Teaching Students About Online Advertising: 12 Experts Share Advice

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September 30, 2020

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This is great info, thanks for giving me some ideas on how to start a dialogue with my teen!


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Teaching Students About Online Advertising: 12 Experts Share Advice. An expert guest blog SmartSocial.com

Social media and online advertisements can have a major impact on a child’s self-image. And younger children might not even be able to tell the difference between an advertisement and their favorite TV show or app. Teaching kids about advertising and targeted marketing is imperative for parents.

So, we asked 12 experts to share advice on how parents can talk to their children about online advertising and help them develop a healthy relationship with social media. Below are tips parents can use for younger children as well as teens who already use social media regularly.

1. Instruct students on how ads work, how to remove them, and not to click on them

Suzanne Tomlinson headshot
Suzanne Tomlinson

Suzanne Tomlinson, Digital Copywriter/Homeschool Mom

Kids can be savvier than we think. But they still need guidance when it comes to viewing online content. 

These 3 tips can help your child see ads through a critical lens:

1. Explain advertising, in general, using examples your child encounters the most, whether that's TV commercials or pop-up ads in their favorite app. Advertisers want us to buy their stuff, so they try different methods to make us want what they're selling. Advertisers track the digital places we visit online to show us things they know we're interested in.

2. Teach your child how to look for words in posts and images like “ad”, “sponsored content”, “hide”, or even a small X in a corner. Demonstrate how to properly close a pop-up or video ad by clicking or tapping close or on the X. These types of ads can be distracting, at the very least, to both kids and adults.

3. Sometimes ads can take a viewer to an unsafe website. Use an analogy like “stranger danger” to help your kids understand they don't have to click on or follow something just because it's there, even if it looks nice.

2. Explain the why behind advertising to students

Saba Lurie headshot
Saba Lurie

Saba Lurie, Founder, Take Root Therapy

Invite your kids to think critically. Lots of advertising is done in such a way that we're not supposed to notice it. However, when we develop the ability to notice it, we can then think about its intention, and be more conscious of how we relate to it. 

My 4-year-old noticed a large waving advertisement outside a store once, which gave us the opportunity to discuss its intention and why the business had put it there. We talked about how the store wanted to get our attention so that we would spend money in their store. Helping our kids notice and talk about advertising in different forms and contexts can help them develop consumer literacy and to be better able to respond to advertising rather than just react to it.

Kids who are old enough to use the computer independently may also be bombarded by advertising that may be harmful to them or their self-esteem. Helping them notice and question marketing messaging from a young age may help them have the right tools for navigating their relationship to media and advertising when they're older.

3. Teach your students about how their search history targets ads to them

Anthony "Tec Tony" Lloyd, Pathfinder Digital Marketing LLC

Anthony Lloyd headshot
Anthony Lloyd

The main thing to remember about marketing is it's based on your previous search history and your online habits. When you click to watch your favorite YouTuber or a trailer to a video game, Google will likely serve you an ad before that video. Google takes your last two weeks’ prior search history and, based on that, will display an ad as relevant as possible to you. Or if you were shopping for something recently or looking at a particular article, if that company has retargeting ads implemented in their advertising strategy, you will more than likely see that item or article again in a video format. 

How you interact with those ads is if you click on them or engage with them in any way more than just a skip button. You will then be retargeted by that ad and other companies will use your data to include you in lookalike audiences ads. That is how you can get some very interesting and unusual ads. The best advice is to not engage with the ad unless you have an interest in it and then if you do engage with the ad, be prepared for a lot of annoying retargeting.

4. Teach your student needs vs. want and how ads make us spontaneously purchase

Hayley Powell headshot
Hayley Powell

Hayley Powell, SEO Consultant, CandidSky

Children have specific platforms dedicated to their demographic - Google Kids, YouTube Kids, and TikTok to name a few. This provides advertisers with the opportunity to advertise directly to this demographic. Even online gaming platforms have found new ways to advertise to children, in the form of 'new skins' and upgrades for their games.

Children cannot always distinguish between fantasy and real-life situations, so their response to advertisements is so different from that of adults. It's important to set boundaries as a parent and educate your children on how to spot them.

Consider the 'rhetorical question' approach of do I need to pay for this?

This is a technique to introduce the concept that advertisements are there for one purpose, which is to make money. This technique ONLY works if you then begin to develop your child's value of money.

Create a star chart as a reward-based incentive in the form of a star chart. A certain number of stars equals the product they want to buy online. This way, when they see advertisements, they will know that completing tasks will result in the reward. This helps to create a healthier relationship between children and online advertisements. 

