Netflix is saving kids’ brains, one non-commercial break at a time

Want five or six extra days every year? Easy – choose streaming over network TV. Adults are sacrificing 130 hours, and kids 150 hours, to ads annually when they watch commercial programming. 

A young girl watching cartoons on TV

Research released by entertainment news site Exstreamist in 2016 shows that kids skip 150 hours of commercials every year by watching content on streaming services instead of regular television. On average, “children between the ages of 2 and 18 are spending an average of 1.8 hours a day using streaming services," they report. That's about 6 days worth of time per year they're getting back from services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

How did commercials reach their 6-day toll on us? The answer, as the L.A. Times reports, lies with television networks. Using numbers from ratings measurement firm Nielsen, networks are shoving more commercials into programs in order to make up for declining ratings and revenue, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). In 2015, networks aired an average of 15 minutes and 38 seconds of commercials every hour.

For comparison, “in 2009, the broadcast networks averaged 13 minutes and 25 seconds of commercial time per hour. In 2013, that figure grew to 14 minutes and 15 seconds." Cable news isn't any better, since, “in 2009, cable networks averaged 14 minutes and 27 seconds per hour," according to the L.A. Times. Networks are using more 15-second ad spots than 30-second ad spots, and some networks are even speeding up their programming in order to air more commercials, reports WSJ.

Children's programming is even worse. “Children view more than 40,000 commercials each year," according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Those commercials are loaded with ads for “sugary cereal, rot-your-teeth soda" and many other products that aren't particularly helpful, Exstreamist explains. Cognitively speaking, children don't understand the difference between commercials and television programs. The APA explains that “children below the ages of 4–5 years do not consistently distinguish program from commercial content, even when program/commercial separation devices ("GoBots will be back after these messages") are used…. [and] most children younger than 7–8 years of age do not recognize the persuasive intent of commercial appeals." So children can't easily tell the difference between fiction and reality or that the commercials are trying to sell them something. Since commercials are designed to influence consumer behavior, that's a problem.

Commercials can also demonstrate negative behavior that kids copy — again, because of their cognitive faculties, but also because they like trying new things. In a recent study of over 12,000 children's commercials, researchers at the University of Hartford discovered that about 12 percent of commercials featured disturbing or violent behaviors like threats of physical violence or accidents. Only 20 percent of commercials featured positive behaviors like sharing or helping. It's difficult to tell what direct effect those actions have, but given the impressionability of children featuring those behaviors at all seems suspect. Read the study yourself in Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Granted, advertisers self-regulate commercial content so it's developmentally appropriate, but still: there's a lot of commercials with questionable content and they're targeted toward people who don't understand that they're being targeted.

No wonder people are flocking to streaming services.

The next time your kid wants to watch a show, opt for streaming services instead of broadcast TV. You'll save their time — and your money. “A Netflix subscription ends up paying for itself hundreds of times over if it prevents a few of those expensive toy purchases," as Exstreamist points out. Win-win!

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