Experts: Social Media, Smartphones Boost Reach of Ad Content to Youths
A glossy fashion spread in a magazine. A highly curated album of social media selfies.
Though a professional advertiser created the fashion ad, and an acquaintance collected the self-portraits, both represent content that doesn’t jibe with the sweatpants and bad hair days of reality.
The reach of ads has grown with the use of smartphones and the near-constant connectivity that comes with it. And with social media, people’s representation of themselves online, in some cases, advertise an idealized version of their lives for others to consume.
Consuming that kind of content can have consequences.
“When I work with teenagers, a lot of them are engaging in social media, and they speak to people thinking that that’s real,” said Evelyn Haro-Brister, a counselor at Nuestra Clinica del Valle Inc. in San Juan. “A lot of times, we portray on social media what we want people to think of us. We don’t really put our true selves out there. We explore, ‘what are you trying to portray, what do you want people to see when they see your page, what’s the message that you’re sending?’”
That message can be more insidious than simply wanting to connect with friends.
“A lot of times, it is a message of, ‘I want attention,’ low self-worth,” Haro-Brister said. “A lot of depression strikes from that because they tend to compare themselves a lot to other people.”
Francisco Ortiz Jr., a full-time psychology instructor at South Texas College, warns of the dangers that accompany this kind of connectivity.
“Now that everyone is ‘connected’ 24/7 through their smartphones, the pervasiveness of advertisements and their possible effects on the human brain has been tremendously increased,” Ortiz wrote in an email. “Our world has changed drastically in the last 15 years, and the corporate world’s ability to influence us has increased severely.”
Asking yourself whether social media and ad content are beneficial or harmful is key, Haro-Brister says.
“You need to be aware of your own limitations, perhaps even setting limits to yourself,” she said.
This kind of self-policing, which includes cutting screen time or setting boundaries for social media engagement, can be difficult — especially with the trends in modern culture.
“The concept of happiness in society today revolves around instant gratification and pleasure,” Ortiz wrote. “This is typical of our dopamine reward system, which motivates us to seek this fleeting pleasure, and yes, this is the same system that drives addiction.”
This idea of addiction is what determines a successful ad, Ortiz added.
“An addicted customer is a repeat customer,” he wrote. “People need to understand that what drives this system is the bottom-line, and not what is best for society. What we need to do to protect ourselves is to get informed and educated about the dangers that social media and advertisements pose on us and our children.”
Children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable to ad content.
“One thing that we should keep in mind is that the human brain does not finish developing until about 25 years of age,” Ortiz wrote. “When children and young adults continuously view images of what society deems ‘perfect’ body types, this is heavily influencing a still-developing brain.”
Some of the side effects of not measuring up to these idealized images could include depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, Ortiz and Haro-Brister agree.
“Adolescence in itself is a very difficult stage,” Haro-Brister said, “but now add to the fact that you’re constantly being bombarded with ads and messages of who you need to be so you’re no longer not only navigating through that, you have all these voices telling you what you are going be, or what you should look like, or what you should be.”
One solution, Haro-Brister added, is to open the lines of communication between parents and children.
“You need to have very intentional communication,” she said. “So one example would be if you’re watching TV together, and a commercial comes up, stop the TV and say, ‘hey, what do you think that was about?’”
Ads use a variety of approaches to appeal to potential customers, including employing sexual undertones to sell something as simple as a candy bar.
“See what your kid’s perspective is and provide education on it,” Haro-Brister continued. “Say, ‘OK, well, yeah, they’re advertising the chocolate, and yeah, they’re doing this, but what do you think about the girl in the bikini?’ See what your kid is thinking because you can’t assume what’s going through their brain.”
Haro-Brister recommends a similar approach with monitoring children’s activity on social media. If parents have a problem with a particular post, they can have a conversation with their children that can double as a learning opportunity for everyone involved.
“A lot times parents are pretty quick to judge, like, ‘why would you post that?’” Haro-Brister said. “But having that conversation, saying, ‘hey, I saw this picture of you. Tell me about what you were thinking when you posted that. How do you think people understood that? What were you trying to convey to people, and how do you think people interpret what you posted?’”
Ortiz’s solution aims at the root of the issue.
“Take the focus away from the material and focus on family and spirituality,” he wrote. “We need to stop looking at screens, and start enjoying our family, our community, and this beautiful world. We need to disconnect from the media and reconnect with each other.”