Previous attempts to reduce the effects of television advertising on children's purchase requests have had little success. Therefore, we tested the effects of a classroom intervention to reduce television, videotape, and video game use on children's toy purchase requests, in a school-based randomized controlled trial. Third- and fourth-grade children (mean age, 8.9 years) in two sociodemographically and scholastically matched public elementary schools were eligible to participate. Children in one randomly selected elementary school received an 18-lesson, 6-month classroom curriculum to reduce television, videotape, and video game use. In both schools, in September (before intervention) and April (after intervention) of a single school year, children and parents reported children's prior week's purchase requests for toys seen on television. After intervention, children in the intervention school were significantly less likely to report toy purchase requests than children in the control school, with adjusting for baseline purchase requests, gender, and age (odds ratio, 0.29; 95% confidence interval, 0.12-0.69). Among intervention school children, reductions in self-reported purchase requests were also associated with reductions in television viewing. There was no significant difference between schools in parent reports of children's requests for toy purchases. These findings suggest that reducing television viewing is a promising approach to reducing the influences of advertising on children's behavior.
Since the 1970s, parents and child advocates have expressed concern about the large number of television commercials seen by American children.1-3 On average, the number of commercials a child sees has increased from 20,000 per year in the 1970s to about 40,000 commercials per year today. This increase is caused not only by the shorter length of today's commercials, but also by the greater number of minutes per hour that commercials are now shown.4,5 A recent content analysis found that approximately 16% of children's television viewing time consists of advertisements,6 not including entertainment programming that either is based on specific toys or has its own accompanying line of toys. This excessive exposure is worrisome because many commercials promote consumeristic and unhealthful behavior.
Half of children's commercials advertise toys.6,7 Toy commercials often give misleading impressions about the quality of products, and disclaimers, if they are given at all, are usually unintelligible to children.8 Experimental studies demonstrate that exposure to television commercials inflates children's perception of the value of advertised toys.9 It is not surprising that time spent watching television is positively correlated with children's requests for toys,9,10 because exposure to commercials is a function of television viewing. It is also not surprising that parents report that television is the most common source of children's purchase requests.11-13
To date, attempts to prevent commercials from influencing child behavior have had little success. Meaningful regulation of broadcast commercials has repeatedly been stymied by lobbying from the advertising industry.5 Parents are often urged to mediate the effects of television on their children,1 but parental concern about commercials is uncorrelated with parental monitoring of children's viewing,2 and the average parent exerts little control over children's viewing.14 Media literacy programs can increase children's knowledge of the television industry and special effects,15,16 understanding of ads' persuasive intent,17 and skepticism about commercials,18 but such literacy programs have failed to demonstrate that children subsequently use these skills when watching television.15,19
One reason for the lack of success of media literacy programs may be that young children lack the cognitive abilities to resist commercial messages. For example, children under 8 years of age identify the persuasive intent of commercials no better than chance, and children who do not recognize persuasive intent are more likely to trust and like commercials and to express "consumption motivations."20 Sprafkin et al16 suggest that the goal for future efforts should be to reduce children's exposure to television, an outcome that no media literacy program to date has produced. We therefore conducted a randomized, controlled, school-based trial of reducing third- and fourth-grade children's television, videotape, and video game use to assess the effects on children's purchase requests for toys. We hypothesized that, compared with controls, children exposed to the intervention would reduce the frequency of their purchase requests. We have previously reported the effects of this intervention on obesity and obesity-related behaviors21 and aggressive behaviors,22 from this same trial.