26 June 2004

Childhood hijacked by Pester Power plc

By Jacqui McCarney

Norfolk County Council's Every Norfolk Child Matters scheme is very heartening - a positive 10 year strategy to stamp out abuse and boost achievement for our county's 180,000 children. Council leader Alison King is right, our children are "the future", and an EDP leader called for each child to "be nurtured, loved, treated with respect and given every chance to fulfil their potential". Much focus in Norfolk's scheme will be to help our dedicated and committed child agencies deal better with the worst problems children face.

However, we are all stakeholders in our children and their future. The wider aim of satisfying their real needs requires a sea change in our cultural and economic attitudes.

In previous generations, children's need for playing and sharing with others and nature, was met in the freedom of "play streets" and fields. This gave children a private world in which they could explore spiritual, psychological, social and physical dimensions.

Now, many are kept indoors through fears of increased traffic and other dangers. Real life is replaced by the voyeuristic and artificial worldview of television. This hijacks the private world of childhood, as increasingly commercial interests supported by advertising and the media are moulding our children's experience.

"Pester Power" is recognised by advertising companies as a powerful tool in selling to children. From fizzy drinks to extortionately priced trainers, advertisers know that whining children are their best allies. This exploitation of the relationship between parent and child leads to stress and guilt for poor parents, and sheer weariness for all when such purchases go against their better instincts. Satisfaction is short lived and children caught up in the pestering habit are often restless, discontented and unhappy.

Restricted outdoor exercise encourages childhood obesity, but parents are offered little support from advertisers or governments in tackling this problem. Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell rejected the opportunity to ban junk food advertising during children's television, although it was recommended by The Commons Health Committee. Was this in the interests of children, or was Ms Jowell bowing to pressure from advertising companies? Local parents had no difficulty in seeing the contradictory messages given to children when they complained about McDonald's handing out meal vouchers on regular visits to the children's ward of The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

As well as commercial exploitation, children are faced with an onslaught of inappropriate role models in the media. I find particularly offensive the sugary pinkness of girlie magazines aimed at a pre-teen market. These talk a great deal about "girl power", but only if you are wearing the right gear, know how to do "makeovers" and look sexy, and how to please the boy in your life. Of course, the advertising promotes all the products you need to achieve this image.

This exploits the fear and insecurity of pre-teens growing up in a competitive and scary world, and offers glamour and the possibility of celebrity as ways of feeling good about yourself. It encourages an obsessive ness with appearance and sexuality among readers who may be as young as 8 years of age.

Then, there is the tobacco industry, brazenly flying in the face of parental concerns by targeting children. As Frank Dobson, a former health secretary said, "We all know that hardly anyone takes up smoking when they are grown up. That is why the tobacco industry wants to target children." British American Tobacco stooped to a all time low when it was announced they had been testing chocolate and alcohol flavoured cigarettes, which campaigners say are aimed at enticing children to smoke.

Until we cease using children as agents in the war to sell endless products, and grooming them as avid consumers in the race for continual economic growth, schemes like "Every Norfolk Child Matters" will only go so far. Despite the plethora of material processions from TV in bedrooms to computers and video games, children in the 21st century are poorer in a real sense than their parents and certainly their grandparents were.

I look forward to the fruits of Mrs King's Vision Statement particularly in developing children's sense of belonging, responsibility for their environment, and pursuit of creative, spiritual and leisure activities. However, we are collectively responsible for nurturing children in all their humanity, and this means protecting them from the excesses of commercial exploitation and returning key influence to responsible parents and guardians. Our culture can support this richer set of values and experiences to help our children grow into rounder and more whole adults. They are the foundations of a stable 21st century One World, and we must provide for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs now.