Controversial Television Advertising and its Effects on Children and Teenagers When you hear sexual content, racial stereotyping, violence, women displayed as sex objects, and drinking, you may think it is your typical R rated movie, right? Wrong. Try the typical television commercial. Television advertising with positive messages can influence children and teenagers to make better decisions and positive behavioral changes. The same can be true when they view negative messages. This too, can influence children and teenagers, for the worse. The impact television advertising has on our youth shapes the way they behave and see the world. Is this the way you want the youth of today to see the world? Do you want them mimicking the negative things they see on television? Advertising that promotes and glamorizes sex, violence, alcohol, and gender/racial stereotyping should be banned in its entirety due to the negative effects it has on the minds, attitudes, and behavior of children and teenagers.
Since most of us were children we have been taught that repetition is the best way to learn new information. Charles T. Dudley, Pastor of New Beginnings Ministry of Faith, Havelock, NC stated “repetition is a key element in the learning process. It is repeated hearing [or seeing] until a level of understanding takes place” (personal communication, January 21, 2007). Children and teenagers in the course of a day spend more time watch television than anything else, next to sleeping. For children, watching television is full time job. They put in roughly 40 hours per week just sitting in front of the television (Linn, 2006). By the age of 20, these children who watch television regularly can be exposed to 600,000 commercials (Black, as cited in Larson, 2003) that display in detail and glamorize the things that most parents try their best to keep their children away from. If children and teenagers are seeing the same violence, sex, and alcohol use/abuse repeatedly in television advertising, they will learn it and they will put this information into practice when the opportunity presents itself.
Alcohol is shown on television more than most other beverages and almost never in a negative light. Alcohol advertisements and television shows that contain alcohol use repeatedly show drinking as fun and exciting and the people drinking are always happier and seem to have everything they want in life when they drink (University of Michigan Health System, 2006). These images have serious effects on the youth that see then over and over. These portrayals tell them that if they are missing something in their lives, if they are not completely happy, alcohol will fix the problem, whatever it is. The sad reality is that children and teenagers believe the portrayals. The statistics on underage drinking are utterly staggering. Studies show that children as young as 12 are drinking alcohol on a regular basis (McCarthy, 2000). Children and teenagers tend to drink thinking that they will be like the people in the ads.
Underage drinking is not a minor issue. Underage alcohol usage has killed many “in the three leading causes of death among young people: unintentional injuries-including motor vehicle deaths and drownings-suicides, and homicides” (O’Hara & Jernigan, 2003). Underage drinking has also shown to be a factor in a large number of sexual assaults and date rapes of teens and college students (National Institute on Media and the Family, 2002). Alcohol advertisers target children and teenagers with catchy slogans and animated characters to create label loyalty early. The more children and teenagers like a particular brand’s commercials; the sooner and more likely they are to want to consume it. If this targeting of youth would be stopped, there would most likely be a drastic decrease in the number of underage drinkers, which would cause a drastic decrease in the unnecessary deaths of so many young people. Alcohol advertisers are not restricted or regulated by anyone. The industry regulates itself and has voluntarily agreed to air advertising that is to encourage responsible drinking and discourage drinking and driving and drinking underage; they paid $23.2 million for out of their total of $811.2 million on advertising for the year 2001 (O’Hara & Jernigan, 2003). It doesn’t seem that they are too focused on their responsibility.
We hear it on a regular, maybe even daily, basis: sex sells. The question is: what exactly is it selling and to whom? There are thousands of commercials broadcasted everyday that use sex as its main selling point. The majority of the products in these advertisements by and large have nothing to do with sex. What is the purpose in placing a scantily dressed woman beside a cheeseburger or a bare-chested man next to a tub of butter? The answer is shock value. Your attention is gained by the visual that stimulates your brain and now the image of that advertising is stuck in your head along with the product that was being advertising. Children and teenagers are drawn in the same way. On television today sex is everywhere, music videos, commercials, and prime time television shows and children and teenagers see it all too often. Sex is shown in the same light as alcohol use; it is fun and exciting and if you do it you can be just as fabulous as those doing it on television. What are not shown are the serious consequences of extramarital and sex before marriage: unwanted pregnancy, disease, emotional suffering, and many other things that can result from sexual acts at a young age (Walling, 1990).
