Kids growing up in 2023 live in a world more dominated by consumer products than ever before.
Whether it’s Barbies, Furbies, or iPhones, kids have more ways than ever of finding out about new stuff to want. In addition to TV commercials, they are also exposed to targeted ads on YouTube and influencer marketing on TikTok and elsewhere that they may not recognize as advertising at all. “It’s just constantly coming at us,” said Michelle Skidelsky, a content creator who has posted about deinfluencing and consumer culture.
The buy-stuff message can feel as though it’s coming at parents, too. Thanks to the ascendancy of Amazon and the ability to add to your cart right from your phone, there’s a frictionlessness to the experience of shopping that didn’t exist when, for example, millennials were children. “The transaction of buying things has become invisible,” said Andrea Hussong, a developmental scientist and clinical psychologist at UNC Chapel Hill. The ubiquity and ease of shopping today can make it hard to teach kids about the real cost of products that seem like they simply appear on the doorstep.
The constant messaging about toys and electronics and ready access to new high-concept Lego sets and light-up robot dogs can also be harmful for kids, experts say. Materialism, or the focus on money and possessions, has been linked with lower academic engagement and achievement, as well as anxiety, depression, and selfishness. Buying a lot of stuff, especially online and with super-fast shipping, also contributes to climate change, jeopardizing kids’ futures and teaching them a damaging lesson about their responsibility to the planet.
As a parent, it can be hard to know how to push back against the barrage of consumerist messages, especially when many adults carry their own baggage around money, shopping, and buying, and sometimes model that to their kids. But even in our stuff-saturated times, there are concrete ways to help kids think less about buying and acquiring material goods and think more critically about what they really want and need.
Experts say the key is communication about advertising, social media, money, and, perhaps most importantly, about the very real emotions behind your kids’ desire for toys, games, and gadgets. That desire is, ultimately, a social one, said Allison Pugh, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture. Kids, she told Vox, “are trying to connect, and stuff is the language that they’re doing it with.”
Talk to your kids about ads
TV commercials aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were because a growing number of children primarily consume TV through ad-free streaming services. Kids now, though, are exposed to marketing on many other platforms, including YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, either on their own device or a parent’s.
Some of those ads are clearly recognizable as such. Others are what a September Federal Trade Commission report calls “blurred advertising,” like sponsored Instagram or TikTok posts, toy unboxing videos, and sponsored avatars or worlds within online games. There’s also a host of content that’s not explicitly paid for or sponsored but that still features lots of products, like morning-routine or what-I-eat-in-a-day videos, Skidelsky said. “That’s all still influencing us.”
“Blurred” formats are often harder for kids to identify as marketing, experts say. Kids develop the ability to understand the “persuasive intent” of ads — i.e. the fact that advertisers are trying to sell them something and not presenting an unvarnished version of reality — between the ages of 8 and 10, said Josh Golin, the executive director of Fairplay, a nonprofit that advocates against marketing to children. “But when the content is more intermingled, it usually takes kids into their teens.”
Moreover, when kids do start to recognize influencer marketing for what it is, “it doesn’t make them more skeptical,” Golin said. Instead, young people often develop parasocial relationships with influencers. “We see so much of an influencer’s life, and we feel as though we know them,” Skidelsky said. “So when I hear them recommend a product, I’m going to believe it much more than just the traditional advertisements that I see on TV.”
Kids don’t always listen to their parents when it comes to social media use. “When a parent says don’t do it, it makes the kids want to do it more,” said Patrice Berry, a clinical psychologist and content creator based in Virginia. Still, early conversations about social media advertising can “plant seeds,” Golin said. They can look at ads or influencer posts with kids and ask questions like, “What do you think they’re trying to get you to do here?” Having such conversations “can help kids develop skepticism,” said Golin.
For older kids and teens, a softer approach may be more helpful than trying to ban social media outright. Parents can ask how kids feel after spending time on a particular platform, Berry said. If they talk about feeling sad or always wanting things they don’t have, the next step may be “helping them come to the idea of, ‘Maybe I should spend a little less time on this platform because I’m not feeling good after.’”
