Joel Bakan investigates the ways that marketers tap kids’ desires in Childhood Under Siege

Joel Bakan’s <em>Childhood Under Siege</em> explores how corporations fatten their bottom lines by exploiting the emotions of young people

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      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.”

      UBC law professor Joel Bakan explains how being a parent inspired him to write his new book, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children.

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

      Comments

      2 Comments

      Monica Craver

      Sep 4, 2011 at 10:57am

      Joel Bakan touches on a lot of things we should be concerned with regarding our children and their well-being. Corporate and media irresponsibility also extends to the proliferation of inherently dangerous extreme sports, in which children are becoming indoctrinated into becoming adrenaline junkies almost as soon as they can walk. Even advertising glorifies these very dangerous sports!

      Extreme free ride mountain biking camps for kids, beginning with benign "bike safety" classes for toddlers, leading to "stump jumping", among other very dangerous, body and natural habitat damaging stupid bike tricks.

      We now have the longboarders twisting the arms of our police and politicians in Metro Vancouver, hoping to have their very dangerous sport "legitimatized" on our streets. Then come the kiddie camps teaching our children even more dangerous and foolish behaviour on boards.

      The media glorifies it all, even Georgia Straight, I have noted!

      Corporations, in turn, pour money into sponsorship deals with these steadily growing extreme sports. The extreme sports mentality places an unnecessary burden on our health care system; on our natural spaces (mountain biking); and may end up destroying the future quality of life for those "abused" children and their naive parents.

      Your child's teachers in the schools are also leading our children astray when they bring extreme sports enthusiasts to "entertain" them.

      The sad thing is I have noted that quite a few gullible doctors and nurses (I kid you not) who have taken up the sport of mountain biking, in North America, have had their life, or quality of life cut short, in a split second, for a cheap thrill. Education doesn't always mean intelligence.

      Meanwhile, big business supporting/sponsoring these insane body breaking sports keep on counting the money they have made from fools. Let's not let them "kidnap" our children by turning them into adrenaline junkies. All these extreme sports need "young blood" in order to survive. Why would we wish to let them?

      If one tells a lie enough times, people will soon believe it. Big business,media and extreme sports lobbyists are betting on that! Don't gamble with our children's lives.