in nurturing. But because a girl earns points by taking her pet to spots on the site where she can "buy" branded products in a gamelike setting, the message she gets is that relationships can be based on material goods.

In the face of so much marketing savvy, Linn says, we need to think about the commercial landscape as a huge industry that is working 24/7 to undermine parents and children. "It's a safety issue, like any other safety issue," she says.

Setting limits is one way to protect children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV under age 2 and no TV in any child's bedroom. For older children, limit it to no more than two hours a day, preferably for all screen-time combined. Schor's children have grown up without TV but when 12-year-old Krishna seems overly involved in computer games, she imposes a two-week moratorium, telling him that he seems bored, dissatisfied, anxious, or dependent. This is trickier now that he's older. "It takes more flexibility. When he starts to chafe, we're willing to listen and we tend to pull back" and forge a compromise, she says.

Ultimately, the best antidote is to create a home life where children see more of your values reflected than of consumer values. "As bizarre as it sounds, anchor your family by cooking tasty meals and eating dinner together," says Schor. "It serves as a bulwark, [making] the siren call of the culture not so powerful for them."

In addition:

Instill a social conscience. Involve even toddlers and preschoolers in collecting canned goods for the local food bank. When one of his son's 8-year-old friends asked birthday party guests to bring dog and cat food for the local humane society instead of presents for him, psychologist Kesser cheered him on and hoped for a trend.

Avoid logo products, even for babies. When you're looking for day care and preschool, find ones that don't put children in front of TV or videos, and that avoid branded toys. With preteens and teens, talk about the social cost to products. "Marketers can't make much money off a teen with a social conscience who knows that Nike sneakers are made by a [foreign] worker who earned $1 an hour and couldn't go to the bathroom for six hours," Kesser says.

And if the day comes when your daughter wants Slumber Party In A Box? "Let her know how she is being manipulated," he says. "When middle-school kids realize that some marketer wants them to start a fad so the marketer can make money, they don't feel special anymore. They feel angry."

Contact Barbara Meltz at meltz@globe.com and join her at noon on the second Wednesday of every month for her online parenting chat at Boston.com.

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