Teenagers are bombarded with advertising aimed directly at them on a daily basis, but parents can play an important role in helping them sift marketing hype from reality, experts say.
"Teens are the most targeted generation by advertising of any generation in history," says Claire Beach, a video production teacher at Meadowdale and Lynnwood high schools and mother of a 17-year-old.
"Our kids see about 2,500 ads coming at them every day," adds Marilyn Cohen, Ph.D., director of the University of Washington's Teen Futures Media Network, which conducts research and training and develops media literacy curriculum. "The average teenager spends about five hours a day with various media. Whether it is TV, going to the movies or a mall, there are tons of commercial messages everywhere."
Media literacy teaches kids to be intelligent consumers and producers of media as opposed to mindless recipients. While most claim "it doesn't affect me," the constant media bombardment seeps in and alters perceptions of basic issues, such as what it means to be beautiful.
This is especially true during the vulnerable teen years, says Gloria DeGaetano, Bellevue author of Parenting Well in a Media Age. "As teens are forming their self-identity they need to break away from their parents in order to figure out who they are," she says. "The mass media rushes in, replacing what used to be a mentor or adult role model separate from the parents, and their identity is then being constructed by an industry-generated culture and not by people who really know them and care about them."
Consider these statistics about teens and media influence:
- In 2003, U.S. teens spent $115 billion of their own money and $60 billion of their parents' dollars, according to a recent Seattle Times report, making this a hot market for retailers.
- More teens cited Budweiser as their favorite commercial than any other brand in a 2002 study. Teens will have seen 75,000 alcohol ads by the time they reach driving age, according to Teen Futures.
- The tobacco industry spends $237.8 million on marketing in Washington state, says o2, an online tobacco prevention magazine created by teens and sponsored by the State Department of Health and Teen Futures.
- In a recent video game report, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said to "look for sex, drugs and violence among this year's  top sellers."
- One thousand women die of anorexia each year and over 8 million people in the U.S. have an eating disorder, which typically starts in adolescence.
Cohen says parents need to talk to their kids about how to process the messages around them. "There is a lot of money out there and it is important that they understand this is about money," says Cohen.
Look beyond obvious advertising methods, too. Stealth advertising is a growing trend where companies recruit teens to participate in "viral marketing." Teens receive free products or sneak previews of movies, TV shows and music in exchange for word-of-mouth advertising, thus blurring the lines of friendship and marketing.
Getting a popular teen to wear or text message about a product sends a strong appeal to kids. For example, www.tremor.com gives its "Tremor Crew" credit for the success of popular movies, TV shows and music, and says they had a hand in choosing various brand logos, creating a sense of ownership, which feeds the desire to purchase.
Parent behavior is also important. "If you are raised in a family that puts a high value on materialistic things, it is likely your kids will be drawn into that. If you are constantly upgrading, getting new TVs, you are raising kids that are also going to have a materialistic tendency," says Joe Galagan, a Seattle father of two and high school counselor.
Beach teaches her students that "All media is very carefully constructed. Nothing is magic."
"I love it when kids say to me, 'You really ruined it for me. I used to just watch it, and now I think about it.' Once you start giving them the questions to ask, they start to slay the monster. Kids will start to think 'OK, they want me to buy that,'" says Beach, who recommends the Frontline special "Merchants of Cool" about marketing to teens, available at www.pbs.org.
For parents, talking about how teens are negatively stereotyped in the media is a good way to begin literacy conversations.
Discuss whether an ad really features the product or an image they want you to associate with the product. Teens love to be smarter than someone else, creating a perfect opportunity to poke fun at media manipulation. Ask questions like, does the car come with the woman draped over it? Also, discuss why certain commercials, such as beer and tobacco, appear during shows targeted to teens.
Showing how to use the media's power in a positive way is the goal of media literacy proponents. "I try to show them how media can be a weapon for social change, not just a tool for making pretty pictures. They see that the video camera is a way to express themselves," Beach says.
Jolene Gensheimer is a freelance writer, mother of two and a former high school teacher.
- www.teenawareresources.org the Web site for Teen Aware, includes videos, radio ads and posters created by Washington teens. Teen Aware is a Teen Futures project sponsored by the Office of State Public Instruction and funded by the Centers for Disease Control, which uses media literacy to promote abstinence.
- www.nwmedialiteracy.org features media created by area teens and resources
- www.teenhealthandthemedia.org a virtual meeting place by the Washington State Department of Health and Teen Futures, has a wide array of resources and links to related articles.
- www.pbskids.org/dontbuyit features media literacy information for teens as well as younger kids.
- Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME) includes free guides for parents on how to help kids become media literate and understand the persuasive power of commercials. Go to www.acmecoalition.org: Raising Media Savvy Kids and Questioning Media guides.
- The Henry Kaiser Family Foundation provides results of the several studies of children and electronic media, including a review of 40 studies that conclude children who spend the most time with the media are also the most likely to be overweight. Visit www.kff.org: Study of Entertainment Media & Health.
- Center for Media Literacy provides free materials to help educators and parents teach kids about media literacy. Go to www.medialit.org: CML's MediaLit Kit
- Nancy Blakey's Web site is loaded with project ideas to keep kids happily entertained without TV. www.nancyblakey.com
- American Academy of Pediatrics article on understanding the impact of media on children and how parents can help children make better use of the media available at www.aap.org/family/mediaimpact.htm
- National Institute on Media and the Family provides quick ratings on television shows, suggesting what ages are appropriate to watch. Visit KidScore Ratings.
- TV Turnoff Network: non-profit TV Turnoff Network provides ideas for how families can reduce or eliminate television as well as results from studies on how television impacts families. www.tvturnoff.org