Educating Children About Marketing Messages Can Help Prevent Substance Abuse

Media Detective is an activity-based program used to help prevent alcohol and tobacco use among children, helping them understand the intentions of marketers and advertising. A new study suggests that teaching children as young as eight or nine to be more skeptical of marketing tactics can help prevent substance abuse.

Erica Weintraub Austin, director of the Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion at Washington State University and lead author of the study, and her colleagues found that a two-week course helped third, fourth, and fifth graders reduce their intentions to try alcohol and tobacco, and increased their belief that they could resist the substances. 

Austin said that people underestimate children’s ability to understand advertising messages, as well as the fact that marketing methods can affect their decisions later in life. If children associate smoking with popularity and maturity, they might want to try cigarettes when they’re older. Marketing specialists tend to make their messages appealing to young people, so it’s important that children understand that some of these messages may not be in their best interest.

The researchers found that people internalize or reject advertising messages through a partly logical, partly emotional process. By teaching children that advertisers want them to react emotionally, they can learn to react more logically.

North Carolina-based Innovation Research Training, Inc. conducted the study, in which elementary schools either received the Media Detective program or were part of a control group. The 344 children who received Media Detective lessons were less interested in alcohol merchandise than the 335 children in the control group. Students in the Media Detective group who had already used alcohol or tobacco said their intentions to use the substances were lower, and they believed they had a better ability to refuse the substances than children in the control group. The researchers found that the lessons were most helpful to boys.

Prior studies by Austin and researchers with The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication’s Center for Media & Health Promotion found that programs such as Media Detective can help prevent substance abuse, teach sex education, and instill an interest in voting and public affairs among teens. The new study is the first to show that these programs can be helpful for children, as well.

Source: Science Daily, ‘Media Detective’ Tool Empowers Children to Skirt Alcohol and Tobacco Marketing Messages, August 24, 2010