Commercials and Their Effect on Children’s Language Socialization

Language socialization is the process whereby children are socialized, or taught the norms and expectations of their culture, through the use of language. Language socialization includes both the use of language for socialization and the socialization to use language. Language socialization takes effect through exposure to language use, first from family members and other caretakers and then through further society, such as other children, childcare and media exposure. What effect does media exposure, particularly exposure to television commercials, have on language socialization in children? An investigation of literature suggests that television and commercials are likely to have a poor effect on language socialization, leading to inaccurate ideas of the importance of language and the culturally correct use of language.

The general effects of television viewing on socialization are well known. According to Coats & Feldman (1995) American children spend significant amounts of time watching television – more time, they noted, than talking to adults, playing with siblings or attending school. They examined the effect of television on nonverbal socialization, and found that nonverbal displays of emotion are found at an unnaturally high rate as opposed to the natural environment. This can lead to frequent television viewers expressing a more expressive nonverbal emotional display style, due to incorrect socialization about the appropriateness of nonverbal display.

Their study found that elementary school children who frequently watched television had more success at encoding emotions (particularly those frequently displayed on television such as happiness and sadness) than did children who infrequently watched television. They also found that these children used more emotive facial expressions. This is in opposition to cultural norms that require active regulation of facial expression, and may constitute a social disadvantage. DeLoache and Korac (2003) noted that there has been a substantial amount of research indicating that there is a correlation between violent programs and violent behavior.

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She found that children did not routinely suffer a degradation of listening skills at increased levels of television viewing; listening skills, she determined, tend to be linked more to intelligence than to television viewing or artificially shortened attention spans. However, she did note that children who watched a lot of commercials, documentaries and news shows did have a decreased level of listening skills. She posited that this was due to the explicit lack of socialization cues aimed at children within these programs leading to decreased listening skills and attention spans. In short, these programs did not provide enough simulated human interaction to allow for language or cultural socialization, even as a substitute for human interaction.

Durkin and Judge (2001) examined the effect of television language socialization on children in the specific context of foreign language speakers. The authors noted that language is a marker of ethnic identity and enculturation; reactions to language could also be a sign of ethnic prejudice. Ethnic minorities are often underrepresented in the media as well as portrayed in an inaccurate manner, perpetuating stereotypes and negative images of the ethnic minority. The authors wanted to investigate this portrayal on the socialization of young children around foreign languages at various ages.

They found that three to five year olds routinely learned words from television programs, and that younger children used foreign language as a cue that a program’s content is not aimed at them. The authors performed a study that used videos of a family, speaking both English and an artificial foreign language, in prosocial and antisocial situations in order to gauge the effect of the foreign language on the children’s perception of the situation. The authors did not find that the foreign language routinely affected the children’s perception, although younger viewers did tend to view the foreign language speaking portrayals more negatively (in line with cognitive development theories which indicate that younger children see those who are different from them as a threat).

The authors noted that the eight year old group showed a marked bias against the foreign language groups in both the prosocial and antisocial situations; this, too, is accounted for by cognitive development theories, which indicate that a metalinguistic shift occurs around the age of seven or eight. This effect has apparently dissipated by the age of ten. Children of all age groups responded positively to the prosocial groups, and negatively to the antisocial groups, in line with expected socialization. The authors concluded that although foreign language could elicit prejudicial reactions in children, it is not clear that it is the foreign language that causes these reactions. However, this study clearly indicates that television’s negative portrayal of ethnic minorities could impact children’s later attitudes and socialization.

Barling and Fullagar (1983) performed a factorial study examining children’s attitudes to commercials, including statements such as “I learned something new” and “The advertisement was entertaining.” This study did not show any explicit awareness on the part of the children surveyed of learning or socialization through commercials. Bradbury (2004) stated,

“A great deal of research has been done on this subject and, though varying greatly in its methodology and conclusion, would appear to suggest that it is not until the age of 12 that all children have developed a full understanding of the intention of advertising. In particular it is not until this age that all children fully understand the ‘advocatory’ nature of advertising, that is the way in which advertising communicates only positive messages about a product in order to encourage sales.”

This inability to distinguish reality from commercial advertising may further increase the risk of inappropriate socialization through television commercials. Bradbury noted that exposure to commercials at an early age may increase the risk of developing a consumerist mentality that children do not have the capacity to recognize as inappropriate.

Are there any potential benefits to children from television viewing? DeLoache and Korac (2003) examined the effectiveness of video learning in very young children.  The design of television programs for children, beginning with programs such as Sesame Street, aimed at preschool aged children, and progressing to programs designed for twelve to twenty four month old or younger children, are predicated on the idea that children can and do learn from video imitation. DeLoache and Korac noted that children do learn from these programs, although not as early as they can learn from direct interaction with other humans.

Children as young as fourteen months have been observed to show learning behaviors (perceiving and interpreting the action, forming a memory representation of the action and then retrieving the representation at some later time) from behaviors observed on television. However, this is several months later than children have been observed to perform the same learning behavior in response to interaction with people. From this the conclusion can be drawn that children can display learning and socialization behaviors from television, though not as effectively as from person to person interaction.

A review of literature regarding language socialization and television, including television commercials, learning programs and other forms of television aimed at children or viewed by children indicates that language socialization is provided by television, but at a lower quality than that provided by personal interaction with peers and adult caregivers. DeLoache and Korac indicated that television can provide learning opportunities for children, though not at as high a quality as personal interaction; children were seen to learn from television at a later age and a lower rate than from other people. Neuman demonstrated that television, particularly television that is not designed to provide socialization for children, could negatively affect listening behavior.

Additionally, some forms of children’s programming, which are rapidly paced and change content quickly, lead to inadequate language socialization as children are left unable to recognize new words outside of their original context. Coats and Feldman examined the effect of television on non-verbal socialization in children. They determined that children with high levels of television viewing had an inaccurate view of the frequency and appropriateness of non-verbal emotional expression, which could lead to a social disadvantage in a culture which values control of emotional expression. Barling and Fullagar found that children had no explicit understanding of the purpose or meaning of television advertising, where Bradbury stated that children continued to lack understanding of the purpose of television advertising as late as age twelve. Durkin and Judge determined that negative portrayal of ethnic minorities on television might affect language socialization.

Examination of literature indicates that while television viewing may have some limited positive effect on language socialization and learning behaviors, it is unlikely to be a substitute for personal interaction between peers and adult caregivers. Children were shown to have less understanding of appropriate social cues and behaviors, and did not retain as much language information due to inappropriate presentation and inadequate time to process and retain knowledge. Commercials pose a particular problem because they not only use a limited language set, but also portray and enforce an inappropriate consumerist attitude which children are unable to distinguish as not being the cultural norm.

Works Cited

Barling, Julian & Fullagar, Clive. “Children’s Attitudes to Television Advertisements: A

Factorial Perspective.” The Journal of Psychology. 113 (1983):25-30.

Bradbury, Paul. “Television Advertising to Children – To Regulate or Legislate?”

Children & Society. 14 (2004):73-75.

Coats, Eric & Feldman, Robert. “The Role of Television in the Socialization of Non-

Verbal Skills.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 17.3 (1995): 327-341.

DeLoache, Judy & Korac, Nada. “Video-based Learning by Very Young Children.”

Developmental Science. 6.3(2003):245-246.

Durkin, Kevin & Judge, Jasmine. “Effects of language and social behavior on children’s

reactions to foreign people on television.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 19 (2001):597-612.

Neuman, Susan. “Listening Behavior and Television Viewing.” Journal of Educational

Research. 74.1 (1980):15-18.

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