Thursday, March 31, 2011

No No Nintendo: Parents, Children, and the Latest Media Wonder

The much acclaimed Nintendo 3DS promises endless hours of screen-time pleasure—and a load of trouble for parents and children. It provides 3D gaming with no bothersome glasses. Reviews glowingly describe a three dimensional experience that is more real and more compelling than ever before—instead of objects appearing to come at you, the new Nintendo technology creates a more realistic sense of depth.

According to the New York Times, “Just about every child in America who likes video games is going to want a 3DS; the clamor will reach a fever pitch this weekend and will continue straight through the summer and into the holiday season.” The Times goes on to describe how the hand-held charmer is perfect for school bus rides. What it doesn’t say is that children are going to be bombarded with marketing for the device, which comes at the hefty price of $249.99 and health warnings for children under seven.

The last thing kids need is technology that makes screen time more enticing than it already is. Children already spend an alarming amount of time with screens—more than 32 hours a week for preschoolers. And we know it’s not good for them. Childhood obesity, poor school performance, attention issues, and sleep disturbances are all linked to excessive time with screens. And screen time is habituating. The more you have, the more you want.

Every nifty, new, portable, heavily-advertised screen emerging on the market increases children’s access and desire, which manifests into a childhood characterized by all screens all the time—less active play, less creative play, less face-to-face interaction, less time with nature (and so on), and more exposure to all forms of advertising, including product integration which is increasing in video games. So what’s a parent to do?

One obvious option is not to buy in—to resist being sucked into the “my child needs the latest gadget in order to be happy” rut. That’s easy to say and harder for lots of parents to do. The social pressures start young. One mom told me that written on an invitation her eight year old recently received to a pajama party was “bring your DS.” He didn’t have one. The assumption was that he, and every other invitee, did. To her credit, she didn’t rush out to buy one. And yes, he still had a good time.

If marketing to children were regulated (and I believe it should be), and kids weren’t subject to sophisticated ad campaigns convincing them that screens are essential to their happiness, it would be easier to “just say ‘no’” to the latest media fad. But, at the moment, the burden is completely and totally on parents. Most parents I talked to are troubled by excessive screen time, and the money they’re shelling out to support it, but it’s rare that they feel on top if it. They’re asking for help—and they need it.

We certainly can’t legislate how much screen time families allow their children. And, short of a consumer boycott—which is laughably beyond unlikely—we can’t stop Nintendo and other companies from manufacturing amazing electronic screens. But advocates, the public health community, educators, government officials, and anyone who cares about children can speak out about the need for limits on screen time and help parents come up with viable alternatives. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended no screen time for children under two and no more than two hours per day for older kids. More recently, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, the Centers for Disease Control and other public health organizations are also recommending limits both at home and in child care settings.

More than seventy of these groups have endorsed Screen-Free Week 2011—the national celebration where children and families escape entertainment screen media for a week and have fun exploring the rest of the world. My organization, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, is the new home of Screen-Free Week (which used to be called “TV-Turn-off”). And communities around the country are organizing screen-free activities—like picnics, game nights, dinners—on the theory that it’s easier, and more fun, to take a break from screens together rather than alone. For CCFC, celebrating Screen-Free Week is not an end in itself—it’s a springboard for changing behaviors and lifestyles.

The Nintendo 3DS is not the be-all and end-all for screen technology, which is only going to become more evolved, more enticing, more accessible, and probably more affordable. Meanwhile, screen time for children is a major public health and social problem that is only just now beginning to be recognized. And kids aren’t going to set limits themselves. Reducing screen time can’t be a national law, but it can, and should, become a national value.
Read more!

Scholastic's Suffocating Stereotypes

From Scholastic's Firefly Book Club, for pre-k and kindergarten children:

If you can't read the small type, here it is:

For girls, it's the "Perfectly Pink! Pack: Little princesses will love these five enchanting stories -- filled with everything PINK!"

For the boys, it's the "Power Pack: Keep active kids reading with five power-packed books about rockets, bulldozers, and more."

I guess if I want my daughter to be a good consumer I better tell her to put down that toy truck, stop being so active, and focus on being a little, enchanting, pink princess. And remind her that, in Scholastic's world,  it's the boys that have the power.

