How do tv commercials affect preschoolers?

What this post is not:

A scientific, statistically proven, expert-driven, academic or otherwise opinionated analysis of why tv shows with commercials are not recommended for small children.

What this post is:

A personal observation of how the continuous interruption of tv commercials affected my children’s behaviour.

My kids watch some tv. They watch  a commercial-free children’s station called Treehouse (although they do sneak in the odd tv commercial), and they watch dvds.

In principle, they do not have much exposure to commercials, advertisements, or brand pushing. They are not immune to it; they are limited to it.

One evening, one of us adults flipped around looking for something to watch on tv. We came across a station called YTV, which was playing the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.

We thought…hey, this is a movie our small children might enjoy? Let’s try and sit down with them and watch it for a bit. See how they react to it.

So we did.

Generally speaking, our kids are not movie people. They do not have a lot of experience with movies, and previous attempts to show them a movie didn’t always turn out successfully (as in, the 4yo would get bored or scared or both and start playing with his Lego, or something to that effect).

This movie however appeared to have some appeal. At least initially, until the scarier parts came up. Unfortunately for us, we realized that the movie was about halfway through by the time we noticed it was on, so the wicket witch and the flying monkeys made somewhat of a negative impression on Benjamin.

But not so negative as those irritating tv commercials that intercepted the movie every 7 minutes or so.

During the first commercial break, the kids sat entranced, watching the endless parade of toy advertisement. I watched their faces, and I noticed some confusion on the older child’s face. Was this part of the movie? Where did that scary witch go? He realized quickly enough though that it wasn’t part of the movie, yet he remained fixated on the screen.

By the time the second series of commercials interrupted the movie, both kids started getting active on the couch. There was some kicking of the feet, some fighting over the blanket, and some annoying noise-making.

Javadad just looked at me and said “look how the commercials are affecting them”.

And this is not even a comment directed at the commercial content!

Honestly, by the time the third series of  toy commercials finished, I was feeling rather annoyed, even violent, myself. The amount of absolute crap that these sponsors are encouraging their viewers to purchase is criminal, if you ask me.

There was about an 40 minutes left of the movie. Each 7 or 8 minutes, there was a commercial break. Each new commercial break produced more, not less, activity in the kids. Activity in the form of fidgeting, whining, or jumping around.

This is not what I call relaxed family time.

Must I mention it was evening and down-time, also known as quiet-time? Watching this movie on this tv station was obviously a mistake.

It leaves me to ponder things. How is it possible that so many children are allowed to watch tv before bedtime? Or anytime, for that matter? Do other people’s children react to commercials the way my kids do?  How is this handled by the parents? Or do the kids (and parents) eventually get completely desensitized?

It’s sad. But it’s also eye-opening. The commercials do succeed in selling their products. Almost all birthday parties I have taken my kids to prove this point. The bulk of toys these children receive are identical to the advertisements on tv, and are mirrored on mainstream, chain and big-box toy store shelves.

And with this thought, we enter what is known in North America as the holiday shopping season.

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6 thoughts on “How do tv commercials affect preschoolers?

  1. AAAAAAhhhhhhhh!

    I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore, Toto!

    No wisdom from me expect to find your own rule about how you are gonna deal with this. We have a selection of videos and dvd’s and the children are allowed to watch commercial free tv here at home…. cannot tell you what they watch elsewhere.

    And we are so dang busy with other stuff that we actually plan to watch tv together on Saturday evenings. That is about the whole sum of it. Perhaps they get to watch news in the evening (sometimes the adult news, sometimes the one made for kids), but that is pending all other chores been done in time to turn the tv on before the news is over…

    All I can say is this: the commercials were the best part of tv when I was growing up (we had so much fun acting them out over and over again) but now a days, they drive me wild and nasty!

  2. Interesting.

    My kids only watch PBS and dvds so I haven’t had the opportunity to watch them watching too many commercials. I do know my 3 y/o has the public service announcements and underwriting (soft ads) memorized, though. They do pay attention to these things.

  3. Ours watch commercial-free kid’s TV and dvds. Our eldest is 6.5 and started watching regular TV about 12 months ago. Usually after her (now 2yo) sister was in bed.

    I was quite shocked at the affect it had on Holly. She didn’t get it AT ALL. I was worried that I should have exposed her to it a bit ealier. Desensitized her if you like. At every ad break she’d ask “Is that it, is the show over?”

    Then the tough stuff came “Did you hear that Mom, they said that’s the best ‘such and such’. We should get that.”

    The ads that contains fantasy or trick photography etc had to be explained AT LENGTH. It was exhausting.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I just keep saying, it’s an ad. They want you to buy their product so they are trying to convince you how great it is. They don’t always tell you the whole truth. The use tricks to make sell it.

    Kids commercial television is DREADFUL. It’s just ad after ad of land-fill they don’t need!! Aaarggh!

    Sigh. Kids are the world’s best consumers. Marketer’s know that. They know how kids can unrelentingly pester a parent for something. Not in our house.

  4. Thank you for this perspective Kindred-Spirit. I can only imagine that as children get older it gets more difficult. Honestly, I am not against tv. But it is preferable, if they are going to watch it, to watch it with them so that you can pick up on cues (bored? questions? over/under stimulated?).

    I must say that since we’ve had kids I have a LOT less interest in tv myself. I’d rather sit on the floor an play lego with him…

  5. LOL, I just picture you, Javamom, on the floor in the evening playing lego with him… DH! (hey, it could happen in our house, so don’t knock it until you try it!)

    One thing which helps to teach children discernment is reading to them. In younger years implanting your own values and what you hold dear into your child via books which convey these values.

    Gradually as they get older you do NOT stop reading to them (or get them to read to you, depending on how old they are)… keep getting great literature for them and allow the values and problems confronted in the plot to be more sticky, messy, difficult to clearly put in nice neat boxes or drawers.

    This will help them to see and process many concepts which happen so very quickly when watching tv (yes, even if we sit with them, we miss out on loads of the actual teachable moments for they happen upon us in such a fury that a hurricane is almost nothing in comparison).

    We had a rule in our house which we were able to keep for a very long time: No tv until you can read for yourself. And in the mean time we let books become a wealth and joy for our children. My only regret is that our five children are so spaced apart that the youngest (still 2 years old) does get to watch tv when the others watch (as the others can already read)…

    I think I will go read a book to my little ones.

  6. This is such a fabulous conversation.

    I can’t help but agree with Andrea and how important teaching the love of reading and the imagination it initiates.

    Regarding ads, DH and I both came from the evil clutches of the advertising world. We’ve found these clever dollops of consumerism wonderful teachable moments about the real world, being able to decide things for ourselves and understanding the differences between needs and wants.
    No matter how loud we complain or stand in front of our T.V.’s our kids will eventually be bombarded by advertisements and it’s best just to help prepare them to make good choices.

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