“With those children [Winston] thought, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror,” George Orwell wrote in 1984 of the challenges of parenting under a totalitarian regime. “Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy. Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party.”
As with the Hilter Youth or the Soviet Union’s Young Pioneers, in Orwell’s dystopia, the state inducts kids into a twisted version of the Boy or Girl Scouts, thus recruiting the family’s youngest and most impressionable members as bratty agents of outside control.
Fortunately, we don’t live under a totalitarian state. But our families are still under siege from powerful outside forces.
In today’s consumer societies, the powers-that-be continue to recognize the value of driving a wedge between kids and parents, but they needn’t be so crude and obvious about it. Instead, large corporate makers of products from junk food to video games to cosmetics can simply market their way into kids’ hearts and minds through ads, sponsorships and slanted program content on the media that other big corporations control, primarily TV and the Internet.
And that’s a big reason of why, to paraphrase Orwell, nearly all children nowadays are horrible, according to Joel Bakan’s new book Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children.
Don’t worry — be very, very scared
Bakan is not blaming corporate America for the terrible twos or the teenage hell-years. But he is saying that corporate profiteers exploit kids’ vulnerability to peer pressure and the allure of grown-up pleasures in ways that make children physically and emotionally unhealthy.
It’s not news that ads make kids nag parents to go to McDonald’s or Chucky Cheese’s, as Bakan discussed in his previous book, The Corporation, later made into a documentary of the same name. What is news is just how much effort big companies of all sorts spend to turn childhood into a profit center while making kids and parents bear all the costs.
For example, chemical companies pollute our air, water and food, which poses a particular danger to children’s developing bodies and minds, while continually refusing to take responsibility for birth defects or childhood asthma or cancer. “Don’t worry, our products are safe” they say, as do the makers of violent video games and addictive mobile devices. And government regulators won’t intervene until a product is proved beyond a doubt to pose a threat, an unrealistically high standard.
By contrast, other corporations are fearmongers, scaring parents into buying solutions to problems that don’t exist, fixes that are at best ineffective and at worst, dangerous. Perhaps the biggest offenders are drug companies, which, by corrupting researchers and physicians to medicalize normality, have created a huge new market for drugs to treat psychological conditions that didn’t even exist 30 years ago such as ADHD.
But when it comes to fearmongering, Edison Schools and other companies that profit off of getting local governments to close down supposedly “failing” public schools and then letting Edison re-open them as outsourced for-profit businesses, aren’t far behind.
The challenge for parents today, according to Bakan, is to develop the “capacity to fear accurately,” in the words of Erik Erikson. But telling the difference between what parents really need to worry about and what they should avoid fearing is harder than ever in today’s media-saturated culture. Bakan’s book, with its stories of corporations behaving badly and then putting all the responsibility to protect kids in the laps of parents, is a good place to start.
Generation Now or Never
What’s at stake is nothing less than our future, which soft-focus TV ads and pandering politicians alike remind us depends on our children. America could enter a new Dark Age where teens are lost in a world of text messaging and sexually violent online gaming, doped up on OxyContin, and pushed by standardized testing into an underfunded for-profit career academy where they learn none of the skills of critical thinking or good citizenship, but are merely trained to fill a corporate cubicle.
Or, we can protect our kids from corporate control so that they, in turn, can help liberate us.
“For democracy to thrive, or even survive, it is not only parents, but youths as well, who must take on the tasks of citizenship,” writes Bakan. He takes heart that youth movements toppled the apartheid regime in South Africa and fought for democracy in Tienanmen Square back in the day just as they recently ousted Arab autocrats from Egypt to Libya. If young people can keep corporations from co-opting their natural urge to activism in the future, Bakan is optimistic that the idealism of youth can change the world for the better.
With more Americans cynical about and turned off from politics than ever even while enduring the worst economy since the Great Depression, society is overdue for another dose of youthful idealism. The Occupy movement is a good start. If Bakan is right, Zuccotti Park is just a sign of things to come.
– Erik Curren, Occupy Parenting