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Premature adults

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Today, we seem to be reaching out to children with adult messages and forcing them to grow up sooner than required.

MEDIA plays a big role in shaping young minds.
MEDIA plays a big role in shaping young minds.

Anupama Wagh-Koppar

I can't remember,

Skipping rocks on the pond,

My childhood's forgotten,

My childhood's lost.

India is a young nation and a rapidly developing economy. Children in India constitute 18.7 per cent of the world children population; one-third of the country's population is under the age of 15. An opportunity that marketers can keep mining for long. Even in 2020, around 50 per cent of India's population will still be aged under 35.

Getting the idiom right to communicate with the kid consumer is going to determine a lot more than just monetary gains. It entails not only developing the market and reaping its benefits over a long period of time, but also means weaving the social fabric of a nation which is an emerging force to reckon with.

Are we reaching out to the kids with adult messages and pushing them to grow up sooner than required? Are we destroying the innocent questioning mind and a sense of awe that is the essence of childhood? Are we doing too much too soon? Are we developing a generation of cynics in whom we will find a challenge to reach out to?

A close look at the winds of change in a child's life in urban India ...

Seven signs and symptoms of the environment pushing kids to grow up before time ... and gradually hanging the very definition of childhood

Gone are

the little smock dresses, pretty frocks or Little Boy Blue shorts or anything that looks childlike. You go to shop clothes for a four-year-old girl and all you find are low-waist jeans, tank tops and spaghetti strap clothes! Mostly grown up designs in small sizes ... in fact a look around the store makes you feel that teen and young adult clothing has shrunk to Size Four.

Most toys

that are popular seem to imagine for the kids than encourage imagination. Boys have play laptops and an array of strange cards that can be traded. The top of yesteryear has given way to the fancy Beyblade; while the humble top required the child to wind it well, the Beyblade is mechanical.

It is known

that children learn by emulating adult behaviour, but are we forgetting that we are propagating occasional adult behaviour as routine behaviour to young minds?

The soaps that the mom and mom-in-law watch are being watched in the presence of children. Delve deeper and we know that though the kids appear disinterested, they are taking in the adultery, con games, vindictive dialogues and all the other convoluted plots that most soaps contain.

Weren't birthday

parties about having a great time and about eating pastries and chips? The number of birthday parties that kids attend makes their social calendar busier than most happening adults that I know! Now, the birthday party is more than just having fun, it's about winning a game at the party, carrying an expensive gift, getting a cool return gift, getting dropped in a fancy car and all other status- and competition-driven activities.

Shouldn't we

be gently exposing children to the various dimensions of achievement? And let them choose their field of play? The super all-rounder kid is another message that most media propagate. Each of us has our own strengths and life is all about leveraging these strengths. To make it look as though either you can do it all or else you are not a happening child is not only dangerous but we are also risking creating unnatural expectations.

There is

little room for unstructured play which psychologists say is the best way to foster the imagination and creativity of a child. Childhood memories were made of lazy afternoons,

sherbet

ice cubes, dolls' weddings, skipping rope, playing `teacher', playing with friends in the colony or just simply being. I thought motherhood would let me relive my childhood but I find the story is rather different today. A plethora of activity classes, too many choices, too much competition even in play activities, very little baby talk, far more demanding children who have lesser time on hand to do `kid' things.

The young

minds that are exposed to media are not developed enough to process the information and the call for action that some advertisements, programmes and reality shows make. All advertising seems to talk to kids. It seems to be delivering `brand' messages either to kids directly or through kids to adults. A lot has already been said on pester power and the fact that one in every four commercials have a kid as the protagonist or are heavily kid-centric is proof enough that marketers are wooing kids like never before.

It seems too much too soon for the kids who are attracted to the entrapment of adulthood but are far from being emotionally ready to handle the responsibility that comes with it.

Sangita Dhir, a Delhi Public School teacher, says parents are equally responsible for this phenomenon as they want their children to learn too many things too soon and grow up soon. Says Dhir: "Lifestyle has changed, and with income levels rising up so have the demands and aspirations of parents and children." She points out that parents adjust their children's routines around their own rather than vice-versa, resulting in late nights and dozing off at school, going to adult hangouts and on shopping sprees."

She feels working parents compensate for lack of time by showering kids with expensive gifts. She narrates an incident where a parent told her that his son's daily expenditure is Rs 5,000. "Yet another parent shared that the child calls from a shop asks for Rs 6,000 to be sent to him to pick up something he liked." "Values systems and value of things is fast diminishing ... "

Psychologists say that when communication at the sensory level addresses toddlers as though they are kids and kids as though they are teenagers, it pushes them towards adult behaviour. Kids are likely to fill their minds with age-inappropriate thoughts such as smoking, alcohol and sex. This takes them away from sports, academics and other activities that children would otherwise be involved with. Any failure due to this diversion makes them rebellious.

