SIOUX CITY | ObamaCare? Forty-seven percent? Neighbors suing neighbors? Ellie Cropley could care less.

The Sacred Heart School seventh-grader is bombarded with negative campaign messages every time she flips on the TV. She wonders how the candidates -- the adults -- could get away with something that would never fly in her house.

"It's not very good," said Cropley, of North Sioux City.

Clinicians and parents are thinking the same thing.

Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University professor who studies child psychology, said the same negative ads that elicit strong emotions in adults have a similar effect on children, often to their detriment.

“The belief is kids don’t pay attention to things that are adult-oriented, therefore it can’t influence them,” he said. “But that’s not the case.”

For example, an ad by President Barack Obama’s campaign accusing Mitt Romney of wanting to fire Big Bird could be taken literally by children connecting with the images of the “Sesame Street” character, rather than efforts to reduce funding for public broadcasters.

Because campaign ads often distort facts, it’s difficult for children to process the situation. Often, the music, images and negative tones are enough for them to get the gist of the message, Gentile said.

“Most children think what they see on TV is true,” Gentile said. “It’s likely we are teaching them lessons we don’t want them to learn. Do we really want our children thinking all politicians are cheats and liars, and that they should be cynical and scared?”

Heavy viewership, heavy advertising

The influence is compounded by both the volume of television that a typical American child watches -- about 26 hours a week for kids 2-11, according to The Nielsen Co. -- and the intensity of TV and radio commercials this election cycle.

Locally, the most fervent ad blitzes have centered on the Nebraska U.S. Senate race between Bob Kerrey and Deb Fischer and the U.S. House race with incumbent Steve King and challenger Christie Vilsack.

On the presidential front, a Journal analysis earlier this month found that, in Sioux City alone, the Obama and Romney campaigns and their supporters paid $4.5 million for advertising between March 26 and Oct. 5. Statewide, 55,745 Obama/Romney campaign ads aired in September, the analysis found.

The numbers mean it’s possible children have been exposed to thousands of campaign ads since the election season started.

Sioux City resident Irene Fourkiller, who has five children between 11 and 20, said negative messages were one of the reasons she tried to limit her children’s exposure to ads when they were younger. Ads created to scare or win over voters fail to reinforce the social skills used to solve conflicts in the real world, she said.

“They’re setting a bad example on how to behave,” Fourkiller said.

A lesson for students

Sergeant Bluff-Luton social studies teacher Matt Nelson said his students, who are mostly juniors and seniors, are seeing that the ads target uneducated voters who don’t research either candidate. Nelson is encouraging his students to focus on facts and acknowledge that everyone can’t agree.

“You can have all the statistics in the world, and the other person on the other side of the table is still not going to agree with you,” Nelson said. “Things like abortion or health care, people just aren’t going to change their mind.”

Even then, Nelson said, his students do notice that personal attacks work their way into the debate discussion. For students tuning in to their first presidential campaign, those exchanges can be disheartening.

Cropley’s mother, Lesa Cropley, said her 16-year-old son was shocked when he tuned into the first Romney-Obama debate, on Oct. 3.

“He was dumbfounded that they were cutting each other off and acting unprofessional,” she said. “We taught our children to listen to what the other people have to say and not interrupt them.”

Gentile said another issue is that politicians paint things in black-and-white terms with no middle ground. In that process, they disregard anyone with a differing opinion. That becomes a bigger problem when it comes to politically branding, which involves getting children to align with a party at a younger age.

“You are branding parties and training (children) to think in a certain way,” Gentile said. “You have brand loyalty, and now you have voter loyalty.”

For now, Ellie Cropley said all those ads make her even less engaged in politics.

“I don’t really understand,” she said, “and I’m not interested in it.”


Nate Robson is the education reporter for the Journal. He writes about issues impacting local school districts and colleges.

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