Childhood Disorders

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Related Topics
Consuming KidsReview - Consuming Kids
The Hostile Takeover of Childhood
by Susan Linn
New Press, 2004
Review by Kevin Purday
Oct 10th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 41)

This is a first-rate book -- well researched and passionately written. The author is Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Associate Director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. She is also well-known as a puppeteer and ventriloquist, skills that she puts to good use in child therapy. Also very pertinent to this book, she is co-founder of the coalition Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children.

There is a very fundamental question underpinning this book -- is there or is there not any limit to what free enterprise capitalism can do? More specifically, does or should the First Amendment allow the food industry, the clothing industry, the toy industry, the soft drinks industry, etc. to deliberately use advertising to target children, even babies, to home in on single-parent families and families where there are insecurities and feelings of guilt, to deliberately undermine parents, to train children how to nag and wear parents down so as to get their way, to pander to children's desire to appear older than they are, to encourage sexual precocity and even to encourage minors to smoke and drink alcohol. Linn has found that there is an unholy alliance of left and right which is reluctant to limit the use of the First Amendment. The left is reluctant because free speech is the touchstone of liberty. The right is reluctant because free enterprise capitalism should be unfettered. Both sides are uneasy about children being targeted but won't make a move. The author is trying to break that deadlock.

Linn has accumulated a vast amount of evidence about what the advertising industry is up to. She has even gone to one of their advertising conferences. The sad fact is that many psychologists have become mercenaries and are selling their skills to industries deliberately targeting children. They are prevaricating about what exactly they are doing e.g. pretending that Ronald McDonald is not selling anything. "He's instead about fun, trust, happiness, and other warm, fuzzy feelings." (page 28) Psychologists are using their child development knowledge to enable advertisements to home in accurately on their target audience. Not that parents are blameless either. Research shows that many parents are now propping up their babies as young as six months old in front of the television. Advertisers are, as a result, trying to make even babies brand-loyal! From the cradle to the grave is taking on a whole new meaning.

The advertising industry points out that it is merely doing its job. If parents don't like it, then they can ration their children's television viewing and vet their magazines. Ultimately, they say, parents have the right of veto in the shop or mall. In one sense, the advertisers are right. Parents can restrict television viewing. They can ensure that their children read suitable magazines -- at least in the home. Yes, they can ultimately say 'no' in the supermarket or whatever. However, most children do not live in Amish communities. Parents can not keep them hermetically sealed off from the outside world. The friends of one's children are also very influential. Besides, advertising of one sort or another has even penetrated schools with so-called 'pouring rights' and sponsorship of all kinds.

Linn goes into certain types of advertising in considerable depth. The food industry comes in for severe scrutiny and is found severely wanting. With the inexorable rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes, the fast food industry is in the firing line. However, it is successfully avoiding being penalized both by obfuscation of the real issues (as with Ronald McDonald) or by appearing to be involved in quite harmless pastimes such as collecting a set of fifty extra special Matchbox cars. "The catch was that six of these vehicles were found at only McDonald's as part of a Happy Meal." (page 22)

Violence and sex come in for some close-up scrutiny and the results are frightening. We know that continued exposure to violence desensitizes children and both in the States and in the U.K. we have real life crimes committed by children to prove it often in copycat actions based on films they have seen. And yet gratuitous and often extreme violence is often to be found in programs aimed at children. Sex too has become a commodity which advertisers try to sell to an ever younger audience especially the so-called 'tweens'.

Cigarettes and alcohol come in for the magnifying glass as well. The reviewer was shocked by Linn's statements that "people who start drinking before the age of fifteen are four times more likely to develop a dependency on alcohol than those who start drinking when they're twenty-one. Lifetime alcohol abuse and dependence is greatest for those who begin drinking between the ages of eleven and fourteen (or younger)" and the "younger children are when they begin to smoke, the more likely it is that they will be become (sic) regular smokers and the less likely that they will ever successfully quit." (pages 157-158) Readers may naively think that children are protected from alcohol and smoking advertisements but the author reckons that in 2001 "the alcohol industry reached 89 percent of teens who watch television" (page 161) while the tobacco industry is very successfully reaching youngsters "through magazines, billboards, advertising, displays -- often in little convenience stores, sports and concert promotions, direct mail, and sales of branded clothing and accessories." (page 171)

Linn's conclusion is that society must unite to protect children from predatory advertising. To do so, she suggests practical steps and in an appendix lists all sorts of organizations that people can join.

The book is well documented with excellent endnotes, bibliography and index. There are mercifully few typos so the book has been well proof-read.

This is a superb book and deserves to be read by all parents -- and teachers. Those involved in the advertising industry would also do well to read it. They might well have their conscience pricked.


© 2005 Kevin M. Purday


Kevin Purday works at The Modern English School, Cairo, Egypt, and has a Master's degree in the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health from the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.


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