Q: My 7-year-old son is extremely good at navigating the Internet. In fact, he’s taught me almost everything I know about using the Web. I have software that blocks him from everything except kid sites like PBS, Nickelodeon, Disney, and the Cartoon Network, where he has spent a lot of time and they seem harmless enough, but recently I’ve been hearing about junk food ads on websites. I don’t think he looks at them, but I’m wondering whether that’s a problem anyway. Am I missing something?
–Websurfing in Washington, DC
A: Dear Websurfing,
Your impulses with regard to the Internet are right on. The Internet is a place where your son can both learn a great deal and become very technologically skilled, but it's also possible and likely that he'll be exposed to material that is not optimal for him. In an era when kids are digital natives and parents are digital immigrants, your question is extremely common.
The sites you’re allowing him to access probably won’t expose him to overt violence or sex, and that is a positive thing. But remember that pre-selecting sites isn’t enough to teach him to use media critically. Your son will see advertising wherever he goes, online or offline, thus, it is important that he learn to think critically about all media, even those that seem harmless.
Just recently, researchers looked at the sites most used by kids, and they found that only 5 of the 77 advertised food products were things that kids should be encouraged to eat. We don’t evaluate individual sites or products, instead we try to give parents the information to make decisions that work for their family. And even though your son may not be paying specific attention to those ads, there is evidence that people exposed to online advertising think favorably about advertised brands, even if they don’t pay attention to, or even remember seeing the advertising. Advertising affects him, whether he thinks it does or not.
To help your son think critically about the ads, explain that he is being pursued as a consumer of products as he will be all his life, and he will need to choose for himself which products are good and which are not. Together, examine ads that attract him and ask him questions about them. What is his selling? Who is it for? How does it grab his attention? What do the people who created the ad want him to do? Doing this will help him build the skills he needs to critically view and analyze the messages he’s receiving and that can help him get the most benefit and least harm from his experience on the web.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,