Media, Marketing and Your Tween
Source: Jennifer W. Shewmaker, Ph.D.
Our tweens are surrounded by media and marketing. With the proliferation of mobile devices, media in cars and other forms of transport, and televisions and computers in children's rooms, tweens today have the potential to be exposed to more media and marketing messages than ever before. So, it's important for parents of tweens to begin to think about what kinds of messages are being sent to our kids through media and marketing and what we can do to help them process those messages. In this series, we'll explore media and marketing directed at tweens and then talk about how to help our tweens learn to pick apart those messages and become critical consumers and even creators of media.
Beginning around the late 1990's and early 2000's, marketers started targeting children between the ages of 8-12 as a special segment of consumers who were dubbed "tweens." What they realized was that this age group, especially at the upper end, longed to be considered older, more sophisticated, and cooler. They no longer saw themselves as children, but they're not quite teenagers yet either. Marketers realized that they could carve out a whole separate niche for both products and media and increase their profits by targeting this age group.
In developing these products and media, marketers go for things that are edgier than what would be presented to children under the age of eight. They also began moving products and programming downward, with tweens being marketed products such as make-up and trendy clothing more appropriate for teenagers. In a 2000 report, the Federal Trade Commission found that industries such as film, music, and electronic gaming that have a rating system that is supposed to tell consumers whether or not particular products are appropriate for different age groups continue to promote products rated as acceptable for those over 17 to tweens. Film production companies were noted as recruiting children as young as 9 to provide feedback on movies that had already been rated R. So even those products that are clearly labeled as for people over 13 or 17 are still being directly marketed to tweens. A perfect example of this is the way that fast food restaurants promote PG-13 movies through toys in their kids' meals.
Not only do marketers target tweens with media and products that are not appropriate for their age group, but we also see very heavy marketing of particular ideas about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Gender stereotypes are rampant in the media and marketing for tweens. While younger girls may be targeted with "cute" fashions, tween girls begin to see shirts with slogans like "sassy" or even "sexy" in their size range. On one shopping trip with my own tweenage daughters (10 and 12) we had difficulty finding any shirts that didn't have slogans that focused on appearance, shopping, being bad at school or boys. Toys and programming aimed at tween girls carry on this theme. For tween boys, the idea of being rough, active, and loud is pushed not only through clothes but also through programming and products. Everywhere tweens look, they seem to be bombarded with the idea that girls are supposed to care about clothes, shopping, appearance and romance while boys are supposed to be physically active, aggressive and loud. In a study that came out in 2011, it was reported that an analysis of popular online children's retailers showed that almost 30% of children's clothes have sexualized characteristics. The highest proportion of sexualized clothing came from stores aimed at tweens.
As parents, it's important for us to be involved in the media and marketing that our children consume. The first step in helping our kids become critical consumers is for both parents and tweens to become aware of the messages with which the tween is being targeted. Raising awareness for both you and your tween can start with these ideas.
- Be involved: watch the TV shows and movies that your tween is watching, look at the games that they play and the sites that they visit on the Internet, read the books that they read. While it may be trying at times to subject yourself to media or products aimed at tweens, it's crucial for you to know what they're engaging with.
- Be active: As you watch, listen, and read with your tween, ask questions and talk about what you see. Becoming a critical consumer of media and marketing is all about learning to take what you see and asking questions such as, "Do I believe that? To I buy this message? Do I like how girls/boys/parents are being portrayed?"
- Ask yourself, "Is this really appropriate for my child?" Many parents tend to think that if something is being marketed and sold to children who are 8 years old, then of course the product is acceptable for that age group. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Use your own judgment to make these decisions, whether it is about clothing, products, or entertainment. Trust your instincts, because it's quite clear that marketers are targeting your child with both products and media that are not appropriate for their age.
Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker is a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed specialist who has worked with hundreds of families, children, and teachers since she received her doctrate from Texas Woman's University in 1996. She is the current director of the School Psychology specialist program and an Associate Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. Along with writing and presenting research at professional conferences, Dr. Shewmaker provides media literacy and consumer activist workshops that help parents, teachers, and children learn to more closely examine media messages and plan a thoughtful, effective response. She is the author of the blog Don't Conform Transform.
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