This depiction of sex distills moral and family values and portrays sex as common as any other daily activity. Children and teens tend to mimic what they see their peers do and are having sex without being prepared for the consequences that could follow. Brody (2006) states “each year, nearly 900,000 teenage girls in the United States become pregnant (340,000 are 17 or younger). There are more cases of sexually transmitted diseases in teenagers than adults (Brody, 2006). Have you ever watched a television advertisement and afterward felt that you needed to lose weight or work out more? The weight-loss and fitness industries are billion-dollar industries and they feed off of our negative body images. There are constantly advertisements on television that tell us how unhealthy we are, how much weight we need to lose, how we must get the fat off us the quickest way possible to be slim and beautiful, or how much muscle mass we should have. This message of body dissatisfaction is a serious one and can even become deadly for young men and women.
The saying is “you can never be too rich or too thin.” This is what young women believe when they see stars, their idols, walk the red carpet looking deathly skinny. They want to be like them; therefore they do whatever they can to obtain this unrealistic media driven picture of what the “perfect” woman looks like. Body image dissatisfaction has made eating disorders one of the biggest problems for young girls and women. Steroids have become the issue for young men. Commercial advertisers depict men and women as sex objects and immediately we play into the fact that we should look like what we see on television.
This can cause children and teenagers to constantly compare themselves to the unhealthy and unobtainable image they see on television, which can lead to depression and anxiety. While we all know about television advertising, many parents are becoming apprehensive about other forms of media advertising like mobile phones and the internet; many parents know they have a responsibility to protect their children and teenagers from controversial advertising, but feel powerless to do so due to there being so many different sources (National Family and Parenting Institute, 2004). Ensure that you know what websites your child or teenager is on when they are on the computer. Move the computer and television out of their room and into the family room. Ensure that you use parental controls on your computer and television to monitor what your child sees and deny access to what you do not want them to see and hear. Educating yourself on modern technology will help you to control the media’s effect on your child or teenager.
There are many, including the advertisers, who will say that it is not the responsibility of the advertiser or the government to regulate what children and teenagers see on television. They will argue that this responsibility lies with the parents of those children and teenagers. While there is a hefty responsibility on the parents to ensure that their children are not so heavily influenced by the media, there is still a moral and ethical obligation that advertisers should take upon themselves to not hone in on young children in their advertising. Yes, parents must do their part, but how can parents shield their children and teenagers from every advertiser who wants to ensure every child drinks their label’s beer or smokes their label’s cigarettes? Advertisers will do whatever it takes to ensure their label is embedded into the minds of youth, to include sponsoring sports events, music concerts, and theme parks.
Consider the changes that could take place in the behaviors, attitudes, and actions of children and teenagers if advertisers would glamorize abstinence, believing in yourself, and high self-esteem no matter what you look like instead of sex, violence, alcohol, and the like. We would see an astounding change in the mindsets and choices of our youth. In recent years, many parents have spoken out about what their children are being exposed to through various television shows and advertising. An increasing number of parents are becoming more and more concerned about the amount of sex, violence, profanity, and alcohol use their children are seeing and want it limited when younger children are most likely to be watching television (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004). While there are many parents speaking out against advertisers that target and prey on their young children and teenagers, there are many who want to but are uninformed on how to go about it. It all begins with the parents. Parents must put limits and controls not only on the child or teenager, but also on themselves. Parents must limit their own media-induced tendencies. If parents spend most of their waking hours in front of a television or computer screen, they are setting the example for the children to follow (Linn, 2006).
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