Parents today are more frustrated and concerned than ever about how their children are being immersed in age inappropriate media and messages. Aware and committed parents are trying to do everything they can to protect their children from the continual barrage of adult-oriented images and advertising on TV, in film and videogames and in publications and even convenience stores— but often it’s not enough.

Simultaneously, irresponsible marketers are working diligently to invent innovative and often manipulative strategies to capture the minds of new kid consumers in a world of high stakes competition. Children today are truly “sitting ducks” in a society where their attitudes, beliefs, values and preferences influence 600 billion dollars worth of product and program dollars per year.

A blind spot, as we define it, is a developmental condition, either biological or psychological, beyond a person’s awareness, that can prevent them from making accurate, sound and discriminating choices. We all have blind spots, even as adults, but children are especially vulnerable to marketers and advertisers at the younger ages when rational choices and higher levels of thinking and awareness are limited. Let’s take one example of a very powerful blind spot for children, the attention blind spot.

First, it’s important as a parent to understand that attention is a critical first step in the learning process, whether what is learned is positive or negative. Whatever grabs or holds your child’s attention will be more quickly absorbed and stored into their rapidly expanding mind map of the world.

This brain-based (biological foundation) attention mechanism is called the “orienting response” and most often occurs unconsciously, outside a child’s awareness. It is an automatic response to something in a child’s world that is typically novel and different. It is especially strong if linked to a pressing and powerful underlying need or want, which ultimately increases the strength of the attention or orienting mechanism. Marketers and advertisers clearly understand the importance of attention, and make it a high priority in designing their age-related advertising and marketing strategies. The name of the consumer game is “eyeballs,” and attention is the entry point for gaining access to new products and programs.

But when it comes to your children in today’s world of consumerism, there are new and often negative “side effects” associated with this powerful attention blind spot that can prevent them from making accurate, sound and discriminating choices. This blind spot is the glue that holds the child’s interest to new and exciting products and programs, even if they’re not age-appropriate. It’s the initial “hook” that sets desire in motion, and leads to wanting and sometimes even demanding a new product or program. Someone once made the comment that you eventually become what you pay attention to, and herein lies a major concern for today’s parents and especially for their children.

Television, film, video games, computers and other high-tech gadgets and media have evolved at a blinding speed with almost unlimited built-in potentials to trigger the orienting or attention response in children. These are considered “hot” mediums, complete with moving images, special effects, unique and powerful graphics, exciting colors, humorous and strange characters, and sound effects— all of which increase the potential for gaining a higher level of attention for the intended receiver. Compare this expanding range of new visual and auditory hot mediums with the slower, less stimulating, more verbally dominant “cold” mediums such as printed packages, brochures, flyers, books or pamphlets and you’ll understand why kids today, immersed deeper in the world of high technology and hot attention-getting mediums, find school to be increasingly boring.

It’s no accident that hot media consume more than 40 hours of a child’s time each week, outside and beyond the school setting. Hot mediums entertain, immerse, compel and excite the senses, keeping the orienting response constantly engaged. Can a teacher today, in a traditional classroom setting, really begin to compete with this expanding media world so dominant outside of the classroom? And how does advertising and marketing fit into all of this?

As high powered technological advances in media increase, they are rapidly incorporated into the toolbox of marketing and advertising techniques and increasingly used to gain the attention of the potential consumer, especially children. The combined onslaught of the “techno-mediated world” slowly and steadily changes what children expect, eventually translating into a media dominant lifestyle or way of life. The result is more time spent with machines and external stimulation and less time spent with human interaction, outdoor activity, reading and imaginative free play.

Morphing techniques are a good example. As computer technology advances, it develops more and more spectacular special effect techniques that can instantly blend or morph one image into another. This creates exciting, entertaining and unprecedented visual images (The Matrix, Batman, The Hulk, etc.). It immerses the viewer into new, out-of-this-world experiences.

We see the translation of these amazing visual special effects into “hotter” advertising mediums as well. The underlying reason is the attention blind spot. Spectacular and immersive technologies coerce and command us to pay attention on an unconscious level. They keep us mesmerized, transfixed and in a state of awe. Our biologically based orienting response is activated and fully engaged in the wonder and excitement of unique and novel information opening the gate to the consumer concepts and ideas that advertisers and marketers want to plant into our memory.

As parents, where does this leave us? What can we possibly do to help protect our children from unwanted age inappropriate messages and manipulation, when the escalating advances in technology are being incorporated into ever expanding media and advertising campaigns?

As a parent and/or caregiver it is important to remember:

  1. Children today are in desperate need of guidance. The attention blind spot is in effect with all incoming information. The child’s brain will make meaning out of the world at its own particular developmental level. The adult brain has maturity and experience in making meaning. This should guide the meaning making brain of the child.
  2. You’re in charge! Create a family media plan that limits time spent with TV, video games, computers, radio and other media. Advertisers and marketers will be focused on using “hot” mediums to create the orienting response to open the gate to higher levels of consumerism.
  3. When it’s age-appropriate, discuss and inform your children of the attention getting devices that are being used by marketers and advertisers. Help your child to understand how attention is the first stage or entry point to captivating the senses and the thinking process.
  4. Promote use of the “colder” mediums (especially reading) to give your child a counterbalance experience of media. Cold mediums draw more on the child’s inner resources for attention as opposed to the manufactured and contrived hot medium effects.
  5. Your child learns a great deal from observing what you do. Observational learning means that the attention blind spot is focused on you as well as outside media. You are always the guide and teacher— the model— that your child is attending to, whether you are aware of it or not. Remember, a person becomes what he pays attention to.

Parents today, more than any other time in history, must be aware of the expanding impact of technological innovation and how your child’s attention blind spot is constantly being influenced. In order to best protect and nurture your children as they develop and grow, it’s imperative that you manage how they spend their time and what they are paying attention to. Nothing less than the well-being, success and happiness of you and your children is at stake.

Joe Boxer Meets Sean John
Joe Boxer Meets Sean John

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