These suffocating stereotypes aren't, of course, unique to the kiddie marketers at Scholastic.  (Here's a fantastic word cloud breaking down the words used in  toy commercials aimed at boys and girls.)   But what's different is that Scholastic is using tax-payer funded time to peddle this junk to a captive audience of schoolchildren.  Remind me, again, why we let them do that.
Read more!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Commercialism Corner

Commercialism Corner: Your one-stop shop for quick summaries and links to all the latest news about the commercialization of childhood.

New from Skechers Entertainment - Skechers Entertainment, a division of footwear company Skechers USA, launches worldwide licensing campaign fueled by its kids show Zevo-3 (target of a CCFC FCC complaint) and upcoming direct-to-DVD animated movie Twinkle Toes (, based on Skechers girl-targeted footwear line.

Cartoon Website Targets Kids and Network Execs – Toon Googles is a new cartoon website aimed at young children that “collects data surrounding viewer demographics, time spent watching and star ratings and shares this information for free with subscribers.”

NASDPTS Cites Safety, Legal Concerns in Opposing School Bus Ads – The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services renews its opposition to school bus advertising by issuing updated position statement. Visit CCFC’s School Bus Ad Action Center here:

Online Self-regulation May Not Satisfy Obama Administration – Senator Kerry, Senator McCain and President Obama are pushing for regulation to protect online privacy, despite advertisers’ attempts to dodge legislation with self-regulation.

Parents Face Challenges in Keeping Kids from Violent Video Games – This article explains why parents struggle to protect their children from the harmful effects of violent video games.

A Glossy Take on Disney – Disney will introduce new glossy magazines for kids based on Phineas and Ferb, Cars and other properties because, according to a Disney, “kids want them and moms will pay for them.” Ads will first be limited to Disney franchises, but the magazines will feature outside advertising eventually.

Meet the Doll That Teaches Your Daughter to Pluck and Shave – The Monster High doll Clawdeen, which has been criticized in recent weeks for being a prime example of “how marketing is further eroding female self-esteem before girls even hit puberty,” is the most popular fashion doll on Toys 'R' Us shelves, according to a corporate spokesperson, and also harmful to girls, according to parents, advocates and psychologists.

Read more!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Food Industry in Europe Engaging in Familiar PR on Marketing to Kids

I just returned from a 2-day meeting in Brussels. I was asked to participate with other experts from around the world (mostly from Europe) to address the problem of cross-border marketing of unhealthy food to children. In the age of satellite TV, the Internet, and other technologies, one country's standards may be insufficient to protect children from being exposed to junk food marketing. Because the meeting was not open to the general public, I cannot share all of what was discussed (the standards are still in draft form), but I can highlight a couple of presentations made to a larger group of "stakeholders."

Read more!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

With Students Leading the Way, Toronto Says No To Video Ads in Schools

Great news! Last night, the Toronto District School Board rejected a proposal to install digital monitors in more than 70 area high schools. The monitors would have been used for news and school announcements and to showcase student projects. The catch? Thirty-percent of the air time – or two hours a day – would have been reserved for ads.

The proposal’s proponents claimed that the ads could earn the district up to $100,000 a year, but opponents of the plan passionately argued against selling their students to marketers. “It is shameful, absolutely shameful, that we are being forced to prostitute ourselves and sell access to the children in this system because we are an underfunded institution,” said trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher. “We’re here to educate our children, not to sell their souls.”

CCFC was alerted to the plan a few hours before the board meeting. We quickly notified our Toronto-area members, many of whom immediately contacted their board representative and urged them to vote against the ad plan.

But the best part of the story is that students played a big part in stopping the ads. The district’s student council opposed the plan, as did the two student representatives on school board. Student Trustee Zach Schwartz told the Toronto Sun, “I do not think it is the school board’s place to leverage students’ minds to the highest bidder. School has to be a learning environment first and foremost and should not be doing things that do not have a direct educational benefit.”

And while proponents of in-school marketing often ask “what’s the big deal?” since ads are everywhere, Student Trustee Jenny Williams reminded her fellow board members precisely why its so important to preserve schools as commercial-free zones: “Students are feeling as though they are going to be bombarded with advertising from various companies and that school will no longer be a 'safe zone' for them.”

So thank you, Toronto, for putting your students first and reminding all of us that, even in these stark economic times, advertising in schools is neither inevitable nor desirable. And for giving impassioned, articulate students like Zach and Jenny a role in shaping their own educational experience.
Read more!