Thursday, August 25, 2011

Commercialized Sexualization and the Choice to Opt Out

My initial thoughts about the Canadian couple refusing to make public the sex of their baby were not kind. It seemed like just another media circus fomented by parents exploiting their children for celebrity—like Jon and Kate, or the balloon boy. But two things made me change my mind. I listened to an actual interview with the couple on the CBC. And someone sent me pictures of a new French lingerie line for four year olds.

Despite important gains made by the LBGT community, 2011 is a lousy time to be trying to raise children of any gender with a healthy, nuanced sense of what it means to be male or female. The unprecedented convergence of unfettered commercialism and ubiquitous screen media means that we are inundated with what the advertising industry calls “shockvertising,” ads or products designed to get our attention by being ever so much more outrageous than their competitors. The pornification of little girlhood is just one example—but it’s particularly troubling.

Marketers claim that parents don’t have to buy these products—and that they don’t even have to look at the ads. What they don’t mention is the power of advertising to normalize both the aberrant and the abhorrent. As we gaze upon photos of Thylane Loubry Blondeau, the prepubescent sex pot and new darling of the fashion world, it seems positively quaint that we were so worked up years ago when nothing came between a teenage Brooke Shields and her Calvins. And, compared to the provocatively posed preschoolers now selling sex and lingerie, a ten-year-old nymphette seems—well, not so bad.

But actually, it’s all bad. The commercialized sexualization that normalizes turning toddlers into teenagers harms children’s health and well-being. It teaches them to play consciously at sexuality without having any cognitive understanding of the meaning and consequences of their behavior. And the sexuality they posture about has nothing to do with relationships—it has to do with sex as object, sex as power, and sex to sell. Sexualizing little girls deprives them of middle girlhood—traditionally a time of great intellectual and creative exploration for girls who have all their basic skills down, but aren’t worrying about how they look.

Which brings me back to the Canadian couple so excoriated in the media for their counter cultural decision to shield their new baby from societal mores about sex and gender. It’s not a choice I would make for an infant in my life. But when I look at what a mess we are making of how children learn about the similarities and differences between boys and girls, opting out seems suddenly more appealing.
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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let’s tell Big Food to stop acting like spoiled kids—and stop inciting real kids to nag for junk food.

The food industry is throwing a zillion-dollar tantrum to quash proposed national nutritional guidelines for food advertised to kids. Meanwhile, yet another research study came out demonstrating the harm done by advertising directly to children.

As concern about childhood obesity escalates, the barrage of kid-targeted marketing for unhealthy food is increasingly identified as a factor—not the sole cause, but an important part of the problem—which could easily be remedied. The evidence keeps building for the need to stop inundating kids with food marketing. Remember the study from Stanford showing that branding even trumps our senses, at least for preschoolers. Kids were given food wrapped in McDonald’s wrappers and the same food wrapped in plain wrappers, and most of them swore that the food in branded wrapping tasted better. Similarly, a study from Yale found that processed food tastes better to young children when its packaging is emblazoned with popular characters like Scooby Doo.

The Johns Hopkins researchers took a different tack. They looked at triggers for nagging in preschoolers, and found the more kids were exposed to commercial television—in particular beloved media characters like Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob—the more they nagged. And at the top of the list of what they nag for? Junk food.

Of course, marketers already know all about commercials and nagging. They even have a name for it: The Nag Factor. The Brits call it “pester power,” which sounds more refined, but comes down to the same thing—making parents lives miserable. Like the folks at Johns Hopkins, marketers also do research on nagging. But the industry studies are not designed to help parents cope. They’re to help companies help children nag more effectively. After all, one out of three trips to a fast food restaurant comes about through nagging.

The industry spin is that parents should be immune to nagging, and the study lists strategies for preventing and containing nagging. Curb children’s exposure to commercialism and prepare kids for what you are and aren’t going to buy when you go to the supermarket are two of the suggestions. They’re good suggestions (I particularly like the first one) but really, truly shouldn’t we give parents and kids a break and stop the endless barrage of junk food marketing? In fact, as I’ve said before, shouldn’t we stop marketing food to children altogether?

The best way to curb any kind of marketing to kids, including junk food marketing, is regulation. But the proposed Interagency Working Group guidelines are a step. That’s why the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is joining public health and advocacy organizations in urging everyone to tell the food industry to stop behaving like spoiled kids and do what’s best for real children—stop sabotaging the government’s food marketing guidelines.
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Friday, August 12, 2011

Outsourcing Summer: College Essays and the Commercialization of Childhood

A recent article in the New York Times about how high school kids are spending their summers reminded me once again that the commercialization of childhood extends way beyond Happy Meals and sexualized clothing to compromise every stage of children’s development. A commercially saturated culture has a profoundly negative influence on children’s basic assumptions, values, life choices, and experience of living.

The Times profiled companies like Everything Summer that craft summer experiences for teenagers designed to translate into stand-out personal essays for college admissions. There’s so much wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to begin. Never mind that it’s yet another example of how unequal opportunity is in this country. While there is a company that takes low income students on a trip to Italy, about which they are tasked to write an essay, most kids can’t afford to buy designer summers to boost their chances of getting into college. But there’s something else insidious at work.

