The Hostile Takeover of Childhood
John W. Whitehead
June 15, 2009
“Irresponsible, manipulative, and deceitful marketing efforts push products and programs that harm children physically, emotionally, socially, mentally, morally, and even spiritually. Children today face increased exposure to sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, guns, foul language, bullying, violence, and fattening foods. And many of us are simply standing by as increased materialism and commercialism undermine our culture’s basic values.”
— Daniel S. Acuff and Robert H. Reiher, Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of Your Children (2005)
Children are in greater physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual danger now than at any other time during the life of this nation—and the threat is coming from a multi-billion dollar industry that is using the latest advances in psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to transform children into profitable consumers from cradle to grave.
It’s no surprise that the pre-teen demographic has become a major draw for marketers and big business. There are presently 52 million kids under the age of 12 in the United States. These kids spend $40 billion of their own money on everything from clothes and music to toys and electronics annually, but more importantly, they influence an additional $700 billion in parental spending.
According to Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing & Advertising, “This generation of children is marketed to as never before. Kids are being marketed to through brand licensing, through product placement, marketing in schools, through stealth marketing, through viral marketing. There’s DVDs, there’s video games, there’s the internet, there are iPods, there are cell phones. There are so many more ways of reaching children so that there is a brand in front of a child’s face every moment of every day.”
Unfortunately, the media onslaught begins early, often abetted by well-meaning parents who have bought into the trendy but unfounded “smart baby” pitches from media conglomerates selling Brainy Baby, Baby Einstein, and Baby Genius programs and products (Baby Einstein is a billion dollar industry). According to research reported in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, 40% of infants are watching screen media regularly by the age of three months. Ninety percent are viewers by the age of two. The Federal Trade Commission has concluded that children ages 2-11 see more than 25,000 advertisements a year on TV alone. This does not include product placements. They are also targeted with advertising on the Internet, cell phones, mp3 players, video games, school buses, and in school.
As author Juliet Schor writes, “At age one, she’s watching Teletubbies and eating the food of its ‘promo partners,’ Burger King and McDonald’s. Kids can recognize logos by eighteen months, and before reaching their second birthday, they’re asking for products by brand name…. Even before starting school, the likelihood of having a television in their bedroom is 25 percent, and their viewing time is just over two hours a day. Upon arrival at the schoolhouse steps, the typical first grader can evoke 200 brands. And he or she has already accumulated an unprecedented number of possessions, beginning with an average of seventy new toys a year.”
By the time children reach their teen years, the impact of years of exposure to marketing, branding and consumerist brainwashing is far-reaching. After studying children’s involvement in consumer culture, Schor concluded that “the more media a child used, both television and other forms of media, the more likely they are to score high on a depression scale and an anxiety scale.”
The statistics bear this out: in their documentary, Consuming Kids, the Media Education Foundation reports that “Forty times as many young people are now being diagnosed with bipolar disorder than thirteen years ago… Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: almost four and a half million children in this country have been diagnosed with ADHD… Doctors are writing a growing number of prescriptions for anti-depressants for children – as many as 8 million a year.”
The use of sex and its impact on young people is also troubling. As professor Henry A. Giroux writes for Truthout:
Market strategists are increasingly using sexually charged images to sell commodities, often representing the fantasies of an adult version of sexuality. For instance, Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing franchise for young people, has earned a reputation for its risqué catalogues filled with promotional ads of scantily clad kids and its over-the-top sexual advice columns for teens and preteens; one catalogue featured an ad for thongs for ten-year-olds with the words “eye candy” and “wink wink” written on them. Another clothing store sold underwear geared toward teens with “Who needs Credit Cards …?” written across the crotch. Children as young as six years old are being sold lacy underwear, push-up bras and “date night accessories” for their various doll collections. In 2006, the Tesco department store chain sold a pole dancing kit designed for young girls to unleash the sex kitten inside. Encouraging five- to ten-year-old children to model themselves after sex workers suggests the degree to which matters of ethics and propriety have been decoupled from the world of marketing and advertising, even when the target audience is young children. The representational politics at work in these marketing and advertising strategies connect children’s bodies to a reductive notion of sexuality, pleasure and commodification, while depicting children’s sexuality and bodies as nothing more than objects for voyeuristic adult consumption and crude financial profit.
How did we get to the point where our children are treated as walking commodities? First and foremost, America has lost its moral compass. Without any overarching moral standard by which to hold anyone, whether it is a government official or corporate magnate, morally accountable, power and greed are left to prevail.
Second, along with the loss of a unifying cultural value system, any true sense of spirituality has been lost. This creates a spiritual void that American culture is attempting to fill with materialism. But this is leading to a dead end for children, as indicated by the rise in depression, suicide, teen pregnancy and children born out of wedlock, child abuse and physical problems such as obesity and childhood diabetes.
Third, the bedrock of society—the family—is in serious trouble. An institution that once nurtured and protected children is now besieged from virtually every quarter. Approximately 50% of all marriages—even among professed evangelical Christians—end in divorce. And for the first time in American history, as the U.S. Census Bureau reports, married couples make up less than 50% of American households.
Fourth, technology is no friend to families or children. Technology, now essentially autonomous, destroys a vital control once exercised by parents. “A family that does not or cannot control the information environment of its children is barely a family at all,” writes professor Neil Postman in his book Technopoly (1992). That the family can no longer do this is obvious. And because so many young people are incessantly wedded to a cell phone, either talking or text messaging, means that they have become isolated from their parents. Add to this the screen viewing time, it is little wonder that many families are stressed to the hilt and children and parents are often strangers.
Finally, the increasing loss of an overarching value system and the family structure has led to the destabilization of necessary societal “mediating structures”—neighborhoods, families, churches, synagogues, schools and voluntary associations. When they function as they should, mediating structures limit the growth of the government and promote freedom and democracy. But when these structures break down, society—that is, people—look to mega-structures, such as the state, as a source of values. In America, the state-financed public schools and daycare centers have increasingly assumed the role of providing “values” for children. As history teaches, the authoritarian state gladly and aggressively assumes this role and becomes a substitute family.
What, if anything, can be done? In various countries, laws curb television advertising aimed at children. For example, in Sweden and Norway, television advertisements are not permitted on programs directed specifically to children under the age of 12. And Greece does not permit toy advertisements on television at all. Such laws as these are a good place to start. But with the overwhelming influence that American corporations wield, it is doubtful that any such protections will be passed into law in America.
We have now reached a situation that makes it necessary to initiate protective strategies on behalf of our children. Parents and children in those families that are still functional will have to work together to formulate a plan to protect themselves from the advertising vampires.
Parents are going to have to limit access to televisions and computers, put away their cell phones and spend time with their children. Eat family meals together, take walks and avoid introducing your children to the consumer world of stores and malls. This will first require that parents become educated on the issues. A good place to start is the books mentioned in this article.
Parents should set and enforce realistic limits for television watching and electronic game play. Above all, keep violent media programs and games away from young eyes.
Last, but not least, become politically active. Contact your local, state and national legislators and educators by way of phone calls, e-mails and letters and put pressure on government officials regarding measures to protect families and children. And contact local television and radio media outlets and do your best to get the message out that it’s time to stop the onslaught against our children.
In other words, it’s time to look around at what’s left of our neighborhoods, communities and families and put our children first