Toxic Legacy

The chemical environment we are bequeathing to our children looks downright alarming

Since the early 1980s, there has been a steady stream of books decrying the state of childhood in the modern world. Psychologist David Elkind kicked things off with the publication of his enormously influential The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon in 1981, followed a couple of years later by Marie Winn’s Children Without Childhood and The Disappearance of Childhood by the esteemed social critic Neil Postman. Although these authors had some significant differences in philosophy and emphasis, the titles of their books neatly sum up the fundamental points they all share: childhood ain’t what it used to be, today’s children—robbed of the sheltered, protected sphere that should be their birthright—are thrust into the adult world long before they are ready. In short, childhood is dead, killed off in large part by the mass media, particularly television, which exposes them to sex, violence, images of war and disaster—what Postman called the secrets of the adult world.

The debate became more overtly politicized during the culture wars of the 1990s, which were dominated by the outcry over profanity-laced, violent films and TV programs. Prominent among the alarmists was conservative commentator Michael Medved, who railed against everything from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Judy Blume novels in Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence (co-written with Diane Medved). Even former member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Newton Minow, who coined the phrase “vast wasteland” to describe television back in 1961, weighed in with Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment (with Craig LaMay).

I entered the fray with two books of my own—Kid Culture: Children and Adults and Popular Culture and Honey We Lost the Kids: Re-thinking Childhood in the Multimedia Age. I took issue with the above authors’ belief that childhood should be a kind of walled garden where children are sheltered from exposure to the “Unholy Trinity” of sex, violence and coarse language. I pointed out that there was a distinction between innocence and ignorance. I argued that instead of wringing our hands over the loss of traditional childhood, adults should try to better understand the rapidly changing world our kids are growing up in and direct our energies toward helping them navigate it.

With Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children, Joel Bakan joins the debate about modern childhood and expands the discussion in important ways that are long overdue. Bakan is best known as the writer and director of The Corporation, a documentary that put forth the intriguing proposition that corporations are akin to psychopaths who view everything around them as opportunities to exploit for profit, and that care only about their mission to create wealth for their owners. This is true, Bakan stresses, regardless of the good intentions or moral qualms of the individuals who work in these companies, because the institutions themselves are “programmed to put self-interest above all else … Corporations simply cannot be trusted (any more than can the human psychopaths they resemble) to regulate their behavior, and to act responsibly toward others.”

To a corporation, in other words, nothing is sacred, and that includes the health and well-being of children. In a series of brisk, compellingly argued chapters (although in language that veers into position paper-ese a little too often for my taste), Bakan lays out the various areas in which for-profit companies are directly involved in putting children at risk of harm. His first line of attack is against the vast kid marketing industry that uses “callous and devious methods to manipulate [children’s] forming and vulnerable emotions … and addle their psyches with violence, sex, and obsessive consumerism.” Bakan then takes on the ever-expanding field of childhood psychiatric disorders with its attendant growth in the use of pharmaceuticals to treat them, the role of environmental toxins such as bisphenol A and phthalates in damaging children’s health and development, the problem of child labour and the increasing role of for-profit companies in the education system in the United States.

In his early chapters Bakan echoes the familiar childhood-is-dead line of argument, particularly in his treatment of the impact on kids of social media and online gaming. He describes the content of popular games such as Whack Your Soul Mate, in which a pair of animated figures attack each other in ever bloodier, more stomach-churning ways, and Stair Fall (“Pushing someone down the stairs has never been so awesome. The more damage they take, the more points you get”). But appalling as these games look and sound to members of older generations, I am not convinced they are all that different from the falling anvils and exploding firecrackers in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Slapstick violence is one of the oldest forms of comedy. Millions of apparently normal, well-adjusted kids play these games and insist that they know the difference between a cartoon character getting “whacked” and real-life violence.

Bakan seems to have little awareness of the historical process by which each new storytelling medium, dating back to the dime novels and penny dreadfuls of the 19th century, has been accompanied by dire predictions about its impact on the young. In the 1950s, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham set off a moral panic similar to the 1990s preoccupation with TV violence and the present controversy over video games with his claim that reading comic books leads young people to violence and juvenile delinquency. It is hard to believe now that, in its early days, The Simpsons was considered a corrupting influence (mostly because Bart talked back to Homer, who himself was the antithesis of the “Father Knows Best” kind of dad). In the late 1990s, parenting experts went apoplectic when South Park first hit the airwaves. Now the show’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, have conquered Broadway with The Book of Mormon, and their brand of edgy, foul-mouthed comedy has become solidly ensconced in the mainstream. Each new medium is greeted with fear by adults, precisely because of its unfamiliarity, its strangeness and its irresistible attraction for the young. A few years pass, and we wonder what all the fuss was about.

Bakan also has a somewhat naive faith in the ability of government to regulate children’s media, and even speaks approvingly of the V-chip, a technological fix developed to give parents the power to block TV programs they consider inappropriate. In fact, the V-chip is a textbook example of the pitfalls of the regulatory approach. Ten years after the U.S. mandated its use in all TV sets, the V-chip is universally regarded as a dismal failure. Even the FCC reports that it is of “limited effectiveness” because parents simply do not use it.

