Are Underoos Evil?
I'm back from the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood Summit in Brookline, Mass., and I bring you this dispatch from the epic battle for the hearts and minds of American kids.
I have to say, as someone who grew up with the commercial onslaught of the first blockbuster movies (Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., etc.), I registered the criticisms many of the speakers had about the influence of commercialism on children with a mixture of alarm and skepticism. ('Course I tend to have the same reaction to just about everything.)
On the alarming end was the push toward creating programming for infants and toddlers under age 2--exactly the age group the American Psychological Association says NOT to leave in front of the tube. In addition to the Teletubbies, there's now Sesame Beginnings--videos aimed at kids as young as six months--and BabyFirstTV, the first 24-hour network for babies, that debuted in May on DirecTV.
Another big theme at the gathering was the disappearance of unstructured play stemming from fear of letting children play outside and the allure of "screen time," whether it's video games, the Internet or plain old TV.
Add that to longstanding concerns about video games, sexualization of young girls, violent content in music, movies and TV, and I walked away surprised that every kid doesn't turn out to be an overweight, oversexed, violent, catatonic, bug-eyed zombie.
It also made me wonder, though, whether Spiderman Underoos are really that sinister. When I played Star Wars in kindergarten, did I give up valuable real estate in my developing brain? Or worse, sell a piece of my soul to George Lucas?
The difference between when I grew up and now, so I gathered, is that kids are saturated by commercialism at a level I probably wouldn't recognize. For instance, we didn't have vending machines in school. There was no Channel One, and certainly nothing like Club Libby Lu, which I accidentally wandered into the other day at Tysons Corner Center--and then slowly backed out of with a hand over my belly, as if that might block my baby's ears so she will never want to have her face made up and prance around in sequined belly shirt before the age of 13.
I definitely understand recoiling when a three-year-old starts humming the McDonald's jingle. I'm not inclined to put a television in my kid's room or give the child Grand Theft Auto as a birthday present. But it struck me that a lot of what was being referred to at the summit as commercialism is also considered part of pop culture--the source of as much creativity as some of the folks at the summit feel it kills.
At least one speaker characterized an unequivocal embrace of commercialism by younger parents as a hallmark of the "post-deregulation generation"--the generation that who grew up during the 1980s and beyond playing Super Mario Brothers, wearing Underoos, and eating tie-in cereals to their little hearts content.
I agree there are generational differences. Like a lot of people, I probably fall somewhere in between accepting commercialism and being disturbed by it. In fact, what intrigued me the most were parents at the summit who are trying to control what their kids are exposed to and dealing with day-to-day realities such as their kids feeling left out at school or their children's friends not wanting to visit their homes because they don't own PlayStation.
If you're one of these parents, I want to hear your story. Feel free to share below or, better yet, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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