Read more on our blog, Virtual Allowance for Kids: How to Encourage Healthy Habits

5. Educate with books and other stories that teach about advertising

Melanie Musson headshot
Melanie Musson

Melanie Musson, Wellness Writer, QuickQuote.com

The book, The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Commercials, has been a helpful resource for talking about ads with my children. I can talk to my kids about ads all day and my words just bounce off them, but when I read them this book, suddenly they understand what I’ve been telling them. I don’t even have to explain that the “archaic” TV commercials are the equivalent of online advertising. They understood that association on their own.

When they start asking for something and I know the only reason is that they have just recently watched an ad for it, I use the references in the book to talk about it. We talk about waiting, saving, and getting things we’ve worked for for a long time rather than going out and buying the latest gadget because we saw a cool commercial.

6. Make a list together of what they really want to spend their money on

Elizabeth Forry headshot
Elizabeth Forry

Elizabeth Forry, M.S., Educational and Parenting Writer/Guru Website, Master of Mixed Maternal Arts

My top strategy is to avoid advertising as much as possible. Of course, we can’t always avoid them and sure enough sooner or later an ad is going to pop up on their device or computer and your child will come to you begging to go somewhere or get something they saw.

I suggest to parents to be very honest and open about what an advertisement is and does. “I know that toy looks really amazing. It’s the commercial’s job, to make you want to buy it, but it is not something we’re going to get right now. Maybe we can add it to your Birthday List,” (or whatever holiday is closest). 

Encourage your child to make a list of things they see, categorize their priority, and why they want it. This will help them understand the difference between needs, wants, and to understand their motivations. If they really want something, they can make a plan to save for it and buy it. 

7. Teach your students early about how ads pop up and how to manage them

Sarah Johnson, Health Ambassador, Family Assets

Advertisements have a massive impact on children. Marketers target children by adding their favorite characters in the ads or things that attract their attraction. In this way, the particular brand will not only be loved by the children, but they would love to try out the products of this brand. Many of the ads are not related to kids, but they get the children's attention when they are playing a video game or watching YouTube videos online.

Parents should keep an eye on their child’s online activity, but know that you can't always block the ads. In such cases, talking or teaching your kid what to see or what to avoid or how they can manage these advertisements is essential.

First of all, you should be aware of your children's skills and talk to them openly about things so they won't hesitate if they need to discuss something. Teach them to block or skip the ads, as it's essential to pay attention to whatever we are doing.

Ads about food or certain brands probably won’t affect the child's mental health, but advertisements based on sexual content can greatly impact a child's mental health.

Too many advertisements will take your children into a fantasy world, so it's your duty to talk about the basic facts of life and teach them what they should avoid from an early age.

8. Help discern fact from fiction

Megan Hanna headshot
Megan Hanna

Megan Hanna, FitSmallBusiness.com

A skill every child should learn from a young age is how to discern fact from fiction, truth from falsehood, reality from fantasy. In a lot of ways, technology has blurred the lines for many of these things. From Instagram filters to 'reality' television to CGI, it can be hard -- even for adults -- to discern fact from fiction. However, it’s easier if we learn how to keep our 'truth filters' constantly engaged, and teach our kids to do the same.

What’s difficult about the world of technology we’re living in today is things are not always as they seem, making it hard sometimes to separate fact from fiction. When you put on your truth filter, you’re looking at the world through a critical lens. In essence, you’re putting yourself in a state of constant critical thinking. Learning how to think critically, and integrating it in our day-to-day lives, is something even a young child can learn.

Teaching our kids how to flex their critical thinking muscles starts with showing them how we flex ours. One way we can do this is by asking questions in front of our children about the advertisements we’re seeing online, hearing on the radio, or watching on television. We might say something like: 'I wonder where they got that info?' or 'Hmm, that’s different than what I’ve heard in the past -- we should do some research on this.' For older kids, we can also ask them what they think about what they’re seeing, hearing, or reading. In so doing, we’ll show them that their thoughts matter.

If our kids want to buy something they’ve learned about from an online ad, we can also help them think through the buying process. This includes talking through the difference between wants vs. needs, asking them how they would use the thing they want to buy, and considering how it fits within their budgets. Again, they’ll learn this naturally if they see parents doing the same.

One fun way to integrate this into our day-to-day lives is by turning it into a family dinner game. Each family member chooses an advertisement or headline to research and share with the family. After everyone has voted on whether it’s truth or fiction, the person who brought the idea shares what they found from their research. It’s always a lot of fun when bizarre or outlandish headlines turn out to be true, and vice versa!  

In summary, the best way to help our kids develop a healthy relationship with online advertisements and media, is to teach them how to detect fact from fiction and reality from fantasy. We can do this by asking critical questions about what we’re seeing, hearing, and reading in front of our kids, and encouraging them to do the same.

9. Talk about social media influencers

Josh Ochs headshot
Josh Ochs

Josh Ochs, Smart Social

An often overlooked part of advertising -- and one your kids are likely to encounter daily -- is social media influencers. An influencer is someone who has the ability to influence others to purchase products or services by promoting or recommending the items on social media.

