Interview with Joel Bakan, Author of Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children

Joel Bakan is Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he teaches and writes about constitutional law. He is author of the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, (2004) and writer and co-creator of the documentary film, The Corporation. Last year, he published Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children (Free Press, 2011). Recently, CHW’s Monica Gagnon interviewed Bakan. An edited version follows.

CHW: Your previous book, The Corporation, focused on the behavior of corporations more generally. What inspired you to look specifically at corporate targeting of children in Childhood Under Siege?

JB: In The Corporation, I saw that the way that corporations targeted children was a really important topic, but I was only able to look at it as part of this larger project. As I was out on the road with both the book and the film, this seemed to be an issue that people were really concerned about. I’m also a father of two teenagers who were then around six or seven, so I was starting to see some of the effects of the corporate world on their lives and on my life as a parent. So that all came together and got me back into the writing chair to write this book.

CHW: In your new book, you write about the “new curriculum of childhood.” What do you mean by this?

JB: I found the term the “new curriculum of childhood” in another source, and it really hit me at the time. I had just finished reading a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which showed that children spend, on average, 8-10 hours a day engaged with commercial media. That is twice the amount of time they spend in school, and so it really seemed a propos to call this the “new curriculum of childhood.” What kids are learning from commercial media is the dominant influence in terms of their intellectual formation and their value formation. Increasingly, family influence and the influence of teachers have really subsided in relation to the influence of corporate marketers, advertisers and companies that are producing products. To me that is a quite radical shift.

CHW: You write that parents can be powerless to protect children from this harmful corporate influence. Why is this case?

JB: I think parents are the first line of defense for children, but the issues have become much larger than what parents can handle. As a society we can create conditions that are either hostile or facilitative of parents being able to do their job of protecting kids’ interests, and currently we’re creating conditions that are disempowering parents. I did an interview with a children’s environmental health expert, Dr. Bruce Lanphear, about the effect of industrial chemicals on children’s developing biological systems. I said, “How do you deal with this as a father?” and he said, “I can’t.” Parents shouldn’t be expected to be chemists. They simply don’t have the knowledge or the ability, and this is something that government regulators can and should do but are not dealing with.

Look at marketing targeted to children. When I was young, all my mother and father had to worry about was a television set in the living room and three channels. Now kids are out in the world with mobile devices, interacting with media. So how do parents control their children’s use of media in this context? How do you do it when your kids’ very social life depends on their being on Facebook, which is a marketing platform?

I look at pharmaceuticals as well. I tell the story of the tragic suicide of a girl while she was on Zoloft. The doctors and her parents thought Zoloft was a good drug. It turned out the company that produces it, Pfizer, had actually done studies that showed that when kids or teens took that antidepressant, the risk of suicide increased substantially. How is a parent supposed to protect his or her child without access to information that the company has failed to disclose, but that has crucial relevance for making decisions about their child? The problem is too big and the information too inaccessible. Parents don’t have 24 hours a day to become researchers in all of these areas. What we need to do as a society is deal with these issues in a way that makes it possible for parents to make good decisions that protect their children.

CHW: What are some of the implications of these corporate actions for public health?

JB: One of the public health issues I describe in the book is marketing. The American Psychological Association has just come out with a report that summarizes a review of a year’s literature on the effects of sexualized media on girls, and finds that there are links to low self-esteem, eating disorders and inappropriate sexual behavior. All of these things as companies are targeting younger and younger girls with more and more sexualized material. That’s a public health issue.

It’s a public health issue that many kids are becoming compulsive game players and social network participants. Currently, gaming and social network addiction are not recognized as true addictions, but I think any parent can tell you that their kids’ use of this media sometimes reaches unhealthy levels of compulsion, taking them away from interactions with family, from their school work and from sports. In the book, I look very closely at how game designers specifically rely upon behaviorists and psychological research to try to create games that are addicting.

