Children and media policy

January 14, 2007 | By | Reply More

This is one of the continuing series of reports from the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis, Tennessee.  The conference is sponsored by Free Press.

This post concerns a presentation entitled “Children and Media Policy.”  Unfortunately, I was not able to hear this entire presentation.  When I arrived, however, Susan Linn (of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood) was beginning her presentation.  Linn is a psychologist, producer, writing and puppeteer.  She is a co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.  Her commentaries can be heard on NPR’s marketplace.

Linn stated that commercialism is an assault on children and that we are now raising a generation of children controlled by media rather than controlling it. Corporations are aiming to take over childhood, and it’s not simply by throwing an endless stream of commercials at them.  “Commercials are so–20th century.”

Babies and toddlers are covered with brand licensing.  These are characters that have been sold by the creators in order to sell products.  For instance, SpongeBob makes $1.5 billion annually for its owner.  Dora, Sesame Street, Arthur and Winnie the Pooh all make huge amounts of money for their owners.  SpongeBob is now a tool to sell children things such as cereal, burgers, brownies and Pop tarts.  There is even SpongeBob fish food.

Linn advocates a child’s right to grow up without being undermined by corporate interests.

In 1980, Congress limited the power of the FTC to limit marketing to children.  At that point, it became easier to market to children and to adults.  The danger in advertising to children is that children “cannot understand persuasive intent.”

It is hard to find baby products that are not plastered with media characters.  There is one exception-you can find products devoid of marketing characters at high end shops.  In other words, the poor and working poor much more likely to have children who are walking billboards.  According to Linn, babies fall in love with these media characters.  Therefore, the media is creating cradle-to-grave brand loyalties.

Linn displayed an image from her grocery store: several rows of cereal boxes.  It is really hard to find a cereal that is not decorated with a media character.  She invited members of the audience to notice this next time they look in the cereal aisle.

Linn provided some statistics.  19% of babies less than one year old have a TV in the room.  37% of one-year olds watch television one to two hours per day.  76% of parents believe that TV can be educational for their children. Linn does not agree with this.  Hence, her organization: Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood.  Linn is unhappy that there is almost no commercial free programming for children, including PBS.  She asked, “What are our children learning about Sesame Street when they partner with McDonald’s?”

Linn also is concerned that commercialized toys undermine creative play.  It was the dawning of a new era in 1998, when Teletubbies were promoted as educational and picked up by PBS.  Ditto for Baby Einstein, which earns Disney $250 million each year.  Part of the problem, according to Linn, is that advertising bypasses cognition.  It goes right through the amygdala.  Therefore, skepticism is of limited use, whether to a child or to an adult.

Advertising is infiltrating schools too.  As many as 40 of Scholastics products are now linked to media characters.

One of the questioners asked what parents can do.  Linn answered that “educational” programming is often misleading.  Parents should write or call to the television stations to complain.  This assumes, however, that the parents know what to look for, but that ability to notice a problem often takes parent education. 

Other issues discussed by the panel included video game violence, which many public health officials have expressed concern over.  Modern video games can affect a child’s attitude toward violence.  The panel dared the members of the audience to actually sit down and watch some of these violent games.  One can find violence, racism and gender problems in a wide variety of video games, even in the “E-rated” games.

Linn discusses many of these issues in her book, Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising (2004).  Here’s an excerpt:

Today’s children are assaulted by advertising everywhere-at home, in school, on sports fields, and playgrounds, and on the street.  They spent almost 40 hours a week and gauged with the media-radio, television, movies, magazines, the Internet-most of which are commercially driven.  The average child sees almost 40,000 commercials a year on television alone.  Many, if not most, children’s television programs, including those produced by the public broadcast system (PBS), are funded through licensing, a practice that allows companies to market toys, clothing, and accessories raised on characters or logos associated with the program.

(Page 5). 

                           consuming kids.jpg

Linn mentioned that in the United Kingdom, all ads for junk food that were aimed at children are now banned.

Several websites related to the same issues were offered at the session.  These include Children Now (run by Patti Miller, a panelist whose talk I missed) and Susan Linn’s own Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.


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Category: American Culture, Communication, Consumerism, Food, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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