Can we save these kids?

From violent video games to inane TV shows awash with ads, children are inundated by a popular culture that may cause serious side effects. Many old fogeys, such as parents and psychologists, hope they can rescue the younger generation from that old devil called pop

June 5, 2004
Globe and Mail
By Hal Niedzviecki

'So, girls, is Hilary a product or a brand?" Debbie Gordon asks. The fourth-graders squirm in their seats, presented with the task of parsing the mixed messages emerging from an entertainer who shills skirts along with movies and albums.

Hilary Duff, as the kids eagerly point out, is their fave actor - a blond teenager whose Disney Channel TV show Lizzie McGuire appeals to their 10-year-old sensibilities. But the TV show is now a major motion picture and Hilary is now a grown-up singer and clothing-line spokesperson. Gordon shows the students an ad from a magazine: Stuff by Duff as promoted by Zellers. So what's it going to be? Product or brand? Person or personification of the problem?

Debbie Gordon, prim mother, ex-marketing specialist, and the steely force behind a venture called Mediacs, is at the forefront of a new movement aimed at giving kids the tools to better understand the pop culture they are inundated with. Concern is mounting that pop culture may be accountable for a wide range of social and physical problems that begin in childhood and carry through to adulthood. Next week Gordon will be debating these issues with marketing executives during a roundtable discussion at Strategy magazine's Marketing to Millennials conference in Toronto.

Mass entertainment's dominance over other forms of creative expression, the messages it sends out, and even the physiological changes it creates in the brains of kids, are all coming into question. Teens, it seems, are becoming ever more emotionally quixotic, encouraged by a never-ending series of pint-sized pop rebels -- guess who sent Avril Lavigne's new album to the top of the charts in Britain and the U.S. this week? -- to randomly blurt out their demands and never take no for an answer.

Meanwhile, a recent study that examined the brains of five video-game players of both sexes ages 8 to 13. In testimony before the U.S. Senate, Dr. John Murray reported that his study of video-game neurology demonstrates how the brain "treats entertainment violence as something real . . . [and] stores this violence as long-term memory."

Video games are the fastest growing sector of entertainment product, and most of them are violent. People like Debbie Gordon, who conducts full-day workshops for kids, parents and teachers on subjects including ads and the marketing of food, are starting to offer services many hope will begin to get children to realize the possible side effects of video-game culture.

Can the kids be deprogrammed?

There are a growing number of initiatives trying to rescue kids from pop culture and its attendant worlds of mass consumption and consumerism. Debbie Gordon's seminars are being well received in Ontario, where it is already acknowledged that some level of media literacy is beneficial for young people. Indeed, Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the world to make media literacy part of the curriculum. It is now taught in Grade 11 as part of English class.

And yet, Gordon notes, by that time children are already steeped in a world of Britney, Hilary, MSN, Neopets and so much more: "Kids become consumers at a much younger age. We need to talk about it with kids at a very, very early age."

Gordon's approach is to mix mini-lectures on how pop culture, marketing, advertising and media work with interactive activities. The students form groups and list all the places they've seen ads. Later, they are asked to write a list of jingles. A jingle train is started, with the groups each singing a jingle as the train snakes around the classroom.

Sitting in on Gordon's visit to Branksome Hall, a private girls school in Toronto, I am struck by the incredible number of jingles these theoretically more refined girls have lodged in their minds.

The girls giggle while singing the ads for Pizza Nova, Jack FM, Winners, Wal-Mart, Jenny Craig and Alarm Force, but it is more chilling than funny - their minds have clearly been invaded, filled with information they are too young to process or need. How much do they understand of Gordon's presentation, packed with words like ubiquitous and concepts like brand?

"I'm a blip on the radar," Gordon admits. "It's an ongoing discussion. I can't be a one-off -- parents have to get involved; this is a bridge between home and school. It's a shared responsibility."

Still, Gordon's approach seems to resonate. As the kids list all the movies, food packages, shows and games they have seen recently that have featured product placements, it is clear that their understanding of what Gordon is talking about is unfolding. One girl lists the products she suddenly remembers seeing in the recently released movie How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: "Coca-Cola, and Diamond necklaces from Winstons," she says. "In Freaky Friday," another girl says, "the mom had all these Sony things." Who sponsored the makeovers on Canadian Idol? Gordon asks the kids. "L'Oréal," a girl announces.

