I was driving out to ice skating this morning (as you do in the desert) when I noticed it was too quiet in the back seat, and stole a look in the rear-view mirror. Cormac, all of nine years old, had a face on him dark enough to summon the demons. When probed, he let forth a torrent of complaints about the woeful state of his current lego collection, in particular the supposedly pitiful array of Ninjago characters and building sets he possesses (and that I have paid for over the course of many years).
Very strange I thought, since he’d gone to bed elated about his near complete collection. I retraced the events of the morning – noting it was only 8:45am, and we were on our way to his favourite sport (with no siblings to boot); he should have been buzzing. I asked myself what could have gone so dreadfully wrong in the approximately 45 minutes since getting out of bed and driving to the rink.
Then I remembered: he’d spent 15 minutes on the computer as soon as he got up that morning. In that short period, he’d navigated his way to Lego.com, where this cheerful, seemingly benign website revealed to Cormac the awful truth of which he’d not been previously aware – he doesn’t have all there is to have! We filter the internet and this wasn’t a restricted site, nor should it have been. Or should it?
Now, a couple of disclaimers. First, people in glasshouses must not throw stones, and I admit to being one of those partial to the latest offerings, especially if we’re talking anything Mac-related. I also don’t particularly mind the sound the till makes (even virtually) when it goes cha-ching. Second, I’m about to complain about something that only the privileged minority among us get to complain about and I am in no way suggesting it is an issue of greater urgency than the hunger, disease, poverty and war afflicting millions of the world’s children even as I write this.
So with things placed somewhat in perspective, can I just say this: it feels like my kid is being stalked. Stalked by advertisers. They’re not wearing dark cloaks hiding behind candy stores, but they’re every bit as elusive. They offer up these “free” things, from virtual tokens to games to avatars that users can dress up, manipulate and communicate through. At every mouse click kids are bombarded with images of “the next big thing” and so the haranguing of Mum/Dad begins. The most insidious ploy I’ve come across yet is the Lego Ninjago Ipad game. Free!!! Of course it is. Here’s how it works. You set the ninjas spinning, but you’re restricted in your abilities until you can spin faster, or attain better weaponry. How exactly are you supposed to achieve this? Well, you just have to go to the toy store and scan the bar code of the latest toy, and your new powers will be bestowed upon you post haste. Your child will insist “you don’t actually have to buy the toy, you just have to take me to the store so I can scan the back of it”. Good one Homer. Do I look that stupid?
I’m not even talking about the agony of unsatisfied material desires, which all kids experience at some point in their lives and is probably not even entirely unhealthy, particularly if it can be used as an incentive to work hard, save, sacrifise etc etc. But it’s the sneakiness of all this that gets me. I can barely distinguish myself between what is advertising and what is reality, so I can hardly expect my child to. I have visions of these savvy advertising execs, a kind of “Mad Men” of the 21st century, sitting around together with the web 3.0 trail-blazers, nodding and sniggering at one another as they find yet more new and brilliant ways not to lead children down the garden path, but to get children to lead other children down the garden path.