The burgeoning field of kid marketing, which is increasingly becoming an all-pervasive part of the landscape of contemporary childhood, gives Bakan’s outrage a clearer target. He shines a harsh light on the manipulative, deceptive tactics that are standard practice in the industry. Using the example of popular interactive websites such as Club Penguin and Neopets, for which the initial membership is free, Bakan shows how kids’ emotional attachment to their virtual pets is exploited to keep them coming back for more and more paying activities. As one industry insider puts it, these sites “get users in the door to play for free and then monetize the hell out of them once they’re hooked.” It makes me wonder just how these people can look at themselves in the mirror. Bakan makes good on his point that it is the institution that is the problem, not the individuals working in it. He interviews a number of youth marketers who are frank about the dark side of the business and their own role in it, including Alex Bogusky, widely credited with the invention of viral marketing, who recently quit and issued a scathing denunciation of his former industry, calling it a “destructive” practice with no “redeeming value.”

The book moves on to the expansion of childhood psychiatric categories over the past couple of decades, accompanied by enormous growth in the prescribing of powerful psychotropic drugs to young children. In particular, Bakan explores the near-viral spread of pediatric bipolar disorder, fostered by a prominent Harvard psychiatrist with close ties to the pharmaceutical industry. He points to the example of a three-year-old child diagnosed as bipolar who was prescribed Prozac, the anti-psychotic Risperdal and two sleeping medications. There is nothing startlingly new in his argument that kids are being overmedicated, often for normal childhood behaviour. Where Bakan goes beyond the obvious is in his devastating analysis of how health care has become captive to the drug industry, allowing profit to prevail over science through “the blurring of the line between medical science and pharmaceutical company marketing.”

The threat to children’s health from environmental chemicals is where Bakan really hits his stride. Most left-liberal commentators on childhood, myself included, have echoed Neil Postman’s view that “childhood is not a biological necessity but a social construction.” For me, Bakan’s book is a powerful wake-up call that we have been giving short shrift to childhood as a biological reality, with characteristics that are quite different from those of fully developed adult bodies. Like parents who fret that their children might be abducted by strangers even though an abuser is much more likely to be someone familiar and close to home, we worry about the wrong things. In this case the threat to children’s health and development comes from ubiquitous chemicals such as BPA and phthalates that are found in everyday items like soft rubber toys, scented soaps, shampoos and air fresheners, kids’ backpacks, lunchboxes, plastic sandals and flip-flops. As Bakan puts it, “we instinctively cling to [traditional] ideas about childhood, believing children should be protected by society and provided the means to flourish and to develop healthfully. Yet we permit, indeed encourage, corporations to exploit and ignore children’s unique needs and vulnerabilities when it is profitable for them to do so.”

This is an area where the differences between adults and children are real and tangible. We know that children’s bodies are uniquely susceptible to hormone disrupters such as phthalates and PFCs (commonly used in carpets, where babies crawl). We also know that the levels of these chemicals determined to be safe for adults have no meaning for children’s bodies. Our current approach to environmental hazards is limited by the “inability to capture differences between adults and children; in particular, the different effects of chemical exposures on developing, as distinct from developed, biological systems.” As Bakan demonstrates, the problem is similar to pharmaceuticals, in that the chemical industry has undue influence over the science. But at least with psychiatric drugs, the intent is to relieve suffering or treat a condition. The majority of these chemical exposures serve no purpose other than profit and convenience. To take a particularly egregious example, air “fresheners,” which typically contain phthalates, are widely used in North American homes to solve non-existent problems such as normal cooking odours.

Of course, there is the all-too-familiar argument that no one is forced to use these products, and that it is up to parents to protect children. But parents are powerless in the face of such ubiquitous substances with unknown long-term consequences. As one expert quoted by Bakan puts it, “parents can’t be expected to know—they shouldn’t be expected to be chemists.” Bakan argues passionately that as a society, we should adhere to the precautionary principle, which dictates that full scientific certainty is not required before taking action against a particular substance, if a significant body of evidence points to potential harm from that substance.

In the final chapters, Bakan looks at child labour and education, and in these areas he seems to be spreading himself a bit thin. His treatment of the use of child workers on North American farms is somewhat cursory and seems to have been written mainly to counter the widespread belief that child labour is only a problem in the developing world. His examination of the increasing role of private-sector education management organizations in taking over the day-to-day operation of public schools in the U.S. is eye-opening, and one wishes that he had done more than skim the surface of a frightening trend that, thankfully, has yet to surface in Canada to any significant degree. Bakan is scathing in his criticism of the mania for standardized testing, echoing concerns that David Elkind first identified over 30 years ago. Regrettably, these days that kind of pressure is not coming only from big business, but from the likes of liberals such as U.S. president Barack Obama.

Some critics will no doubt try to dismiss Childhood Under Siege as simplistic, impractical and lacking solutions. But Joel Bakan’s powerful, well-documented polemic is just what we need to hear right now, if we are to even begin to reverse the toxic consumerist legacy we are bequeathing to future generations.