It is 7:30 on a Thursday night and two-year-old JT Helfrich is being dressed for bed by his mother Ginger, as her husband Joe helps their daughter Molly, 4, brush her teeth. The highlight of JT’s nighttime ritual is picking out his pajamas, a majority of which feature the popular animation character Lightning McQueen, the candy apple red race car from the Walt Disney-Pixar movie series, “Cars.” Tonight JT was insistent he put on the oversized “Cars” themed boxer briefs gifted prematurely by his Grandma, but he has yet to be potty-trained.
“I need Ka-chow!” JT says. “I need him! I NEED him! Ka-chow!” He insisted on wearing the briefs with the image of Lightning McQueen, whom he refers to as “Ka-chow,” to bed.
“JT, you simply want to wear Grandma’s present but you don’t need these until you’re a bit older and can use the potty,” Ginger says.
The concept of “wants vs. needs” can be an abstract one for a two-year-old to grasp, but JT’s whining and tears subside as he directs his attention to an episode of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” The boxers fiasco was forgotten, but JT’s infatuation with “Ka-Chow” remains strong as he is tucked into his crib with an oversized stuffed version of Olaf, the snowman character from the latest Disney animation sensation, “Frozen.”
“He loves to wear and use things that have the characters associated with what he has watched on them,” Ginger explains from the kitchen of their home in Northwest, Washington, DC.
A 2011 report conducted by the Sesame Workshop on digital media habits revealed that children ages eight to 18 are exposed to media for 10 hours 45 minutes a day. Statistics on media consumption will likely illustrate exponential increase, as populations young and old turn to media-based technology as their primary source for entertainment and information. Whether we like it or not, the media we absorb (movies, TV shows, advertisements online, video games, phone use/ mobile apps) influence our interests. As the media inundates the life of the consumer, the American consumer culture evolves to take advantage of those interests. Psychologists say high media consumption could correlate to issues in child development as it could skew that child’s understanding of differentiating wants versus needs and can lead to behavior health issues in adolescents when that so-called “need” is not met.
The interests of children as young as JT and Molly Helfrich are being influenced by what they absorb and observe from the media, their peers and within their family unit. Products inspired by cinematic media such as the “Cars” franchise are marketed by the American advertising industry, known as “Madison Avenue,” to satiate the “wants” marketers influenced their target child market to identify as a “need.”
“We try to discourage as much media as possible, but we are realists about it,” Ginger says.
While media influence extends beyond children and adolescents, the younger demographics are unique. JT and Molly’s generations are among the first to grow up with digital technology and media as a preexisting, prominent feature in their lives. In contrast to the Helfrich’s plan to limit their children’s media consumption, many American families choose to use the television or other media source as a kind of babysitter.
Psychologist Albert Bandura’s “Social Learning Theory” explains the phenomenon of “modeling” through his “Bobo Doll Experiment.” The theory helps explain the influence of media on a child because they learn so quickly through observation. Put simply: when a child sees something in media form, they will most likely copy it. This leaves their child vulnerable to hours of unsupervised screen time, which can be detrimental to their behavioral development as they observe, learn and proceed to model what they see.
Dr. Nicholas Aradi, a psychologist based in South Florida, shared his perspectives on how the media could affect a child’s understanding of wants and needs, by drawing from experiences as a grade-school psychologist and as a private counselor.
“As we get older and we are more exposed to the world, we are getting more bombarded by the outside world and especially today with a heavy dose of media, computer, Internet, et cetera,” Dr. Aradi said.
He mentioned how positive things can come from media exposure including media literacy, which has become a requirement for professional success in our increasingly technological society. Dr. Aradi’s perspective is also supported by critical theorist Douglas Kellner’s cultural studies approach to understanding the effects of the media on society. Through this approach, Kellner identifies how media influences our values by shaping our feelings about society and ourselves.
“The gaining of critical media literacy is an important resource for individuals and citizens in learning how to cope with a seductive cultural environment,” Kellner said in his article on this media effects theory. “[Cultural studies] enables individuals to resist media manipulation and to increase their freedom and individuality.”
Kellner’s ideas help reshape the stigmas associated with media, as he calls upon society to understand its potential negative effects of the media. He insists we have the power to glean what we wish from media with a critical eye. The way the Helfrich family sees it, JT and Molly are too young to understand that what they are developing interests in are commercial in nature, but they don’t deny they are being influenced.
“If a two, three, or four-year-old is out in the world, they’re seeing stuff—they’re seeing dazzling, interesting, stimulating stuff and I think they’re being affected by it,” Dr. Aradi said. “There is that downside of getting bombarded with advertising—creating needs for them that they otherwise would not have been exposed to.”
As humans, we have basic physiological needs for air, water, food and shelter that we cannot survive without. Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his “Hierarchy of Needs,” which illustrates the human’s innate prioritization of their needs. Only after someone’s physiological needs are met, can that person concern themselves with an array of less critical needs to achieve the highest sense of “self” Maslow refers to as “self-actualization.” In modern society, children develop an understanding of what they need versus what they want through social learning from their family units.
“As we get older, I think we learn to desire and want things,” Dr. Aradi said. “A lot of that learning initially happens within the family in terms of what we are seeing, what is being modeled, what our parents tell us are things that are important and necessary.”
