What can I do to help protect all children from harmful media messages?

I spent last weekend at a conference full of energetic and committed people working to protect children from corporate marketing practices that harm children’s health and well-being for profit.  It was the 8th international Consuming Kids Summit in Boston.

I couldn’t go to every session, alas, so here are a few proposals from some of the speakers for what you can do. I’m hoping that others who were there will add their own key takeaways in the comments!

Alex Bogusky, a top advertising executive who famously declared that advertisers should “just stop” advertising to children.

Message: “Once I knew a certain amount” about how a child’s mind works, “it became immoral” to advertise to children.

Proposal: As people learned about the harm from smoking, it became hard for the agencies that worked with tobacco clients to recruit the best talent. So educate students in advertising schools about the immorality of advertising to children. This will make advertising to children taboo, like tobacco advertising, and agencies will just stop because they won’t be able to hire the most creative people.

Lenore Skenazy, Free Range Kids

Message: Children, just like adults, respond positively when we let them know we believe in them.

Proposal: Give your children the freedom to develop a sense of independence and confidence in themselves. Let them know you believe in them by letting go of the fear and hyper-supervision.

Kids need freedom to explore on their own

Kids need freedom to explore on their own

Dr. Diane Levin, professor of Education at Wheelock College

Message: The research is clear that violent media harms children. Even if they don’t kill someone after playing violent video games, that isn’t evidence that violent media isn’t causing harm.

Proposal: Demand that corporations that profit from marketing violence to children pay for the societal costs.

Dr. Michael Rich – also know as  “The Mediatrician” – of the  Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital, Boston

Message: Since the 1950s, the average CQ – creativity quotient – has gone down even while the IQ has gone up.  A brain that is distracted by media entertainment doesn’t have the chance to get bored, which is where creative ideas happen.

Proposal: Take a digital sabbath each week.

Bored kids get creative

Bored kids get creative, make gladiator costumes out of paper

Dr. Sharon Maxwell, clinical psychologist

Message: Marketers teach children that desires must be fulfilled, pushing them to seek pleasure at the expense of joy.

Proposal:  Ask your children, “Who are you? Who gets to decide?”  Make sure they have time for the silence they need for reflection. “Please value silence,” she says.

Josh Golin, associate director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood

Message: Advertisers take advantage of the authority of schools as a marketing tool to target children, but the amount of money schools get as a result is often negligible. It’s not worth it.

Proposal: Demand that school officials provide revenue numbers from advertising in terms of annual revenue, per pupil revenue and as a percentage of the total budget. And then don’t be surprised if selling kids to marketers brings in just .03 percent of the budget.
Also, tell schools that want to advertise on school buses that they open themselves up to a First Amendment lawsuit if they try to limit the kinds of advertising they will accept, and may end up with this on the side of the school bus:
Abercrombie and Fitch on your school bus?

Makani Themba, executive director at The Praxis Project

Message: Industry funds PR campaigns to encourage people to place all responsibility on parents, leaving corporations free to exploit children for profit. The industry acts as if we are having a conversation about “values” like freedom.

Proposal: Envision the kind of community you want to live in – maybe a place of “peace and self determination, children and families thriving, unfettered, shaped by each other and our very best selves.” And then work toward that.

Update: More commentary by Michael Prager and Jason Tammemagi.

Also, a Storify by SPARK Movement.


  1. Dianna Morton says:

    CCFC Summits do inspire activism of all sorts. It is where I met you, Erin, and the rest is history in the making– The Massachusetts Media Literacy Consortium. My biggest take away is from Tim Kasser on his research on values and language. Most of us are very mindful of the language we use when speaking with children. We need to begin to be as mindful of our language use always, avoiding language that the corporate unfettered capitalist power structure embraces. We need to be creative culture jammers. BTW, DIane Levin’s point of media should pay for media literacy came from my sharing that idea with her. Lexi Ladd and I had been thinking of this simultaneously. Diane asked if she could “use” it, and as I am all about the activism and not proprietary, I, of course, said yes, please! I think it is a position that we should pursue in our MMLC work.

    Great post and list of take aways, Erin!

    • Thanks Dianna for mentioning Tim Kasser’s work.
      It was from you that I first heard the idea to make the media industry pay for media literacy to counteract the harm it does through media violence.
      It’s great to work with you on the MMLC.

  2. this is a really great list. i’m so glad that you summed up problems along with solutions. still, I have to say that reading it made me sad. our children live under seige by harmful media messages. i am always telling my kids that they are missing out on reflection – the opportunity to be bored and see what comes of it. i can teach them to look back at negative or harmful media messages, i can help them avoid violence in the media, i can trust them with their freedom, but i have found it so hard to impose boredom. the quiet of that is something they hardly know–and feel completely affronted by. it was easier when they were little. we had “quiet time” every day where they played in their rooms alone for an hour (it was a progression from nap time). both kids really enjoyed it. but now, because they are teens and spend so much of their time with friends or at scheduled sports/school activities – i find the only way to get “quiet” is to take them away – camping or hiking–and we can only do that so often. I know it’s not enough…

    • That’s interesting, Deb. I’m having very much the same struggle with imposing boredom on teenaged kids. I’m going to tell them about Dr. Rich’s work, see if that helps.

  3. Dianna Morton says:

    How to create opportunities for boredom is a really interesting idea. In the 1970’s, Jerry Mander, not an academic, spoke to this issue of boredom that Dr. RIch now speaks to. In The Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, Mander, a former ad exec, did a cultural anthropologic study of the effects of TV on indigenous peoples of North America. A PhD presenter at CCFC summit informed me that s/he could not cite Mander (yet this person referred to Mander’s ideas often in presentation) in their own academic work because he was non-academic; yet Mander also addressed screen viewing and connections with ADD ADHD and much more in this insightful social/anthropologic study. Mander got the gut vibe of so much that now has researched findings. Something to be said about that gut– first nerve in utero life. Kendra Hodgeson (Media Education Foundation) addressed this in her CCFC workshop– when you watch something, where in your body do you feel it?
    We our whole beings, and sometimes our bodies “know” more readily than our minds.

    This does not answer the question of how to create boredom– let’s think on that collectively.


  1. […] Summit was held in Boston and Erin McNeill has posted some of the important takeaways from that here. Especially interesting to me is the comparison to the tobacco industry. Firstly, because it […]

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