If you’re at all like me, one of your favorite aspects of going on vacation is getting back to work and confronting a huge pile of material that has accumulated in your absence. It’s been an absolute joy to work my way through a backlog of notes, e-mails and lab reports today. However, as sincerely thrilled as I am to be slogging my way through all of this, it has left little time for blog post composition.
It is for this reason that I am thankful for the New York Times, which has seen fit to publish such a craptacular Op-Ed that even a heavily-sedated chimp could see its myriad flaws. As soon as I glanced the headline The Kids Are Not All Right screaming from the “Most E-mailed” sidebar, I knew I was in for a treat. Thanks, NY Times, for this gentle, low-effort re-entry into blogging!
Let’s begin, shall we?
WHEN I sit with my two teenagers, and they are a million miles away, absorbed by the titillating roil of online social life, the addictive pull of video games and virtual worlds, as they stare endlessly at video clips and digital pictures of themselves and their friends, it feels like something is wrong.
No doubt my parents felt similarly about the things I did as a kid, as did my grandparents about my parents’ childhood activities. But the issues confronting parents today can’t be dismissed as mere generational prejudices. There is reason to believe that childhood itself is now in crisis.
Childhood itself, you say? Whatever do you mean? That people will now be birthed as fully-formed adults? That are children are transforming into Morlock-like creatures of the night? One thing’s for sure — that must be one compelling reason, to warrant such an otherwise hysterical-seeming overstatement. I must admit to being somewhat surprised that childhood itself is threatened, what with the dozens of generally healthy, thriving children I see every day. I must be missing something.
Throughout history, societies have struggled with how to deal with children and childhood. In the United States and elsewhere, a broad-based “child saving” movement emerged in the late 19th century to combat widespread child abuse in mines, mills and factories. By the early 20th century, the “century of the child,” as a prescient book published in 1909 called it, was in full throttle. Most modern states embraced the general idea that government had a duty to protect the health, education and welfare of children. Child labor was outlawed, as were the sale and marketing of tobacco, alcohol and pornography to children. Consumer protection laws were enacted to regulate product safety and advertising aimed at children.
I think anyone with two functional neurons to rub together would agree that children today are much, much more well looked-after than they were even a hundred years ago. Kids aren’t forced to labor in factories. They don’t die of diptheria or suffer from scurvy. The combination of food stamps, Head Start and Medicaid, while certainly no cure-all, has helped ensure that generally-speaking even our poorest children get medical attention, nourishment and education to a degree that far surpasses what the vast majority of children enjoyed through most of human history. If
“childhood” could survive Dickensian London, it can probably weather our current society’s ills. Or can it?
But the 20th century also witnessed another momentous shift, one that would ultimately threaten the welfare of children: the rise of the for-profit corporation. Lawyers, policy makers and business lobbied successfully for various rights and entitlements traditionally connected, legally, with personhood. New laws recognized corporations as legal — albeit artificial — “persons,” granting them many of the same legal rights and privileges as human beings. In an eerie parallel with the child-protective efforts, “the best interests of the corporation” was soon introduced as a legal precept.
Aaaand, here we go. “The for-profit corporation” is coming for your kids, everyone.
A clash between these two newly created legal entities — children and corporations — was, perhaps, inevitable. Century-of-the-child reformers sought to resolve conflicts in favor of children. But over the last 30 years there has been a dramatic reversal: corporate interests now prevail. Deregulation, privatization, weak enforcement of existing regulations and legal and political resistance to new regulations have eroded our ability, as a society, to protect children.
What is this “clash”? Whose abilities comprise this eroded “our”? What protections are so vital, without which corporations will prey upon children willy-nilly?
Childhood obesity mounts as junk food purveyors bombard children with advertising, even at school. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study reports that children spend more hours engaging with various electronic media — TV, games, videos and other online entertainments — than they spend in school. Much of what children watch involves violent, sexual imagery, and yet children’s media remain largely unregulated. Attempts to curb excesses — like California’s ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors — have been struck down by courts as free speech violations.
It seems to me that if “our” ability to protect children refers to parents, then I don’t see how those abilities are eroded by corporations. Unless PepsiCo is now supplying kids with free soft drinks and snacks, parents still retain the ability to refuse purchase of junk food for their children. The power of advertising stops at the pocketbook. The same goes for violent TV shows, games and other entertainments — parents don’t have to buy them, and TVs still come with “off” switches as a standard feature. As someone who wheeled a screaming two-year-old through the grocery store yesterday rather than give him the muffin that he wanted, I understand that it is sometimes very frustrating to confront a persistent demand from one’s child. And yet, that’s what you sign up for when you have kids.
Another area of concern: we medicate increasing numbers of children with potentially harmful psychotropic drugs, a trend fueled in part by questionable and under-regulated pharmaceutical industry practices. In the early 2000s, for example, drug companies withheld data suggesting that such drugs were more dangerous and less effective for children and teenagers than parents had been led to believe. The law now requires “black box” warnings on those drugs’ labels, but regulators have done little more to protect children from sometimes unneeded and dangerous drug treatments.
In this case, “we” could well refer to medical providers. I happen to agree that too many providers are too liberal with psychotropic medications. But putting the blame on corporations absolves said prescribers of their responsibility to provide informed and appropriate care. Shire Pharmaceuticals may aggressively hawk its pills, but I still have the ability to write out a script or not. Furthermore, the author paints with far too broad a brush here. There isn’t one “black box” warning on all psychotropic drugs’ labels. Antidepressants have one warning, ADHD medications have a different warning for different risks altogether, and antipsychotics have yet another. It’s my responsibility as a provider to know about them, and to use them judiciously. Some are dangerous, some are almost certainly overprescribed, but most are safe and reliable and all can be used appropriately if under the medical supervision of a competent provider.
Beyond that, what would the author have “regulators” do to protect children from “sometimes unneeded and dangerous drug treatments”? Am I to expect that my medical decisions will be subject to regulatory scrutiny? Are “the children” so broadly under threat that the physician-patient relationship must be breached? I find that prospect chilling.
Children today are also exposed to increasing quantities of toxic chemicals. We know that children, because their biological systems are still developing, are uniquely vulnerable to the dangers posed by many common chemical compounds. We also know that corporations often use such chemicals as key ingredients in children’s products, saturating their environments. Yet these chemicals remain in circulation, as current federal laws demand unreasonably high proof of harm before curbing a chemical’s use.
This, my friends, is a pile of bullshit. What dangers is the author referring to, and from which common chemicals? What are the rampant harms being inflicted? From time to time specific toxins are identified in some product (eg. lead paint in children’s toys), but those are rare, discrete circumstances. Our children are not being toxified by malevolent corporations. Their environments are not “saturated.” I don’t know about our current federal laws, but I certainly require more proof of harm than a bunch of unfounded, vague assertions.
The challenge before us is to reignite the guiding ethos and practices of the century of the child. As Nelson Mandela has said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” By that measure, our current failure to provide stronger protection of children in the face of corporate-caused harm reveals a sickness in our societal soul. The good news is that we can — and should — work as citizens, through democratic channels and institutions, to bring about change.
A sickness in our societal soul? I fear I may damage my vision, so vigorously am I rolling my eyes. How on earth was this mess of claptrap approved for publication? It alleges a world of harms and decries the ominous demise of childhood itself, while pinning the blame on a convenient boogeyman with no actual data presented. The author is a law professor, which flabbergasts me. I can only hope he teaches his students how to produce evidence in a more convincing manner than he demonstrates with this hysterical joke of an Op-Ed.