August 29th, 2011
Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children
Globe and Mail
If a group of legislators or policy-makers concerned to protect children and childhood from being targeted by corporations were looking for a briefing book, a catalogue of abuses, Joel Bakan’s Childhood Under Siege would certainly be the right choice. It would inform them about the key American fronts of an undeclared corporate anti-child war. But it would not help them analyze the war’s cause, track its history or strategize their fight.
Devoting a chapter to each, Joel Bakan takes up eight areas where corporations and their advertising departments are pushing developmentally inappropriate and unhealthy goods on kids and lobbying for anti-child policies.
He explores, first, the world of video games and online “entertainments,” offering appalling examples of calculated manipulations of children’s love of excitement and their needs for company.
Then on to corporations of various sorts purveying a “curriculum” to children. Precociously, they learn about sex from explicit sexual scenes and pornography that are available without check. Sexy clothes and gadgets can be bought by anyone; sexy chat and sexting are free. Violence and mayhem are ubiquitous. “Ninety per cent of [U.S.] children between the ages of four and six are on-screen for at least two hours a day. …Tweens and teens spend, on average, eight hours a day … consuming media.”
Big Pharma has found in children the new frontier for selling psychotropics. Doctors and psychiatrists are manipulated into prescribing to children, whose brains are still developing, all kinds of meds, including anti-psychotics. Big Pharma’s marketing techniques are similar to those of food-producing corporations that market junk food, addicting children to regimes of sugar and caffeine, contributing to zooming rates of childhood obesity and diabetes and neurological disorders.
These corporations are just as oblivious to the harm they are doing to children’s health as the environmental polluters responsible for making asthma the leading cause of child hospital admissions and school absences, as one in 10 U.S. children suffer from it. Childhood cancers are on the rise, and the main culprits are environmental toxins. Corporations make sure that toxicity standards are made from adult data, while children are vulnerable to toxins at much lower levels.
Child labour is slowly being reinstated, particularly in agriculture. Corporations are taking over the field of public education, which was supposed to have become universal with the institution of anti-child-labour laws in the early 20th century. Charter schools are subsidized with taxpayers’ money for their profit-making enterprises.
In a corporation, which is a “person” in U.S. legal terms, the bottom line rules absolutely. Making the maximum for shareholders is a corporation’s legal raison d’etre, explains Bakan, a professor of law in Vancouver. So by its very nature, a corporation will not serve the people or “the commons” that belongs to everyone. This was the theme of Bakan’s 2004 bestselling book The Corporation and of a very fine documentary that was made from it. Children Under Siege is an offshoot of a long section in that book on “the nag factor” – that is, on how corporations set children at odds with their parents, who become powerless as their children are turned into consumers.
Because it focuses on children, the current book is more limited than The Corporation was by the way Bakan thinks and the child saver he wants to play. He is given to utterly simplistic historical and causal statements: The targeting of children can be dated precisely to 1980, he announces, when neoliberalism triumphed and governments stopped regulating corporations. With that, the entire history of child abuse and neglect disappears from view. What is left is a Manichean face-off between Bad Corporations and Good Parents, who have only good intentions toward their children. Swallowed up in the bad “person” of the corporation, chief executive officers and managers are not persons and are incapable of personal responsibility. But as parents, those same people will be full of love and caring – and just as helpless in the face of their corporation’s power as any other Good Parent. All parents, he implies, are like the Bakans, who are described in embarrassingly schmaltzy terms in the acknowledgments. They would never do any harm!
In the Good Parents/Bad Corporations fantasy with which Bakan operates, the Good are rendered powerless by the Bad, and the Bad is unstoppable because it is not made up of any real people who have real choices and real responsibility toward children and toward the future children represent. And there are no other adults: no citizens, no legislators, no children’s-rights advocates. No political process. In Bakan’s world, no group of legislators or policy-makers would ever gather to read Childhood Under Siege and use it to try to protect children from the anti-child practices it investigates so well.