Joel Bakan investigates the ways that marketers tap kids’ desires in Childhood Under Siege
UBC law professor Joel Bakan is an unlikely person to play video games. As a legal scholar, author, parent, musician, and filmmaker, he doesn’t have time for marathon matches of World of Warcraft. But about three years ago, he decided to investigate this industry after asking his son, then 12 years old, what kids do online.
“He said, ‘There is this cool site called Addictinggames.com,’ ” Bakan told the Georgia Straight in a recent interview at his West Side home. “My initial thought was: addicting games? They’re unapologetic about it. They’re trying to addict you.”
He learned that the site was owned by Nickelodeon, an award-winning children’s-television network under the corporate umbrella of communications giant Viacom. One game, Whack Your Soul Mate, showed a woman punching a man and elbowing him in the head. After he dies in a heap on the floor, she defecates on him. Other games were equally violent, featuring characters thrown down stairs or butchered in a back alley. Bakan also came across a YouTube clip of a scenario from Grand Theft Auto IV with a character paying a prostitute to have sex in a car. Then he beats her with a baseball bat, hurls a bomb at her, and chases her down and pumps her body full of bullets before retrieving his money and returning to his vehicle.
This mayhem is chronicled in Bakan’s new book, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children (Penguin Group), which shows how multinationals harm kids in a multitude of ways. Special attention is devoted to corporate efforts to take over the school system, medicate young children with profitable psychotropic drugs, and shirk responsibility for environmental pollutants that cause children’s cancers, asthma, autism, and birth defects. “As I did more research for the book, I just became more angry and disturbed about it all, because I actually found out more about what was going on,” Bakan said.
He also documents how governments are unwilling to regulate corporations. The B.C. government comes under scrutiny for having “the most astonishingly neglectful child labor laws in North America, indeed in the world”. That’s because kids who are 12 years old are allowed to work in just about any job (exceptions include mining and serving liquor) at any time of the day or night, apart from school hours. Poverty-ridden Haiti and Afghanistan won’t allow kids to do this until they’re 15 years old.
The new work expands on Bakan’s 2004 book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, which accompanied a documentary film of the same name. Childhood Under Siege probes much more deeply than The Corporation into “kid marketing”, explaining how this exploits children’s natural psychological development to convert them into rapacious, brand-loyal consumers. In his interview with the Straight, Bakan noted that tweens and teens are curious about romance, sex, and violence. He mentioned that they also have an innate desire to appear older than they are. In addition, he said, kids in these age brackets enjoy mastering tasks, collecting items, and rebelling against their parents. This helps them form unique identities in the world.
“So a marketer says, ‘Let’s scientifically figure all of these things out, and then get in there and exploit the hell out of those emotions in order to get kids to want and buy things,’ ” Bakan said. “From the perspective of marketers, vulnerabilities are an invitation to exploit rather than a reason to protect. That’s what I find particularly appalling about it. There is no apology on their part.”
In his view, these marketing efforts are designed to get kids addicted to social media and video games, which separate them from their families and undermine their educational prospects. “My kids were a major inspiration partly because I had a feeling—watching them and thinking about their lives and parenting them—that there was this kind of third force that was constantly interfering between me and them.”
This manifested itself in numerous ways. Bakan said that when his children were absorbed in Facebook or playing video games, it was if they were a million miles away. When they drank water from plastic bottles, he worried that they were being exposed to a chemical called Bisphenol A. It has been linked at low doses to serious health effects in lab animals. He also found it curious that as nine-year-olds, his kids spoke like psychiatrists, commenting on friends who were either on “meds” or bipolar.
He described all of this as “very disturbing”. Fortunately, Bakan managed to find some whistle blowers in the marketing field willing to reveal exactly how children are being manipulated. And his two chapters on pharmaceutical-company tactics reveal in a chilling way why so many children are being diagnosed with mental conditions that result in them taking pills.
“As parents, we do have some power to guide, but increasingly less,” he acknowledged. “This world that I’m talking about in the book really does come in and pull your kid away from you.”
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