Saying that your eight-year-old knows more about technology than you do is one of those humblebrags that’s rarely true – but it at least reflects the reality that children are growing up in a media-saturated world. And while they have no cash, they have something nearly as valuable – pester power – which is why they’ve been in the crosshairs of marketing budgets for decades.
The Irish Heart Foundation pulls no punches in its current “Stop Junk Brands Targeting Kids” campaign, saying that brands “use underhand and unregulated marketing tactics. Their influence has spread into children’s homes, digital devices and even their schools.”
It urges visitors to its site – where cleverly engaging content explains how advertisers sell to children – to sign a petition. The campaign, set against a backdrop of one-in-four Irish children being overweight or obese, is hoping to get 30,000 sign-ups to back its call for Government intervention to protect children's health through strict controls on digital marketing.
“It is really worrying that seven- to 16-year-olds are spending about three hours a day online, vulnerable to slick marketing that’s pushing foods and drinks that are causing obesity,” said the Irish Heart Foundation’s head of advocacy Chris Macey.
But as brands will never actually stop marketing to kids, or using them to sell – and can only be somewhat curtailed by regulations and cultural taste and decency norms – one weapon in the fightback has to be making children media savvy.
The MediaWise resource for primary-school teachers, which will be available from September, is a timely idea to help even the youngest children apply critical thinking skills. The programme concentrates on advertising but also explores the media in general.
Developed by Safefood, the body tasked with consumer food and health issues, its steering group includes academics and psychologists, as well as representatives from RTÉ, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the Advertising Standards Authority.
Quoting its own research from 2014 showing that Irish children as young as three see upwards of 1,000 TV ads for unhealthy foods in a single year, Fiona Gilligan of Safefood says that MediaWise is “about helping them evaluate, interpret and critique these [ads] to make healthy choices”. The modules, run over eight weeks, from junior infants to sixth class, are age-appropriate and broken down into topics.
That “1,000” number can make parents prickle defensively, arguing that their child watches little or no broadcast TV while going on to point how careful they are with screen-time. But take away any technology and children consume a range of advertising in the course of an ordinary day – on billboards, the back of the bus, on magazine newsstands, it’s everywhere.
If they are involved with sport at any level they'll be exposed to brand sponsorship. Helping them analyse what advertising is trying to sell – and trying to hide – is a valuable lesson. And as research entitled Who's Feeding the Kids Online? Digital Food Marketing and Children in Ireland has shown, children are unable to distinguish between content (eg programmes or games) and marketing messages, so there's that to explain too.
And primary school teachers are interested in teaching media literacy. Already 900 have expressed an interest in the MediaWise programme well in advance of its September roll-out. It’s not enough, but impressive given their already packed curriculum.
Of course it's wider than food. In her TedTalk Educating for Freedom, US Institute for Humane Education chief Zoe Weil suggested a fill-in-the blanks exercise for teachers of media literacy. Shout out the first few words of slogans such as "Just do …" or "I'm lovin'…." she said, and listen as they finish the line. Then show them the first letter of a brand name: M (McDonald's) or O (Oreos) and just from the typeface and colour they'll know the rest.
Teenagers, she said, are often amazed and then angry that, without their awareness or consent, they have become so knowledgeable, so sold to, and that their freedom to make choices has been so slickly hijacked.
The need for media literacy at a young age Weil argued provides them with the tools to help them become conscious citizens, able to think critically and make choices based on their own values. Grasping the basic idea that advertising hones in our deepest desires and insecurities and goes about persuading us that a product will solve that need is her starting point in explaining how it all works.
And just think of the lessons a media literate child can give grown-ups. Children will be drawn to watching the current AIB “we all have that thing we’d love to do” TV campaign where three small children – just like them – are led into the garden by their mother and surprised by a massive new playhouse that must have cost several thousand euro. “Why wait?” is the ad’s hashtag and it goes on to sell the bank’s personal loan facility, where the cash is approved in three hours. The pesky details are in the small print at the end.
“Thank you,” whispers the child to his mother at the end. It’s completely adorable. “Are you happy?” the beaming mammy asks as she hugs him.
You’d get an eight-week lesson in media literacy out of that single ad.