Tuesday, June 17, 2008

School's Out For Summer...

With all due respect to Alice Cooper, summer isn't just about "no more pencils, no more books" any more. For a lot of families summer is a time when kids spend more hours than ever with interactive media like the internet. Looking at it from a parent’s perspective, at the beginning of summer vacation, the days stretch out in what seems like a never ending string of hours to fill and entertain. It's easy for frazzled moms and dads to let kids veg out in front of the TV -- or to let them get on line and surf the day away. (Photo Left: my son and his *fabulous* 2nd grade teacher on the last day of school).

I won't discuss the physical perils of letting kids explore the internet unsupervised; there's already been plenty said about the fact that child molesters are out there trolling for our kids on line (our state’s Attorney General Tom Corbett recently said that, sadly, perverts look forward to summer vacation as much as our kids do!). I'm interested in the much more insidious psychological threat: the marketing messages that our kids may be exposed to when they’re on the internet.

It’s really scary when you consider how marketers have thought of ways to manipulate the littlest consumers – oh, and they are consumers! Many parents don’t know it, but marketers are using psychologists to research our children to find out everything about what motivates them as consumers, from why 3 to 7 year olds love toys that transform themselves, and 8 to 12 year olds can become obsessive about collecting things. Some in the world of psychology were so upset by this so-called “abuse of psychological knowledge” that they asked the American Psychological Association to denounce the use of psychological principals in marketing to children (read more).

This knowledge has helped explain a lot about my own son’s behavior. We were among the families that got into the WebKinz craze last year. If you’re a parent or grandparent, chances are you know about these cute little bean-filled stuffed animals with the web component that allows children to go on-line and care for their pets in a virtual WebKinz World. We stopped at four WebKinz, but left to his own devices my son would have wanted many more. The WebKinz World website doesn’t help. It plays upon an 8-year old’s innate desire to collect. Here, the banner “collect them all” is a call to action to hoard as many WebKinz as you can (there are more than 80 animals in active circulation) – a call that has now branched out into collectable WebKinz cards (think Pokemon).

So, while there are lots of valuable things to learn on the WebKinz website (children learn how to responsibly earn and spend virtual KinzCash to aid in the care of their animals), there are also blatantly commercial elements that, the Canada-based Media Awareness Network says, my son and other children are too young to discern. Even the most ostensibly educational websites have commercial messages – National Geographic’s kids’ site has ads for the new Indiana Jones movie (rated PG-13, by the way) and contest connected to the film. If our kids are being pitched to among lessons about environmental responsibility and endangered species, what do you supposed they’re “learning” on the thinly veiled educational websites for Lucky Charms and McDonalds?

In my mind this really comes down to parental control and using every situation as a learning opportunity. My husband and I are the ones who control the computer in our house, not our son. Could I shut down the computer and never allow my son to visit the website for a favorite brand or product. Sure. Would I be better to let him experience these things and then educate him about what it means to be a responsible consumer? Absolutely. The Media Awareness Network has some great resources to help. If you’re a parent they’re definitely worth a little bit of your time.


Mara Linaberger said...

As an educational technologist, I think about these issues on a daily basis. I'm in the business of working to help teachers to grapple with which technologies to use, and how to educate kid to be savvy consumers of information.

To me its all about modeling. I can best show kids how to tell a reputable site from a bogus one by showing them the process - be it looking to see that the URL has a .edu or .org extension, but sometimes even that's not enough. Sometimes we have to teach resort to more covert tactics such as researching who owns the domain name.

For instance, have a look at the website: http://www.martinlutherking.org. Sounds innocuous, right? Its actually owned by a white supremecy group, and is actually considered to be a hate site. In fact, its blocked in my own workplace ;-)

The bottom line is - kids learn best, and often more, from watching what their parents do. So I'm right there with you Anne - folks need to talk with their kids about how sites like WebKinz are cute, but how they are trying to get kids to buy more. I don't think we're ever too young to start to learn to make decisions on our own, with the help of a parent.

Author, Alan November has a great site for teaching (and learning about) "Information Literacy" at: http://novemberlearning.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=category§ionid=5&id=27&Itemid=93 School's not out for parents anytime soon!

Anne said...


Thanks for the comments about how we can be tricked with domain names, and the great resource for parents.

It's not an internet related example, but we have a little joke in our house that when we hear a particularly strident pitch on TV we shout "BUT WAIT!" and then wait to hear what extra stuff we're going to get for the low, low price of $19.99. So JT already understands that there is manipulation to a lot of marketing.