My kids wrote their letters to Santa today. There was no pussyfooting, no sucking up. They cut right to the chase. Here's my 8-year-old's letter:
And my 6-year-old's:
And my 19-month-old's, courtesy of his older sister:
I think they're trying to tell me something.
It's easy to assign the lion's share of blame for the commercialization of Christmas; all you have to do is reach for the remote. There's no question that T.V. advertising triggers the whiny demands. Every published study on this topic has noted a correlation between T.V. viewing frequency and purchase requests for food and toys in children. No surprise here -- why would companies spend billions of dollars producing commercials if they didn't work?
My favorite studies were conducted in the U.K., analyzing the content of letters to Father Christmas (Santa, to us Yanks) and surveying children and their parents about their viewing habits. The investigators also reviewed toy commercials on children's networks for the 6 weeks leading up to the holiday season. One of the more remarkable findings was that toy ads ran an average of 33 times an hour -- and this figure doesn't even include ads for food or other shows. The first study, conducted in 3- to 6-year olds (who were allowed to dictate or draw their letters), found that the number of items requested went up with the amount of T.V. viewing. There was no associated increase in the request for advertised brands, probably because the children were too young to recall specific names. The study was then repeated in 6- to 8-year-olds, and some interesting trends emerged. For one thing, the kids got greedier, with the average number of demands increasing from 3 to 5 items. (I was relieved to discover my kids are no more spoiled than the average brat.) For another, the more T.V. a kid watched, the more advertised brands he or she would request. Girls were more susceptible to brand-name recognition (with Bratz dolls being the most popular), though peer pressure may also have played a role, as the letters were written in a classroom setting.
Dealing with the deluge of requests around Christmas is annoying, but can advertising actually impact the moral development of children? Five studies have looked at whether T.V. viewing is associated with materialism. Greed was measured by asking children to agree or disagree with statements such as "Money can buy happiness" or "My dream in life is to be able to own expensive things," or by having them choose between toys or friends. Four out of the five studies found significant correlations between the amount of T.V. watched and materialistic values.
So what's the best way to grapple with the gimmes? The "duh" answer is to ban the kiddos from watching any T.V., at least from November onward, but most parents aren't willing to go to such extremes. You could outlaw advertising aimed towards children, which is what Sweden does* -- but we all know that industry would never allow that to happen in the States.
Believe it or not, a randomized, control trial exists to answer this question. In this study, third- and fourth-graders in one school were randomized to a media reduction program, while kids at another school served as the control. The kids in the intervention group received 18 sermons on reducing T.V., videotape and video game use, after which they were challenged to go media-free for 10 days. Incredibly, two-thirds of the kids succeeded with this challenge. The parents were then given an electronic T.V. time manager that restricted usage to 7 hours a week. Only 40% complied with this portion, possibly because Dad (or, not to be sexist, Mom) wasn't willing to give up his ESPN. The kids and parents were asked at the beginning and end of the study about the number of requests for toys seen on T.V. in the previous week. While there were no differences in toy requests at the beginning of the study, by the end, the kids in the intervention group had reduced their number of demands by 70%.
While it's unlikely that schools will implement this intensive curriculum, most parents could aim for the 7 hours a week T.V. budget. I love the idea of installing a T.V. time manager, since kids know that it's useless arguing with a computer. Another strategy is to watch T.V. with your kids and talk to them about the commercials. Over half of 6- to 8-year-olds in the Santa letters study couldn't explain what an advertisement was. Studies have shown that talking to your kids about commercials mitigates their insidious influence.
The kids don't know it yet, but maybe Santa will surprise them with a T.V. time manager. That's what happens when you try to shake down the big guy. In the meantime, anyone know where I can buy some fake drool?**
*In fact, in a small substudy, Swedish children requested fewer items in their Father Christmas letters than did children from the U.K.
**My daughter's explanation: "It's just like fake vomit -- you can use it to gross people out!" Not sure why JoJo would need any, since he produces copious amounts of the real stuff.