Monday, May 15, 2006

Rock-A-Buy, Baby

Though I played outside more often than I stared at TV, some of my earliest memories are video drenched. It was a time of B&W shows, four channels to choose from, blurry images amid static and test patterns -- faded pencil stick figures compared to today's hi-def digital onslaught, so I cannot imagine what flashes thru a contemporary child's televised mind. And now with the debut of BabyFirst TV, the fragmentation and further commodification of young American minds receives an earlier kickstart.

Not to seem cynical, which is tough to avoid most days, but is this any real shock? Toddlers have long been left in front of TVs, and some of their first discernable images, apart from (one hopes) their parents, are usually commercial symbols and the jingles that sell them. This is simply a sad reality of our apolitical culture, and it carries long term negative effects if not altered or undermined by parents and educators. Americans in large part are becoming more clueless and uninformed, and one need only look at mainstream culture to understand why and how. We are consumers, not citizens, and nothing emphasizes this more than a pay network that is specifically aimed at 6 month old babies.

The good people at BabyFirst TV insist that their product will help, not hinder, a child's creative and intellectual growth. For one thing, it's commercial-free. Of course it is. That's why you pay for the network, and frankly, that's the least worry any parent should have, given the endless bombardment of ads that hit us every second of every day. The B-Firsters would be marketing idiots to add to this noise, which is why their pitch openly states that kids are gonna watch TV sooner than later, so why have yours exposed to the visual poison of the marketplace when you can purchase a safe video pocket for the children to nestle in. It's about the only way you can convince a new parent to buy into the concept, and I suspect a large number will, if the loitering crowds of parents holding their kids at the video store are any indication. Having grown up on the tube, most young parents will doubtless see nothing wrong with their toddlers watching "good" TV, prepping their developing brains for a lifetime of corporate penetration.

Now, lest I sound holier than thou on this topic, I must confess that both my kids watched TV while still in diapers and slobbering on teething rings. To date, this hasn't affected their ability to read and discuss books, stories and fables (and now with our teen daughter, political history), but then, both kids have grown up with two writers as parents, surrounded by mountains of books, newspapers and mags. I don't know if this type of environment is common in most American homes, but it wasn't where I grew up, and judging from some of my relatives' houses, there are more screens than books, so I'm guessing that TV and computers are the main venues for what passes as educational information.

I've known several militant parents who wouldn't let their kids watch any TV whatsoever (a position the wife shares, but to a lesser ideological degree), and while I see their blunt point, the fact remains that we live in a crushing audio-visual age which, save for some ecological disaster that wipes out a large portion of humanity, is only going to get heavier. I agree that kids should be limited in their screen exposure, and when they are exposed, that their fare not be strictly consumerist crap. But to completely quarantine them from a major part of the modern world is unrealistic, and dampens their ability to understand and subvert the propaganda thrown at them. Exposure allows a strong intellectual and critical immune system to emerge. I suppose my despair about targeting babies as a TV demographic is rooted in this inescapable fact. Kids aren't allowed to be kids any longer -- they're commercial game, hunted by marketers from birth. At least we can teach them how to turn the images around, and find truth in the maze of glittering lies.