At the same time, confusion remains rampant -- on The Simpsons they are selling beer, a kid points out, not quite up to the challenge of separating satire from product placement. As well, there is no suggestion that the kids are interested in giving up on pop music, movies or video games. Gordon is, in fact, careful not to suggest that pop culture is necessarily bad. "That's not a healthy approach," she says. "It creates a chasm, rather than teaching them to think in a critical manner. It's not my job to do the thinking for them. I give them the tools, teach them how we market."

On the other side of the country, the British Columbia Gulf island of Galiano is home to the Access to Media Education Society, a non-profit group that wants to do more than just give kids theoretical tools. AMES works with youth in a far more interventionist way. Here, young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, are invited to make their own videos on a subject of their choosing.

"This speaks to the issue of kids taking the media into their own hands," says Deblekha Guin, director of AMES. "We want to even the playing field in terms of accessing the technology that allows you to have your perspective heard." Guin notes that video is aninstantly accessible medium, and with its TV and film-like appearance, "is the arena of choice, it represents really making it."

AMES takes aim at pop culture's ubiquity, its capacity to eliminate a multiplicity of voices and channel creative energy into imitation rather than creation. Guin argues traditional media-literacy education programs are not getting the message through to kids. "Media literacy is less and less effective because they are getting it in schools, and they don't respond to a didactic approach. It's way more effective when they learn for themselves."

What happens if the kids' creations amount to nothing more than bad copies of mainstream sitcoms, hip-hop videos and action films? Guin acknowledges that sometimes the outcome is exactly that. However, she is quick to point out that no matter what, every young person exits the program with a valuable lesson about how images are made and deployed.

"People leave with a heightened sense of how much editing goes on, how much conscious choice is behind every edit, and that translates into an understanding, ideally, of how they are manipulated as consumers of the media. Sixty per cent of the kids say they will never watch TV and movies the same way again, but we don't necessarily know how those seeds will manifest themselves once they have been planted. Still, having to make things themselves, decide on close-up shots, camera angles, changes them; they aren't passive viewers any more. So even if they don't buy the media-literacy component of the program, they get it organically by virtue of going through the process."

The process is also the key for Rich Marsella, who has started a unique music program in Ontario's Peel Region. Marsella teaches Grade 4 students in 25 schools across the region to build their own musical instruments. The goal, he says, is to "show kids that ugliness in music is a viable avenue."

Less concerned with their ability to play Beethoven sonatas or produce rip-roaring rock 'n' roll solos, Marsella says he wants to "try to change aesthetics in music." He notes that society has, for the most part, "embraced overproduced crap" and that "children start with that at a young age, when it doesn't have to be that way." To counter the predominance of pop music, the kids "build their own music instruments and explore sounds however they want to." In an era of karaoke and Hard Rock Academy (a Florida outfit where kids can go for a crash course in pop stardom), Marsella is essentially teaching children how to play with sound for its own sake.

This year, the Toronto District School Board also inaugurated a program aimed at teaching kids how to play. Here the focus is not music but old-style playground games whose viral transmission through generations of peers has fallen victim to the passivity of TV watching and video gaming. The children are put through a two-hour workshop called Active Playgrounds. During the workshop, the kids are introduced to the Luddite-like wonders of hopscotch, Chinese jump-rope, and four square.

Is teaching alternative approaches to play the key to pop deprogramming? Alas, even the infectious enthusiasm of Marsella, whose program culminates in a giant, 25-school "concert" of noise, including fire-engine sirens and ice-cream truck bells, cannot triumph over pop culture.

"They will make a homemade banjo," he says, "and I'll see a kid write Sum 41 on their banjo. . . . Sum 41 are the kind of band that represents everything I'm against in music, so I'm not winning the battle completely. But I'm injecting a little bit of dissonance in their diet, with the hope that if you listen to some ugly music when you're a kid, it will do you good later on."

The psychologists, too, want to deprogram children from pop. In psychologist Gordon Neufeld's book Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Matter, he argues that intensive pop culture and peer culture must be actively combatted by adults. He talks about continually re-establishing the primal relationship between parent and kid.

"To compensate for the cultural chaos of our times, we need to make a habit of collecting our children repeatedly until they are old enough to function as independent beings. If we fail, they will be collected by those who would compete with us." Neufeld's use of the term "collecting" is ominous, particularly when applied to pop culture. How many kids have already been "collected"?

The Vancouver-based Neufeld writes of an "aggressively hostile and hyper-sexualized youth culture" that is "unable to . . . transmit values that can serve future generations." New York-based psychologist Ron Taffel argues that pop culture is a major factor in children disengaging from traditional structures of school and family. Taffel calls this "the Second Family," a "world of peers and the commercial pop culture" that has "virtually overpowered parents."

