The Sell-Out of Childhood: Should We Care?

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Since September 11, many people in this country are questioning the worth of what they do with their lives, both personally and professionally.

My own profession involves research and activism in the area of children’s media issues. And my belief is that electronic media have not only an entertainment function but an enormous positive potential to teach and inspire children. At the same time, research on children and the media strongly supports the view that our present system, anchored as it is in commercialism, has failed our children in a variety of ways.

The tragic events of September 11 led me to question whether grappling with these sometimes abstract issues is still a worthwhile pursuit.

Recently we have seen some extraordinary efforts by our commercial media to assist us in this difficult time – to keep us informed, and to help adults and children contribute in any way they can. Aside from all of the commercial-free time that was offered up in the days following September 11, several programs have been produced with the express purpose of helping children deal with the tragedy.

Overall, though, children’s media programming remains pretty much business as usual. Watch TV with a child. The frenetic animated characters are still bashing each other around, and the sit-com personalities continue to engage in the rude banter and unrelenting sexual innuendo that is supposed to pass for humor. During commercial breaks, children are exhorted to want products. The idea of selling to kids is solidly a part of the dominant ideology.

Prior to September 11, Hunter College in Manhattan hosted leading scholars and activists for two days as they brainstormed issues relating to the commercialization of childhood. The first day was fruitful, as we strengthened one another’s resolve and reinforced our shared beliefs that the way our corporate system frames childhood is deeply problematic, with the commercialization of childhood intensifying in recent decades.

The following day at a summit organized by a new coalition, Stop the Commercial Exploitation of Children (, over 20 speakers presented their views against the expansion of corporate marketing that targets youngsters. The event culminated in awards, including one to the country of Sweden for its policy of not permitting advertising on television to children under the age of 12. I was deeply inspired by the Swedish government representative’s acceptance speech. She said that even though the Swedish ban has received a lot of attention in other countries, in Sweden it is hardly controversial, because it is agreed that (as research has shown) children below that age are not discriminating consumers. This, the Swedish government concluded, was a sufficient reason to prohibit targeting them as such.

When all hell broke loose on September 11, it somehow became unthinkable to bask in the promise of our collective resolve to safeguard childhood from rampant American commercialism. I, like many other stranded travelers, had to attend to more pressing and immediate business – getting home, trying to regain personal equilibrium, and attempting to make some kind of sense out of the senseless and the cataclysmic in this brave new world of ours.

Along the way I have asked myself whether or not my issues are even important any more. Is working to protect children from creeping commercialization simply a luxury? Perhaps it’s all right that children like to watch their movies and television programs, and collect the toys that go with the mediated stories. Maybe this is really just a simple pleasure of childhood, and we should leave it alone and take comfort in the fantasies the programs provide, the amusement and escape they offer. Perhaps I am spinning my wheels and should do something totally different with my life – go hold drug- and alcohol-exposed babies, work in day care, or teach a classroom full of elementary school students every day. Work on the front lines – do something really important.

But then…as time goes on it once again becomes clear to me that the commercialization of childhood really is a symptom of something out of kilter in our society. And maybe, when we allow our children to be on the receiving end of this culture, we are actually guilty of helping to engender in them a materialism that encourages greed and self-gratification. In the light of September 11 we should realize now, more than ever, that material wealth does not necessarily correlate with self-fulfillment and happiness.

Some people think that it is dangerous, misguided, or even unpatriotic to be critical of our society at this point in time. But I believe that we should be examining ourselves as we talk about eradicating evil in others. And I believe that changing our attitudes and practices with respect to framing children as consumers is of vital importance. Incorporating this attitude shift into a broader public health campaign on behalf of children would have a beneficial long-term impact on our national value system and on our culture.

There is so much work that needs to be done for children in this country. Let’s reroute the resources expended on creating desires in children for unnecessary products into nurturing their good physical and emotional health and education, and into helping them channel their innate desire to reach out to others.

Amy Aidman is an independent researcher and advocate on issues related to children and the media, media literacy, and the social impacts of communication technologies. She is a graduate of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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