A few truths about childhood and children put things in perspective. Most kids consume messages in black and white and are gullible enough to believe any message without deeper processing. Secondly, children are not futuristic; they live their life in the present. Thirdly, though children need independence, most children feel the need for clear-cut guidelines. Especially at a young age since they have not yet developed the skill to logically prioritise activities.

Almost all children learn by observing behaviour and response to behaviour.

The share of a role model in shaping a child's beliefs and attitudes is quite significant. The role models could be parents, peers, a favourite hero or anyone the child looks up to. And last but not the least, children learn and experience through all the five senses because their cognitive ability is developing. Overexposure and multiplicity of messages can lead to sensory overload, which causes confusion and learning disability.

Clearly, we are treading on impressionable ground. While there are other social changes that impact children, mass media is by far the biggest influencer of all.

The legal guidelines for advertising to kids only deal with the obvious, i.e. no violence, no denigration of a child, no abusive language and so on and so forth. There is no mention of persuasive language used with selective truth and limited facts that can do more harm than what seems obviously wrong. Let us not forget that just showing the effect and not the means could mislead children.

While the legal criminals are written about, discussed and probably brought to book, the creative criminals are rarely pulled up.

Unless we become aware sooner than later, we will find it impossible to penetrate the cynicism of the new society, a trap that we would have set for ourselves.

Some implications of this "premature adults" syndrome trap ...

Destroying sense of awe

Life is exciting because it unfolds many surprises. The sense of awe is what keeps minds fresh and open. Knowing too much too soon not only kills the joy of discovering but it almost destroys the sense of awe and our sense of finding joy in simple things.

Role ambiguity

Conflicting messages from parents and society at large can confuse kids and they may not have clarity in their role and how they should conduct themselves. At a deeper level, this can create loss of confidence and complexes in a child's psyche.

Limiting creativity and imagination

If all the thinking is going to be done for them and everything is going to be available on a platter, it is bound to slow down their questioning mind. A lion that doesn't hunt behaves like a tame dog after a while; it is about conditioning of the mind.

Growing cynicism

The accessibility and sensory overload will give rise to cynicism as our children grow up. They will always struggle to find something more meaningful in life. Successful brands build relationships with consumers; what kind of relationships can one build with cynics?

Affecting sense of self-worth

As they are bombarded with perfect all-rounder kids and materialism, it could destroy their sense of self-worth and may give rise to a generation of disillusioned individuals.

What does this mean to us as brand communication experts? Why should we be concerned? Not only because we are socially responsible but also because our task will become tougher.

Pre-mature adults could mean ...

No iconic brands

Iconic brands are created by consumers who are positive, love themselves and find an expression of their identity in a brand.

Lack of trust and credibility

It's a bit like the `tiger has come' story. When the tiger doesn't turn up a couple of times you stop believing he exists. Brands will find it that much more difficult to build credibility about their proposition.

Lack of commitment towards brands

It is different for a consumer to exercise choice but it is disturbing if the consumers become indifferent.

Brand communication that addresses compensatory behaviour rather than being inspiring ... but all of us want to create inspiring brands ... what can we do as communication experts?

There are no easy, nice-sounding answers but would help to make a beginning. We need to walk the tightrope of being a strategist at times and a counsellor at other times. While the general tendency is to follow legal guidelines, it may be a great idea to self-regulate before the legal forces catch up. The first few things we can do ...

Retain innocence in our messages

We need to resist the temptation to layer our messages with implied meaning and depiction of too many grey areas.

Be simple in delivering the message

Well simplicity never really goes out of fashion and more so when we are talking to kids.

Be truthful

While we all need to sell products, we also work towards a larger objective that of providing a better life to the consumer with our products. The day we compromise our product truth, we risk being seen through some time.

Be contextual

Kids relate to behaviour in a context. When we make claims, let us clearly set the context so as to allow the kids to decode the message clearly. While all of us make careers out of encouraging consumerism, we need to exercise caution in hurrying up our children.

While it will give short-term gains, it will in the long run make for a cynical, bored and burned out society. Probably the signs are already evident with teens and young adults taking to spiritualism way too early in life and a `been there done that' attitude.

When we launch a new brand, we are so careful and nurturing towards helping it grow. We carefully guide it to find its own space. For God's sake, these are our children we are talking about. Shouldn't we tread carefully?

(The writer is AVP & Strategic Planning Director, JWT.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 30, 2006)
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