University of Toronto anthropologist Marcel Danesi writes about a "Forever Young Syndrome" in which pop culture, "saturated with images of youth," eliminates the "wise elder from the social radar screen" and creates a society of perpetual adolescents -- kids who grow up physically but remain rooted in the values of self-gratification that permeate youth.

These psychologists and academics sound notes of panic but, let's face it, people have been freaking out about pop culture since its inception, from the horrors of a pelvic-thrusting Elvis to the demon lyrics of Ozzie's Black Sabbath. If the psychologists are more convincing than those who brought the issue of immoral comic books all the way to the U.S. Congress in a previous decade, it is because they are using clinical case studies to illustrate their complaints.

At the same time, the deprogramming "cures" that stem from their experience are vague. It is easy to say that parents should "collect" their kids away from pop and peer influence. But how does one go about this in an age of two working parents, hyper-consumerism and conflicting advice? (Free your kids from parental smothering; cling to your kids for as long as you can.)

Broad-based condemnations coupled with vague and often conflicting "cures" suggests just how little is actually known about the effect pop culture really has on young people. It also suggests the difficulties that emerge when attempting to isolate and counter specific negative effects possibly resulting from pop-culture exposure. Mass entertainment is, after all, only one part, albeit a large one, of a societal landscape in which everything, from religion to marriage to food to education to employment, is in flux and up for grabs. The fingered culprit is often pop culture, but perhaps that's because its visible crassness makes it an easy target. What if we have it all wrong? What if pop culture isn't necessarily the problem?

Sitting in on Debbie Gordon's workshop and seeing just how thoroughly the fourth graders have absorbed the jingles and products that are now part and parcel of pop, I wonder if the problem isn't too much, but too little. The title of law professor Lawrence Lessig's recently released book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity says it all. In our current system, it is not necessarily pop culture that is so much of a problem, but how it is deployed.

When entertainment is made solely for profit, and entertainment monopolies are allowed to rule our brain space complete with increasingly embedded product placements, opportunities for creativity and play shrink. They are replaced by the many possibilities for pseudo-interactivity in the form of reality-TV voting and video games. If the kids had opportunities to be creative instead of interactive, this would not necessarily lead to more refined forms of cultural expression -- most would, no doubt, continue to want to express themselves in the dominant forms of pop -- but it might lead to the kind of self-deprogramming that Deblekha Guin and her AMES program hope for.

There is no reason why kids shouldn't have the opportunity to both make and broadcast their own pop culture to each other. This is play in the media age, a play that may be far more essential for long-term mental health and growth than hopscotch. After all, the more options children have, including the option to make their own play/entertainment, the less they will have to deal with the frustrations and social problems created by a for-profit entertainment system that depends on passivity and conformity even as it preaches individuality and self-esteem.

School's over. The fourth graders are free to go. From their flushed faces and animated chatter, it is clear that they are still excited from their afternoon session, which finished with a viewing and discussion of ads featuring familiar celebrities, most notably a Britney Spears Pepsi-stays-young-through-the-ages mega-ad. Giggling happily, two girls are loading up their packs. "That was so cool," one says to the other. "Yeah!" her friend replies. "I want to see more ads!"

Hal Niedzviecki is the founder of Broken Pencil, the Magazine of Zine Culture and the Independent Arts. His new book, Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity, will be published by Penguin in the fall.

The product is the message

Next week, Strategy magazine will hold its seventh annual Understanding Youth: Marketing to Millennials. The Toronto conference, according to its website, helps corporations target the youth market. Debbie Gordon, of Mediacs, will take part in a round-table discussion with executives from Pepsi and Humpty Dumpty Snack Foods. A sampling of other seminars:

Jameel Spencer, chief marketing officer of Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, will detail some of the marketing tactics involved with building America's pop and cultural icon, P. Diddy.

A seminar subtitled A Look at Youth from a Psychologist's Perspective gives marketers a "new study entirely designed and conducted by psychologists [that] will reveal fresh insights for developing communications that resonate with youth."

In Xbox Success: It's Where The Kids Are At, a Microsoft executive will outline how "reaching Canada's youth has meant taking a multifaceted approach and going to where the kids are at: on-line, watching TV or out with friends."

The seminar Connecting the Dots: An Exercise in Immersion allows participants to "work with expert facilitators to remember what it was like to be young. The feedback will be shared, analyzed and compared with results from a teen focus group. This interactive presentation will . . .help you apply this knowledge strategically."