One of the marketplace tenets so harmful to kids is that extrinsic value trumps intrinsic value. Children trained to consume learn to value things not for what they are, but as a means toward acquiring—popularity, friends, sex appeal, notoriety, success and so on. They learn to judge people by what they own and to diminish experience unless it comes with value added. They learn to read for pizza, not pleasure; choose shoes for status, not comfort; and to eat for who’s on the package, not for nutrition or even taste. They learn that the dreams, ideas, and projects they generate are not nearly as valuable as those manufactured for them.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that the value of what teens do in the summer these days is judged not by the quality of their experience, but for the color it lends to their college applications. But families who outsource summer to companies manufacturing essay-worthy adventure deprive kids of the authentic challenge of figuring it out themselves—of exploring an interest for the sheer joy of it, or of discovering what it’s like to work at a boring, low-paying job, or finding out a little bit more about who they are and what they might like to become.
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Friday, August 5, 2011

Blue About "The Smurfs"

My contemporaries and I should be called Generation Deregulation. Born in the early 1980's, we were the first to grow up immersed in TV programs designed to sell us stuff. G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Ninja Turtles—these were the shows that dominated our after school time and playground play. Cartoon-linked products (lunch boxes, toys, clothing, you name it) were staples. Ours was a media- and merchandise-saturated environment from the get-go. We didn’t know any other world.

It’s no accident that these same shows are being introduced today to a new generation of children and reintroduced to their nostalgic parents, including the film version of the 1980s cartoon The Smurfs that debuted last week. Most of my generation doesn’t find anything out of the ordinary about the plethora of products being marketed with the movie; I, for one, ate Smurf-berry Crunch for breakfast and told time on a Smurfs watch. But the marketing madness surrounding The Smurfs is extraordinary, and emblematic of the escalation of commercialism in children’s lives even from my own commercialized childhood.

The internet wasn’t at my fingertips as youngster, unlike today’s 6-year-old who can navigate to The Smurfs website and easily find available Smurfs paraphernalia by clicking to view the film’s “partners.” Once there, she’ll be enticed to build-a-Smurf at Build-A-Bear and “get Smurfy” with Suave Kids Body Wash. She’ll be drawn to FAO Swartz for the largest assortment of Smurfs toys, video games and backpacks, and to Kids Foot Locker where she could win a trip to “Smurf It Up in NYC.”

The Smurfs are beckoning in supermarket aisles, from Stauffer’s cookies to a revamped version of Post’s Smurf-berry Crunch. And the golden arches call to her repeatedly from toy-laden commercials, as a bizarre fast food version of green washing reminds her that when she chooses apple dippers with her Smurfs Happy Meal, she’ll be doing good for the environment.

If she actually sees The Smurfs movie, she’ll be exposed to product placement for Sony and other brands, not realizing—because she’s too young to understand—that it’s there to sell her on Sony products. Nor will she understand the intent of the commercials for Smurf vacations at Starwood Hotels & Resorts (but wow, will she want to go there!).

The twenty-somethings who grew up in the 80’s are the new generation of parents. For the sake of nostalgia, many of us will go see the new Smurfs and pick up some blue trinkets for kids. But we should think twice. Marketers are targeting children more aggressively than ever before, and we’re helping them do it. For the children in our lives, and children everywhere, we can’t continue to participate uncritically in a system that uses media to exploit kids. We need to fight for their right to a commercial-free childhood, even if that right was lost to us.
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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Real Trouble With Breast Milk Baby

The controversy brewing over a new breastfeeding doll soon to be sold in the United States reminds me of the bru-ha-ha about Teletubbies when Jerry Falwell accused Tinky Winky of being gay. People rightfully upset about homophobia came to the support of the show, misguidedly defending the goodness of Teletubbies—which was being marketed, falsely, as educational for babies.

Public discourse about Breast Milk Baby is following the same lines. Arguments over the doll are centered on culture wars—whether it is appropriate for young children to witness breastfeeding, imitate it, or even know what it is.

Fox News Pundit Bill O’Reilly worries that it will make kids grow up to soon. The American rep for Berjuan Toys, the Spanish Company making the doll, claims to have God on his side, saying "We’re being called perverts and pedophiles for promoting feeding our babies the way God intended? Churches all over the world are filled with images of Mary nursing baby Jesus. . ." Dr. Logan Levkoff, a sexologist writing for the Huffington Post, is mixed about the doll. “How are kids supposed to make sense of Breast Milk Baby,” she asks, “if the majority of their dolls are missing genitals a la Barbie and Ken?” She’s concerned that without proper education, introducing the doll will fixate children on breasts.

It’s the wrong argument.

The real trouble with Breast Milk Baby is not that it promotes breastfeeding. It’s that it undermines creative play. Like any toy that talks, sucks, walks or what have you—thanks to the wonders of modern technology—the doll robs children of opportunities to exercise their imagination, to truly interact with their toys, and to make their play personally meaningful.

Here’s where I come down: Of course we should, along with the World Health Organization, Michelle Obama, the AAP, and myriad public health organizations, support breastfeeding. Of course children should be allowed to see breast feeding if they encounter it naturally. And of course children should be allowed to pretend that their baby dolls are breast feeding. But they don’t need an expensive doll (suggested retail price: $69.99) specially designed for electronic sucking and sold with a special halter to play about nursing. The toys most useful for children, and the ones that generate the most fun, just lie there until children invest them with life or transform them into something else.

This is World Breastfeeding Week. Let’s celebrate, and speak out all year round for the benefits of breastfeeding. And let’s discourage parents from buying this ridiculous doll. It benefits the toy industry, not children.
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