Parents can also advocate for companies and lawmakers to enact larger-scale changes to help shield kids from ads, experts say. The September FTC report recommends against the use of blurred advertising aimed at kids and teens. The recommendation doesn’t have the force of law, but the agency did signal that enforcement actions could be coming, Golin said. Meanwhile, Fairplay is pushing for a legislative ban on influencer marketing to minors, as well as a ban on data collection and targeted ads to children and teens.
Talk to your kids about money
Any conversation with kids about consumerism isn’t just about media literacy; it’s also about money. A new toy or device may not be in the budget, which can cause stress for parents and disappointment for kids. But setting clear limits can help stave off some conflicts. “If I take a trip with my child to a store, and he is allowed to get something, I let him know the price range that he is able to spend,” Berry said.
If it’s feasible for your family, an allowance can also be a way of helping kids understand saving and budgeting, as well as giving them a more active role in buying decisions. For example, if kids really want something, they can pay for a portion of it with their allowance, Berry said. The amount of a child’s allowance will depend on a family’s resources, but Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money has recommended a dollar a week per year of age, and dividing it into three segments: “save, spend, and give.” “This is a rough approximation of an adult budget, so it’s literally foundational,” Lieber wrote in Slate in 2015.
Parents can also teach kids how to be critical consumers, researching products and being deliberate about what they buy. “What’s really important, especially for teenagers when they have their own money, is just parents teaching their kids how to really think about what they’re buying and not just impulsively buy things,” Skidelsky said.
One way to cut down on impulse buying — or impulsive demands for new stuff — is to ask kids to stop and think about why they want something. “In my research, I sometimes ask people to explain what changes they expect to occur in their life after they buy something they want,” Marsha Richins, a professor of marketing at the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business at the University of Missouri, told Vox in an email. “After going through this process, people often come away with one of two reactions. They either have a greater motivation to buy the desired item, or they conclude that they really don’t need it after all.”
“Kids tend to want a lot of stuff,” Richins added, “and taking time to explore the benefits and costs of potential purchases with their children provides parents with many opportunities to develop critical thinking about acquisition.”
Talk to your kids about feelings
While conversations about money and advertising are crucial, it’s also important to understand the root of a lot of kids’ desire for stuff. In many cases, experts say, it’s about a desire to fit in.
“Kids aren’t trying to outdo each other, to have the best thing on the block,” Pugh said. “What they’re trying to do is actually have the same thing.” In her research on kids and toys, “it was about belonging.”
Sometimes kids may feel inferior or even experience bullying if they don’t have a certain toy or device, Berry said. Parents may need to approach their kids with empathy and find out what’s really going on: “If this thing’s really important to you, help me understand this,” she said.
That won’t necessarily mean buying the item, Berry said. “Validating that it’s understandable that they feel that way doesn’t mean I give in to what they want, but it helps my child feel seen, heard, and understood.”
It’s also important to make space for kids to play and be social in ways that don’t involve branded toys or games, Pugh said. One way to help foster non-consumer play is by helping kids spend time in nature, which, she said, is “antithetical to a kind of consumer approach.”
“Even kids who are barraged by consumer culture have an imagination, and that’s a wondrous thing to behold,” Pugh said.
Adults can also demonstrate behavior and values that cut against the idea that we have to have what everyone else has. A lot of kids’ desire to buy things “seems to be motivated by anxiety about difference,” Pugh said. To address this, parents need to “think about and model our own approach to difference,” trying to “experience the pleasure and the unique kind of variety and richness that difference of all kinds brings to our lives.”
Finally, adults can give themselves and their kids a little grace. While there are steps grownups can take to inoculate their kids against the more pernicious effects of consumer culture, it’s unrealistic to expect to insulate your kids completely from the world of ads, trends, and desires. Pugh’s own kids had “zero screen time,” she said, but she still remembers the day her daughter came home with “a perfectly executed Pokémon drawing.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it if they’re coming home saying, ‘I want to go to Disneyland,’” she said. “It’s gonna happen, and it’s okay.”