Most parents know that media companies don’t help our kids. We put up with the violence, the commercialism, the hyper sexualization and the cynicism that these companies sell because we don’t know what else we can do. We are told that it is our responsibility to protect our kids from harmful media but we are left entirely on our own to do so. Meanwhile a $15 billion dollar per year industry is working day and night to undermine our authority. It is natural to want to give up and give in; to convince ourselves it is really not that bad but it is hurting our kids and undermining the moral fabric of our society. It’s getting worse and it won’t stop until we decide to do something. The first important step to take is to acknowledge the extent of the problem; then we can start to work together to make the changes that we need to make if we are to come back to our collective senses.
The crux of the problem is that the big media companies (and there are now only four or five) produce programming that is directly contrary to the values that most of us try to instill in our kids. We want them to care about others but the main message of advertising and many television programs is me first. We want them to learn to plan for the future and make wise choices but much of the programming encourages instant gratification in the form of fattening, sugary foods and drinks, casual sex; the glorification of bling. We want them to develop imagination and a wide range of interests but most programming tells them that what counts in life is how much you own, where you live, what you drive.
We may comfort ourselves with thinking it has always been this way. We may remember as kids having a Lone Ranger lunch box a Barbie doll house and we turned out okay. But advertising to kids in the 60’s and 70’s was small potatoes. These days product promotion is built right into the development of new movies. The movie is written for the toy and the products are leveraged throughout the whole range of children’s media movies, TV, video games. Teams of child psychologists work tirelessly to uncover children’s deepest needs – needs for security, community, autonomy – and use what they find to sell them more things. They use MRI’s to find out what parts of the child’s brain lights up when she is mesmerized and they use this information to make ads more compelling. Advertisers know that the younger they reach kids the more likely kids are to absorb the brands, so children get inundated with slick messages well before they are able to distinguish fact from fiction.
This barrage of commercialism is having a significant impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of children. Gadgets are replacing creative play – among 9-12 year olds the time devoted to creative play has fallen 94% over the past 15 years. I’m talking about the kind of thing you and I did as children – being outside, making up games, exploring the woods, creeks, pastures and empty lots. Instead kids are playing out scripts developed by toy makers, screen writers or computer programmers. Creative play is critical for learning, especially when kids are young – it helps kids delve into their psyches, resolve fears and anxieties and interact with each other in ways that create bonds to people and to places. Being active and outdoors is part of it too: without regular physical play kids don’t get to blow off steam and burn off calories. Kids are being deprived of access to physical wellbeing, to their own imaginations and to a sense of belonging to a community. It is no wonder that we are seeing the types of physical and emotional problems once rare becoming commonplace – obesity, diabetes, attention deficit disorder. Studies have shown that the more media kids imbibe the higher their probability of becoming depressed and developing chronic anxiety.
The media companies have free rein because children’s advertising is no longer regulated. Every other developed country limits the extent to which advertisers can get to kids and we did too, until the early 1980’s. In the zeal for deregulation of the Reagan era the FTC was actually stripped of the right to regulate commercials directed at kids. The foxes are running the chicken coop and the farmer has been sent packing.
Nothing will change until we acknowledge the problem and work together to create solutions. Replacing commercial media with so-called educational media is not the solution – there is no evidence that educational media improves learning. The solution is providing kids regular opportunities to engage in creative play, to regulate media companies in order to minimize the types of programming and the amount of harmful advertising kids see, and to provide children with basic media literacy so that, very early, they begin to see through the veil of commercial media and think critically about the messages that are getting through.
Lots of good work is being done in this area – the Campaign for Commercial-free Childhood provides lots of suggestion for what can be done. The Mondragon Co-op Bookstore in Lewisburg will be running a documentary film series beginning in August on issues related to children. You are welcome to join in these efforts. I know as parents we have enough on our plate and its easier to think that things are not that bad. I think you will find that having company and a chance to discuss these issues together as parents can help overcome our inertia and begin to move us toward a better world for our kids.