Is marketing to children unethical? The dark world of toying with young minds 

March 9, 2023

Roxanne Denman

The marketing sphere has changed radically in the last decade. Printed advertisements have dwindled in popularity and use because the power of digital reigns supreme. The marketing world has opted for the bright and crystal-clear marketing creation of virtual ads to add efficacy and reach on every single platform. Screens were limited to the privileged individuals with TVs at home, but their ability to travel anywhere has seen them go rogue.

As a child, I have vivid memories of adverts on television. Cereal companies marketed their latest colorful offering with catchy names, which were met with my excitement and spelling out the many reasons we would need to sample said cereal. Toy companies like Mattel were selling their latest Barbie in the same unrealistic form as their last one, with different hair and new clothes. Kids everywhere were suckers for the plastic monstrosities directed at brilliant, imaginative, and vulnerable minds.

We’re education marketers - in a “too-ideal” world, we would like to think that marketing to children regarding education could be a wonderful and helpful journey. Realistically, though? Manipulation of minors is unethical in every form and way possible. Let’s dive into the process behind marketing and the harmful effects on the keepers of our future. 

Our minds were free to wander

Can you remember a time when you were bored? I can. I doubt that today’s kids feel that exact feeling now. When the surges of “boredom” hit me, I would go outside. I remember climbing trees and making mud pies. I remember making friends with random kids eliciting petty fights, and by way of human nature, teaching us imperative human skills.

I remember long summer holidays and playing in the street with my mom screeching at me to come inside and have dinner.

Those days are not entirely gone. Good, protective parenting sees children combining the digital world with traversing the outdoors and old forms of play. But many tired moms and dads give their beloved children the latest mobile communication device to entice silence and entertain their little loved ones. Suddenly, at the hands of vulnerable children, is a powerful unit capable of roaming the web with the ability to source all the information available on the planet.

Constant connection and entertainment   

Along with games, videos, messages, and social media platforms comes the power hit of dopamine like nothing we have ever experienced. Our knowledge of that feeling is limited - we had access to mobile communication devices at a later stage, and most of us had already developed logic and critical thinking skills. The level of technology pales in comparison to the accessibility kids have today. 

Digital advertising to children is a threat. Ads that target children are more subtle yet more direct. And because the nimble fingers enter and exit screens at the pace of Olympic sprinters, the evidence disappears before the parents can lay eyes on them. 

One study discovered that 95% of apps targeted to users aged 5 and under had at least one type of content advertising, with high rates of displaying disruptive and manipulative forms of marketing.

Should we be marketing to kids?

No. And this is where it gets dark and damaging.  

Studies show that humans develop critical thinking and impulse control in waves between ages 5 and 9. Targeting children in marketing during this phase means we are directly altering how they process information. We are exhibiting powerful means of control that before full development has happened, leaving them susceptible to making decisions at a later stage that is imprinted on their brains now. Let’s call it inception, shall we? 

The effects vary – ranging from increasing obesity rates by advertising addictive fast food with high caloric content, and exposing kids to alcohol and tobacco products from a young age, highlighting their popularity and affecting their self-image into thinking they need to partake in this behavior to be accepted. (Yep, social pressure is still a thing.)  

Digital protection for vulnerable children 

Young minds need to be protected. Marketing to children is unethical – no matter what it is. Schools are there for a reason – to educate the youth on healthy behavior, beneficial eating habits, exercise, and the balanced approach to the powers of technology, social media, and the internet.

The most power lies in the hands of parents. Utilizing the help of Ad Blockers is essential to ensure safe browsing on social media apps, games, and the internet. Limit the number of hours your children use their mobile devices – besides the marketing downside, there are expansive negative effects we need to protect them from.

Children under two should not be exposed to cellphones at all, while 2 – 5 year-olds should only be using a mobile device for an hour or under, with co-viewing under supervision by an adult or an older sibling. 5 to 17-year-olds should be limited to 2 hours, excluding the time necessary for homework or school research. 

What we think 

Young minds are brilliant minds. Should we pollute them with marketing advances and alter their perception of the world?

The answer is a loud and resounding no. We possess exceptional power when using marketing to influence minds globally, but none more so than the developing brains of tomorrow. Under no circumstances should we be marketing to children – education happens at a base level and must be controlled by parents and the capable hands of the education system. 

By all means – once those minds hit the age of adulthood – market away. By then, most of our precious children have developed enough to handle the nuances of the marketing realm and can make conscious decisions on their buying preferences. Until then? Leave them alone to traverse the world at a slower pace without the assault of information overload. 

Marketing to children is highly unethical. Free and imaginative minds that can change the world weren’t born on a computer chip. Developing brains must explore the troves of their minds without the hindrance of greedy influence.  

Marketers, leave those kids alone! 

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