Many accounts on Instagram and other social platforms are dedicated entirely to earning income from their posts. So it’s important for kids to learn about this advertising tactic because it’s less obvious than a TV commercial or banner ad.

Consider finding some influencers and reviewing their posts with your kids. Ask them to point out anything that may be a subtle advertisement. Teach your kids to look for hashtags that indicate the post is sponsored (#spon, #sponsored, #ad) but remind them that influencers don’t always disclose their advertisements.

10. Start by teaching the concept of advertising, then go online

Jim Wasserman headshot
Jim Wasserman

Jim Wasserman, Author and Former Educator

First, ask elementary kids to draw shopping. No other prompts. Afterward, have a detailed discussion where they first present and explain, and then parents ask questions. Many insights can be gained from this as to children's attitudes towards advertising.

Next, explain the difference between information and persuasion (it's easier to ask how people are nudged to do a certain thing, like when your parents say ‘Have you done your homework?’ or ‘Your room is a mess!’

Ask them why people do it, and then if people do it when they try to sell things. One way to show this is to ask a child's favorite color, and then look for it in ads, even asking what does green make them think of? Blue? Red? Look for patterns with your child (red is not in health ads, green implies environments). This gets kids familiar with ad nudging in general.  

Now kids can look at ads online and see that they do the same thing. Bright colors, music, etc. that they saw in print ads. Have kids think of something they would want someone to do and have them draw an ad. Ask your kids where they would place their ads? They'll probably say don't give it to them, but leave it where the person you want to convince will be (favorite chair) BOOM, the kid now understands online market placement.

Kids love to thwart the “bad guys” which give parents the opportunity to turn this exercise into a game. Have your child point out any marketing “traps” they see and talk through how they can avoid falling into them. Some ads are trickier than others, keep an eye out for contests and "freemiums" in games.

11. Help them go from being a passive consumer to an active consumer

Jennifer Lipsitt-McLean headshot
Jennifer Lipsitt-McLean

Jennifer Lipsitt-McLean, Mom Bible

Younger children often find commercials more entertaining than the shows they are watching and have a difficult time distinguishing exactly what advertising is. Therefore, they have a natural tendency to become passive consumers, hence why it’s important to make children aware of advertising so that they can become active consumers.

One of the fundamental tasks, to begin with, is to help kids recognize advertising in all its forms. Therefore it’s helpful to play “spot the ad” and make them aware of banners, placements, product placement, and more subtle forms such as branding.

It’s also important to make children aware of the purpose and mechanisms of advertisements at an early age. For instance, make them aware of the fundamental purpose of advertising – to become a consumer, and explain to them what strategies advertisers use to encourage them to buy their products. Demonstrate how they use exaggerated claims; create feelings of urgency and the idea of scarcity, as well as using public figures and cartoon characters to make them seem more appealing.

Make children aware of how marketers target their demographic by building brand loyalty and how they often target insecurities of pre-teens with products that promote attractiveness or “being cool”.

With this awareness, they will develop the ability to critically evaluate the advertising they come into contact with and instead of simply being a passive consumer, a well-informed and active one.

12. Make it a game

Nate-Masterson headshot

Nate Masterson, Maple Holistics

You can play games with your children to teach them all about how advertising is designed to lure them in. If they are too young to understand, you can also limit the advertisements they see by using a DVR or an online streaming service. If you want to make it a game for your child, sit with them as they watch a show. For every product or logo that either of you notices, you get a point.

This will force them to look for what they may not consciously notice. You can discuss how each of the products that were shown was just put there to make them want to buy the product. You can ask them how they felt before and after watching an ad to point out how the ad makes them want something they weren’t even thinking about.

You can have them rate commercials by how effective they were. If the commercial made them really want a burger, they would give it a 10, but if it had no effect on them, they would give it a 1.

If you really want to show them how powerful advertising can be, go find a toy of theirs that they have lost interest in. Sell it to them. Talk about what makes it stand out from all of their other toys. When you’re done ask them if you can give it away. They will quickly realize how their opinion and views can be so easily changed. It may even upset them to be so easily fooled.

This won’t work on your teenager but it should work on a seven or eight-year-old. Lastly, tell them what they see is not always what they get. Food on TV may not even be real food. Glue may be used in place of milk and Vaseline is usually used to make burgers look juicier. When it comes to advertising, what you see is never what you get.


The best ways to help kids develop a healthy relationship with online advertisements and the media, is to help them discern fact from fiction, turn it into a game, and teach them about social media influencers. It’s important to have an open dialog and review ads together as a family.

What are your best tips for helping students foster a healthy relationship with online advertising? Let us know in the comments below!

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