Popular culture, few could argue, attempts to manipulate your children’s needs and wants and motivate them to buy food, toys, clothing, electronics, and other products that have no redeeming value, are unhealthy, or send them the wrong messages. Popular culture is big business, to the tune of $1.2 billion a year in advertising in 2010, a double-digit increase over 2009. Research has also shown that children have influence in their family over the food and drink purchases of $100 billion each year, much of it unhealthy. Popular culture wants you to raise consumers, not children!
The line between entertainment and advertising is becoming increasingly blurred. For example, The Hub, a television network aimed at children that has a 50 percent ownership stake by the toy manufacturer Hasbro was launched in 2010. Commercials aside, this channel’s programming is basically a direct marketing platform for selling Hasbro toys. Additionally, the recent technological advances have enabled companies that market to children to create “supersystems” around their brands that incorporate 360-degree multimedia universes devoted exclusively to selling their products that include television shows, web sites, YouTube videos, fan clubs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and video games, as well as traditional advertising. As Robert Iger, the President of Walt Disney, comments, “Reaching dramatically and deeply…” has allowed Disney to “...enter the hearts and minds of people all over the world.” Do you really want Disney and the like to enter your children’s hearts and minds? I sure don’t.
The sexualization of young girls is also on the rise with the marketing of dolls that seem pretty darned inappropriate for girls as young as 6 years old. For example, there is line of dolls called Monster High from Mattel. The description of some of these dolls include, “Favorite activity: shopping and flirting with boys!...I’m also gorgeous, intimidating…I like to show up to parties in my scary little black dress…Readying myself for public adoration…My friends say I have the perfect figure for fashion.” They also look like little prostitutes. Yet, quite fascinating, the reviews on amazon.com about these dolls, written by parents, are uniformly adulatory; parents and girls love them! Here’s the kicker: the only negative reviews are related to the quality of the dolls (e.g., arms and legs falling off), with very few comments related to the sexual nature of these dolls. As the father of two girls, I am concerned, okay, shocked, by these messages from popular culture and wouldn’t let my daughters within a mile of these dolls.
The ante in the early sexualization of girls goes up when they hit their tween years. The use of make-up among 8 to 12 year-old girls, for example, has increased dramatically in recent years: from 50 to 100 percent for mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick use. Who is supporting this trend? Sadly, the answer is parents, with 66 percent of surveyed girls saying that a family member helped them buy and apply the makeup. Another influence is teen-oriented shows in which actresses (who are, in fact, usually in their early to mid 20s) are heavily made up. Cosmetic lines by teen stars such as Miley Cyrus are also culprits.
The advertising industry is also leveraging the Web to attract children. Marketers of children’s food, drink, and toys are using Web sites, online games, and mobile phone apps to connect children to their products without traditional advertising. In effect, these media are the advertising wrapped in the guise of entertainment and fun. Children become unwitting marketers by sharing these forms of “entertainment” with their peers through texting and social media.
Arguments against much of what popular culture has to offer are not just my opinion or anecdotal evidence, but rather, they are supported by research. For example, one study found that children who watched more movies and television and played more video games asked for more toys, food, and beverages. As one of the researchers pointed out, “Younger children aren’t even able to understand that ads, which are now cropping up in video games and movies, online and even in cell phones, are intended to sell them things.” The number of ads to which children are exposed is mind-boggling; around 40,000 advertisements each year (and about 1,000,000 by the time they are 21 years old), primarily aimed at selling sugary breakfast cereal, salty snacks, fast food, candy, and toys.
The explosive growth of video games has been nothing less than staggering; sales of video games have topped 220 million at $18 billion in 2010 and 65 percent of households with children own a video-game system. Surveys estimate that 80 percent of the most popular video games have violent themes, and 50 percent of video games that were chosen as favorites by fourth- through eighth-grade children had violent content. A survey of video-game use found that, of 118 M-rated games (for mature audiences, over 17 years old), 70 percent were targeted to children under 17 years of age and unaccompanied children between 13 and 16 years old were able to buy M-rated video games 85 percent of the time. Studies have shown that children who play violent video games, particularly boys, are more likely to exhibit increased aggressive thinking, emotions, and behavior, and delinquency. Gender stereotypes of women as helpless and sexually provocative are commonly portrayed. Some research has reported that academic achievement is negatively related to the amount of time spent playing video games.
Sure, popular culture has its place in the universe of entertainment options. But popular culture is now so ubiquitous, intense, and unrelenting that if your children are exposed to it without sufficient limits or guidance, it will go far beyond simple entertainment and become a powerful—and unhealthy—influence on them. So, I ask you: What do you want to raise, children or consumers?