Another issue I deal with is children’s unique vulnerability to environmental toxins. You have research showing that even very small quantities of industrial chemicals can have profound effects on developing biological systems. Industry continues to lobby for the most minimal constraints on production, distribution and emission of these chemical toxins, to the point where right now there are 90,000 industrial chemicals in the environment, and only 200 of those have been sufficiently tested for health effects. We’ve been taking this approach that chemicals are effectively innocent until proven guilty, and as a result, we’re creating an environment that is likely very toxic for children. One of the people I interviewed, an expert on children’s environmental health, Dr. Leo Trasande, said, “We are the humans in a dangerous and unnatural experiment, and it’s unconscionable.”

CHW: How have corporations responded to your criticisms?

JB: People who work in corporations really wear two hats. Yes, they make decisions that lead to actions that cause harm, but at the same time they’re human beings. They’re parents too. They live in this world too, and they’re as concerned as any other audience. I think I have, with this book, hit a nerve, because if you’re a parent there’s really nothing you care about more than your kids’ health and wellbeing. But there is a powerful feeling of disempowerment among parents today. What I suggest in the book is we have to perform our responsibilities as parents and do the best we can to protect our kids from all of this, but we also have a responsibility as citizens to try to change the conditions in which we’re parenting, to try to create a better society from the perspective of our kids.

CHW: One of the five ways corporations harm kids that you detail in your book is through pharmaceuticals. This is also one of the issues we examine at CHW. Can you give an example of how the pharmaceutical industry harms children?

JB: Over the last 30 years, pharmaceutical companies have ramped up their efforts to get kids on psychotropic drugs. In 1980, it was almost unheard of for a child to be diagnosed with a mental disorder and prescribed drugs to treat it. Now it’s as common as giving out antibiotics for strep throat. What has happened over the last 30 years? Have kids become so much more mentally ill? Is it a result of us becoming better at diagnosing mental illness? Or is there a third factor — pharmaceutical companies’ relentless marketing campaigns to doctors, to parents and children to sell the idea that certain behavioral difficulties are, in fact, psychiatric disorders that require treatment with drugs. The pharmaceutical industry has also managed, through various legal changes that took place in the early 1980s, to effectively take over medical research. The process of conducting clinical trials and publishing studies is much more driven now by corporate money than it ever was. This creates a systemic bias in favor of drug treatments that, I argue in the book, is likely leading to more kids being put on more psychotropic drugs for more disorders than is scientifically justified.

CHW: In your opinion, why is there not more governmental regulation of these issues?

JB: We’re currently going through a period where the notion of governments playing an active role in protecting public interest and promoting public good has been thoroughly undermined, and where the notion that markets and corporations should be free of any government restrictions seems to be in play. What I’m saying in this book is that as governments have pulled out of the task of trying to protect children, whether from chemical toxins or from mental toxins in the marketing context, or from undue prescriptions of psychotropic drugs, we’ve seen mounting harms to children.

CHW: Is government regulation the best solution? Are there other solutions?

JB: Government is definitely not sufficient. You can’t run childhood simply through government regulation. But, while it’s not sufficient, I do believe it’s necessary, because I don’t believe parents have the ability to protect their children from many of the harms that I outline. We need governments to step in and actually stop industry from throwing certain kinds of harms at our kids. In a democracy, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Governments are supposed to represent the people and defend the people’s interests, and somehow we’ve gone all askew on that. The main people whose interests are being protected in our current order are corporate persons. The rest of us have been told that it’s no longer the job of government to protect us.

CHW: What have you found in your research that gives you hope that corporations’ effect on children can be reversed? What can health advocates do to help?

JB: In all the areas I look at, there are real champions at all levels of government, in various non-governmental organizations and in parents’ groups. The problem, at the moment, is really a political problem. It’s that somehow the political will isn’t strong enough to address these issues in the way that they need to be addressed. There are lots of reasons for that, not the least of which that the industries involved have both feet in the door of the political process. Democracy is messy, difficult, complicated, and the only way we’re going to turn these things around is if we as citizens become active and do what we can in relation to these issues.