How a child goes about asking, waiting for or expecting to be gratified by a material thing is situational and dependent on the how they were raised. While Joe and Ginger may not witness the effects of media consumption now or ever within their children as they mature, they know these negative effects exist.
In a dissertation titled “I Want It Now: Do New Media Affect Ability to Delay Gratification?” author Thomas L. Meade analyzes how media use can cause deleterious effects on how we grow and develop.
“The youngest generation of today is growing up with unlimited access. This is the only world they know,” Meade writes. “The development of the Internet follows a trend of human behavior. We, as humans, strive for instantaneous gratification.”
JT wants everything to do with Lightning McQueen and Molly is enthralled by “Frozen,” just as their mother yearned for a Cabbage Patch Kid as a child. However, the instantaneous nature of technological media today has altered a child’s ability to comprehend the concept of delayed gratification.
“We will try to help them realize that it is not a bad thing if you want something, but you have to work to earn it,” Ginger says. “It is better to not be pacified at their ages, as frustrating as it is.”
Media can be seen as problematic in child development as media consumption conditions users to expect instant gratification of their “needs.” For instance, Ginger mentions her children do not understand the concept of waiting for a commercial break, because all of their shows are recorded. When a child is constantly placated by a parent with whatever they ask for, or by the click of a computer mouse, it could affect their ability to cope when their expectations for a reward or material good are not met.
Increased use and absorption of media could take advantage of a child’s vulnerability to associate a “want” as a “need,” therefore urging them to desire more and consume more. In an article titled “The development of a child into a consumer” authors Patti Valkenburg and Joanne Cantor identify the stages of development a child goes through to become an educated, capable consumer. A huge gap exists from the cradle to the “developed consumer” age of 12, where a child is vulnerable to misunderstanding advertisements and marketing tactics overtaking children immersed in this media blitz.
“There is so much more out there, so much more that you are supposed to have, or should have, to be pretty, happy, popular,” Dr. Aradi said. “It becomes a sort of insatiable drive to get this stuff, and people know that no matter what they have, they want more and are less satisfied because there is so much more to have.”
The Helfriches admit it will not be easy to encourage healthy, goal-oriented consumer practices for their children and teach them to differentiate between wants and needs. Dr. Aradi noted that the individual’s ability to distinguish between wants and needs is varied. One might think that the older you get, the more you grasp the concept, however he has worked with young adolescents who are able to identify their needs as irrational, while older 18-year-olds exhibit lower levels of cognitive and emotional maturity.
“[Some individuals] can convince themselves and say ‘I need this, I’m going to be very, very unhappy without it,’” Dr. Aradi said. “To some extremes, teenage kids in particular who can be impulsive at times, can do very drastic things like threaten suicide or commit suicide if they don’t get what they want.”
Today we see an increase in marketers and advertisers siphoning off of media creations such as movies and television shows by targeting a given consumer audience to purchase their slew of related products. Children who are categorized as “underdeveloped consumers” are being conditioned by the advertisements to think they “need to buy this accessory” to play a character seen in a movie, when they could just use their imagination for free.
“I think Madison Avenue has gotten very good to let us know, or subconsciously or consciously communicate to us, that we need to have these things,” Dr. Aradi said. “They really are not necessities as much as desires, wants as opposed to needs.”
Kellner said the media has the power to shape us. Therefore a child like JT, whose desires stem from media content could be met with a purchase of products related to what he saw in that movie, advertised on TV, in stores, or owned by his friends. The Helfriches reflect on this concept of media influence with their own childhood experiences, contrasting their upbringing in a working class family with what they are able to offer their children today.
“That same desire is there [in our kids],” Ginger said. “We both came from working class families where the money wasn’t there to provide those things. The understanding of trying to earn money was present.”
Joe and Ginger have already implemented a system to structure their children’s understanding of wants, needs and the concept of delayed gratification. For now, the Helfriches maintain the peace when their children request for material products by mentioning time-oriented phrases that communicate waiting for their request or reward.
“[We hope to convey that] it is not a sense of entitlement that you get things,” Ginger says. “Molly and JT are too young to understand that right now, but we tie in this idea of ‘Wait for grandma to come’ or ‘Ask Santa Claus’ for something you really want.”
So why should we worry about the future of America’s first generations of children growing up surrounded by media? Extensive media use could correlate with behavior issues later on, or even give rise to mental health issues with self-esteem and even depression.
“I think [media use] makes people less deep, less concerned about what really matters,” Dr. Aradi said. “Which in my opinion is: relationships, ethics, the environment—things that don’t have to do with acquiring material things, acquiring money.”
This greater desire to a acquire could prove detrimental to our future generations. The Helfriches go against the grain of most young media-consuming families, as they understand and insist there is a balance between what you give a child instantaneously and what you have them wait for—like JT’s coming-of-age to use his “Ka-Chow” boxers.
“There is so much more media, more modes of media, more products out there today,” Dr. Aradi said. “There is greater greed, greater desire to accumulate, there’s greater emphasis on materialism and I think it leaves many people—kids in particular—feeling less satisfied.”
Written during the spring 2015 semester for Professor Margot Susca’s “Communication, Youth and the Digital Culture” course at American University.