What’s Happening to Our Boys and Girls? Guest post from Maggie Hamilton part 1

Writer, publisher and social researcher Maggie Hamilton gives frequent talks and lectures, is a regular media commentator and keen observer of social trends. She has held a number of senior roles in publishing and at the ABC. Her many books include What Men Don’t Talk About, which examines the lives of real men and boys as opposed to the stereotypes, and What’s Happening To Our Girls? and now What’s Happening To Our Boys? which look at the 21st century challenges of our girls and boys are facing, and the solutions.

Maggie has kindly allowed us to post this talk she gave from the recent Happpiness conference. Due to its size, we’ll post in 2 parts, with part 2 coming tomorrow, Tuesday 5th July. We hope that you will find it of interest in regards to your roles as educators of children and young adults.

In a few short decades almost every part of our children’s’ lives have been transformed bringing freedoms previous generations could only dream of. Alongside these dazzling possibilities newer, subtler forces are emerging that threaten the joy, individuality, self esteem and imagination of our young. The thing is no adult has been where today’s children are treading, and life is moving at lightning speed. What a twelve-year-old girl or boy experienced when they were seven, is not what a seven-year-old is now facing. That’s why it’s hard to get a fix on the lives of our children at present.

And when we talk of the issues children currently face, we tend to focus in on teenagers, leaving younger children vulnerable. For example, advertisers are now actively targeting babies from six months. They now know a baby is able to retain brand logos from this age, and that the trademarked characters placed on babies’ clothing and in their environment, will translate into ad-on sales from two up. Carefree childhoods are being lost in the rush to turn our children into good little consumers.

So instead of fresh air, spontaneous play, and an endless curiosity about the world around them, their days are now filled with branded junk and related DVDs. Increasingly they’re experiencing life through the TV or computer screen. All this comes at the expense of their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual development. Kids need to experience the world directly for their brain pathways to grow. This narrowing of essential life experiences, makes it hard for children to value their individuality, to have a rich inner life, an active imagination, a genuine sense of self.

The targeting of our pre-schoolers is influencing the way they’re talking and behaving, and what they’re aspiring to. It’s making them anxious about their bodies, clothes, accessories. Children as young as three are now worried about having the right branded backpack, clothes and hair. This preoccupation with looks is influencing everything from their choice of friends, to what they wear and play with.

The already overwhelming levels of marketing to our kids comes at a time when mental health issues amongst teen and tweens are on the rise. Shrinking childhoods, less family and community support, and the focus on consumption above all else, is creating a new fragility amongst our young.  As a result, children are judging themselves and each other by the only criteria they know – their looks, their popularity, their possessions. These developments have proved a boon for the corporate bottom line. In the US alone kids now spend an estimated $40 billion a year, and influence a further $700 billion of adult spending, which equals the GDP of the world’s 115 poorest countries.[i]

It’s not just the addiction to possessions, which is of concern, but the degraded values and rampant self-interest the relentless marketing to our children encourages. The continual pursuit of material possessions does not serve our boys and girls. As media critic Robert McChesney points out, it ‘promotes the sort of world in which you don’t think anything matters, unless it serves your material gain. Why be honest? Why have integrity? Why care about other people?’[ii] The thousands of expertly crafted messages that bombard our kids daily, encourage them to think that happiness, friendship and security can be bought. Believing the promise, increasing numbers of boys and girls are getting lost in carefully packaged fantasy worlds created by advertisers, focusing almost solely on the next purchase and the next.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield warns that contemporary lifestyles and computers may be keeping our young in an infantile state, so that even as they progress through the tween and teen years they’re still in need of constant reassurance, instant gratification, and assume the world revolves around them. This growing immaturity amongst our young comes at a time when they have ready access to a world of information, including the worst material imaginable. This immaturity also keeps them vulnerable to multi-million dollar campaigns that continue to target them daily. Susan Greenfield also questions how adult life will be for a generation who have the same packaged childhood experiences, who think the same way, and hold the same values.

Unlike their forebears, today’s kids don’t rely on parents or teachers to find out about life. In many ways popular culture has become the new parent. It’s where kids go for information and entertainment, for comfort and social connection. And no matter where a boy or girl lives on the planet, increasingly they’re accessing the same material, forming the same opinions and values. As we contemplate these issues we begin to see why the current generation gap is possibly greater than ever. Boys and girls are acutely aware of this and find it endlessly frustrating that their parents, even young parents, are still operating from a twentieth century framework. That’s why they go to their peers, or to the media and internet for answers. While the information they get may be misleading or inaccurate, it’s accessible and immediate – something we as adults generally are not.

Now parental authority is also being eroded by market forces, leaving many parents uncertain of their role, and their kids ever more vulnerable to the sometimes overwhelming consumer influences. This trend is of growing concern to professionals in child and adolescent health, because the only value our children have to corporations is their contribution to the bottom line. As media critic professor Mark Crispin Miller puts it, ‘The official advertising worldview is that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor.’[iii]

The fragmentation of family and community has also encouraged a rise in the power of the media and new technologies. These new forces offer our children many wonderful opportunities, but they also expose our girls and boys to concepts way beyond their years, making it easy for them to lead significant other lives their parents know nothing about. What was once the domain of adults has become part of the lives of our children, encouraging underage s*x, violence and voyeurism, bullying and excessive drinking, and complex social lives.

It’s curious that while we’re so fearful of strangers, we allow our children almost unlimited access to cyberspace, where they can bully, gamble, take on other identities, view live s*x acts, and the worst kinds of violence. With some online communities now in their millions, there are literally vast worlds within worlds on the net. While we wouldn’t dream of allowing a young boy or girl to take off on their own overseas, we think nothing of allowing these freedoms on the net, where their access to material is often limited only by their imaginations.

There are now more texts sent and received in a day than there are people on the planet. Every month Google hosts 31 billion searches. With the growth in new technologies, virtual worlds have become extremely alluring. Real life activities and relationships take a poor second place. It’s not only exercise and face-to-face interaction our children miss out on, they can so easily lose themselves in these new technologies, suffering sleeplessness and the resulting physical and emotional issues.

Part 2 of Maggie Hamilton’s guest post will be published tomorrow, Tuesday 5th July. Watch video clip of Maggie Hamilton talking about her book, What’s Happening to Our Girls by clicking here.

[i] ‘Consuming Kids: The Commercialisation if Childhood’, Media Education Foundation, DVD, 2009.

[ii] Robert McChesney, ‘Merchants of Cool: What’s This Doing to Our Kids?’, transcript, Frontline, PBS Radio, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/themes/doingtokids.html

[iii] Mark Crispin Miller, ‘Merchants of Cool’, transcript, Frontline, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/interviews/crispinmiller.html

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