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Screen Smart Skills for the Holidays: How to Beat the “Buy Me That Syndrome”

A handy guide to family co-viewing strategies in December

While the holidays can be wonderful, most parents dread the start of the “buy me that syndrome”. It’s a seasonal disorder triggered by kids getting caught in the web of Christmas commercials.  After hours of begging and pleading prompted by ads purposefully aimed at children, adults are sometimes too exhausted to say “no”. Here are some insights into the world of holiday advertising, and ways to keep your kids out of commercial quicksand.

What’s different about the ads at this time of year? The volume of commercials goes up in more ways than one. Yes, there are more commercials, but if they seem louder, that’s because they are.  You’ve probably noticed that commercials are often louder than shows or videos. That’s deliberate.  The volume goes up to attract your attention.  In ads aimed at kids, you’ll also see actors showing exaggerated excitement and enthusiasm about the products they’re selling.  The ad creators ramp up the human responses to catalyze children’s responses and their emotions.

This is a good time to look into software that restricts advertising on any digital platforms your child uses. Software and apps like “AdBlock”, “AdBlock Plus”, and “AdGuard Plus” are among the most popular choices for providing custom options to limit or block advertisements on your devices.

Better yet, we can take advantage of the advertising blitz by using Screen Talk!  Just talking about a couple of ads with our kids can help them shift the feelings and behaviors that crop up in response to commercials. Here’s how to start:

  1. First, you and your child pick a commercial for you to watch together. For children ages 2-5, it’s best to pick the commercial yourself.
  2. Before you begin watching, prime your child for doing something different and fun, saying, “Today, we’re going to do something special when we look at the commercial you picked for us. I know you get excited when you see some of these commercials on TV.”
  3. Then, with a smile, say: “While we watch today, we’re going to use our ENERGY (shake your hands to demonstrate) and our CONCENTRATION (point to your head).  Ready?
  4. “Show me your energy!” Hold your hands up with fingers straight, and your palms about 6 inches apart.  Then say, “Shake” and shake your hands using a lot of energy. After 2-3 seconds, come to a quick stop, saying “Stop!”  Kids love this, and they’ll follow you, probably giggling. Then continue “Shake….. and stop! Can you stop with me, at the exact time I stop? That’s using your CONCENTRATION.  OK. Shake….. and stop!” At this point, you’ve reversed the child’s expectations of passive viewing, and elevated their focus.

Here’s a handy guide to co-viewing strategies in the next couple of weeks.

Right before watching, I usually say, “There are people who make commercials.  Everything we SEE and HEAR in a commercial is there for a REASON.  Maybe we can figure out what those reasons are.” 

Pause and question or talk during the commercial. When the music of the commercial begins and the first images appear on the screen, begin to ask your child some questions about it.

How many characters are there on screen?”

“Do they look like they’re having fun? What makes you think they’re having fun?” “What’s on the screen right now (car, doll, robot, game)?”

“What colors do you see?”

When a character is over-reacting: “Wow, look at that person’s face. What do you think she’s feeling?”  Let the child respond, then ask, “Why do you think they showed her face with those feelings?” 

 “Did you notice that the music just changed?” Let the child answer, then ask, “Why do you think the people who made the commercial did that?”  (The music will often get more emotional as the commercial gets closer to the most colorful and appealing shot.)

Ask open-ended questions in a light, inviting tone. This changes brain chemistry and helps children move from emotional to logical responses. But it can’t be forced! If children are already emotional about a product and you tell them not to be excited they won’t care.  But if you engage them with a series of questions, they’ll have fun sharing what they notice, and activate completely different brain centers.

To end your Screen Talk, ask simple questions about the purpose of the commercial.

“Do you remember when we bought that toy (game, doll, truck) and it didn’t look like what we saw on TV? How did you feel?”  Be sure to let the child say that s/he was sad, disappointed, upset.

You can also reference commercial misadventures of friends and family. Just be careful to inflect up so you don’t sound judgmental. “Do you remember when your friend (brother) bought that toy after seeing a commercial, and then it broke right away?”. 

After the child responds, ask “Do the commercials always show us things the way they really are, or do they sometimes show us things in ways that make those things look special and exciting? What do you think?”

Continue with, “Why do you think they show us things in ways that make them look so exciting?” Get your poker face ready in case your child says, “They want to help us pick the right toy!” Or: “They want to show us really good new games.”  

Instead of contradicting these sunny assertions, use them as a bridge to the main point. “OK, that’s part of it, but what do they want us to do?” 

Once children see the connection between the way commercials are designed and what we, the viewers, are “supposed” to do, they’ll be better prepared to resist the onslaught of advertising.

To finish, you can gently say, “So we know the people who make the commercials want us to spend money, and we know that the toys/games aren’t always the way they look on the screens. So maybe we can be more careful in choosing what we want this time.”  

Lastly, let the child know that you’ll pick another commercial to watch later in the week.  “We’ll do this again with a different commercial.  But I’d love to hear any details you notice about other commercials you might see.” Letting your children report to you keeps the door to critical thinking open.

It takes no more than fifteen minutes to engage your children as intelligent, observant viewers and turn on their critical thinking skills. Given the thousands of ads aimed at kids, this can be a huge game-changer!  Sure, it’s tempting to just TELL your children that the commercials are designed to manipulate them. But that often sounds like “plain old parental disapproval” and it isn’t nearly as effective as having kids notice the details themselves. Instead, by empowering kids as critical viewers, you can turn the tables on manipulative ads for a lifetime.

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