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For Children, TV Commercials Are a Catalyst to Materialism

A new study from the Netherlands suggests kids' values are being shaped by their exposure to television advertising.
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Concerned that your kids are becoming overly materialistic? Suspicious that their acquisitiveness has something to do with the steady stream of television commercials they see on a daily basis?

Newly published research suggests your fears are well-grounded.

A study of 8- to 11-year-olds from the Netherlands finds exposure to television advertising has “a positive causal effect on materialism.” Researchers led by Suzanna Opree of the University of Amsterdam identify an insidious equation: Ads exacerbate kids’ desire for material things, and this desire gradually leads them to equate consumer goods with happiness and success.

The study, published in the journal Communication Research, featured 466 Dutch children, who were surveyed in October 2006 and then again one year later. On both occasions, they were asked three sets of questions.

First, they were asked how frequently they viewed nine television programs (including SpongeBob SquarePants). These shows “scored highest on advertising density, and could therefore be considered an accurate proxy for chldren’s advertising exposure,” the researchers write.

Next, they were asked how often they reacted to commercials for various products (toys, CDs, DVDs, computer games, and ringtones) by thinking, “I want that.”

Finally, they answered 18 questions designed to measure their level of materialistic thinking. These included: Do you think it’s important to own expensive things? Does buying expensive things make you happy? Do you think children who have expensive things are more fun?

The researchers tracked how their answers changed over the year in question, and matched that shift with their level of exposure to television commercials. They found a strong link between heavier viewing of ads and expressions of materialistic values.

“Children who were frequently exposed to television advertising developed a greater desire for advertised products than children who were less frequently exposed,” they write. “In turn, children who had a greater desire for advertised products became more materialistic.”

So what can a concerned parent do? Opree and her colleagues note one answer is to “regulate children’s exposure to advertising.” But they concede that can be quite difficult “in a fundamentally commercialized media environment.”

Perhaps more realistic, they continue, is to engage kids in “discussion and education about advertising.”

“Children need to learn about the array of persuasive techniques advertisers use to influence them,” they write.

In other words, you’re never too young to become media-savvy.