Heads Up, Screen Fiends! The Case for Make Believe (Part 1)

casefor.jpgUpdate: 6-25: USA Today Interview with Susan Linn here.

So, you think junior’s getting a jump start with baby media, electronic pacifiers, and the cell phone as a rattle, eh? Think again.

The new study of 13,000 children developing behavioral issues from cell chattin’ mamas raises an eyebrow alone, but moreover, it’s the ongoing screen time proffered from the get go that should give rise to some critical thinking skills.

“When screens dominate children’s lives, regardless of content, they are a threat, not an enhancement, to creativity, play, and make believe,” confirmed Harvard’s Dr. Susan Linn on her book tour last week promoting her latest work, The Case for Make Believe.

“Research suggests that the more time children have to nurture and develop their own interpretations, the more they are likely to move beyond the script they’ve viewed,” she said, as parents eagerly jotted down tips on navigating our media-saturated culture.

“Screen media does all of that work for us. It’s a good memory aid, which makes it a boon to certain kinds of learning, but a bust when it comes to nurturing imagination.”

From the Baby Einstein factual fraud to the proliferation of Disney’s princess posse infiltrating households with baby Belles and all the gender stereotypes and behavioral cues, parents landed their top tier queries ranging from pragmatic (taking a shower sans screen time) to ethereal (whether virtual worlds and techno-wizardry are of any educational merit). I’ll address a lot of this in part two/the Q&A interview, but first, some over-arching thoughts on Susan’s talk…

buy-buy-baby.gif I felt like the proverbial ‘odd girl out’ akin to an incredulous tween who wanted to shout, “Duh!” at Susan’s talk, because I realized what was ‘obvious’ to me in the incessant pitch of an industry eager to instill a ‘Buy, Buy, Baby’ mentality was ‘news’ to the ears of some newer parents trying to make sense of the screen scene, and NOT involved in the industry itself. (Susan Gregory Thomas’ book, shown at left is a ‘must read’ on this issue)

As the parent of a ‘tween’ vs. an infant, there’s also clearly a ‘generation gap’ in ‘then vs. now’ media, since it’s everchanging at lightening speed. My daughter was born in 1995 when ExerSaucers and those jumpy jump doorway thingies were the rage for corralling kids while making dinner…

Edutainment techno tools were only BEGINNING to ramp up…

leap-frog-learning-seat.jpgNow, screens are literally built into baby gear like this one at left, the “Magic Moments Leap Frog Learning Seat” that has light tracers and characters that gallop across the screen every time the baby bats at the dang thing, blocking any natural worldview of smiles, trees, or a dogs’ wet nose, in favor of a mesmerizing screen that literally trains the senses to find soothing comfort in screen time. Eep!!

Before this begins to sound like a 1984 Orwellian flashback, let’s just remind everyone that’s actually the very year when FCC deregulation of children’s television shifted the entire kids’ marketing sphere into the direct targeting of children via media to begin with…Even despite subsequent protest and court ordered FCC policy review!

Susan Linn addressed the “What’s changed since ads targeted us?” parent query brilliantly, saying:

“It’s never been harder to be a parent; nor has it ever been harder for a child to play freely with multitudes of distractions…Comparing parents’ era to the kids’ era now is like comparing a BB Gun to a smart bomb.

She recites the stats of $100 million spent annually to reach kids in ’83 vs. the $17 BILLION onslaught hammering kids now.

Do the math. We’re talkin’ 175 times the $ amount in 25 years. Yowza.

choo-choo-cherry.jpgTrue enough, I DO remember the Trix rabbit and Fizzies and Funny Face, (I can still hear the commercial for ‘Rootin’ Tootin’ Raspberry, and Jolly Olly Orange) not to mention Hostess cupcakes, Ho-Hos, DingDongs, the very non-PC Frito Bandito and that freakin’ Sugar Crisp Bear with his sauntering jingle, all hawkin’ their chem cuisine in its glory.

But that only skims the surface of today’s onslaught of 24/7 surround sound pummeling kids with why to buys and pitchmeister prowess.

Sidenote: It’s interesting to look closely at some of the Fizzies retro-wrappers to see these ‘magic instant sparkling tablets’ were literally being marketed by pharmaceutical companies like Warner-Lambert. Further, the package, proudly proclaims it’s “Artificially sweetened with Sucaryl and Saccharin!” (talk about kids as lab rats, egad)

I suppose some things in ad labeling have changed for the better…Anyway:

consuming-kids.jpgDr. Linn’s first book, Consuming Kids won me over FAST in 2002, despite my being a branding guru with a product development background and some serious ad agency chops…

In other words, news flash…it is NOT oxymoronic that parents IN the industry are leading a rebel yell for responsibility and accountability. We are.

Shaping Youth as a consortium can attest to this in and of itself!

When I started witnessing parent-peers taking stroller trips ‘to the mall’ instead of the park “to play” it made me realize the degree of consumption-driven ‘Sheeple,’ lured into ‘play environments’ by ad and merchandising colleagues clearly doing FAR too good of a job.

After all, to me, marketing is not the demon, nor is media, it’s the ethics behind what you choose to DO with that persuasive power.

We can use it to fortify (LiveStrong Bands, ThinkMTV, LiveAid, Changebloggers) or foolishness (MTV Sweet 16, VH1 ‘I Know My Kid’s A Star’) and all those toxic sexist/racist/celebutante reality shows that tear people down for ‘fun’ and support consumption as a gateway to happiness. ugh.

Susan made it very clear in her talk that she’s not a technophobe or a Luddite, but that babies should be off-limits and parents fully educated to the harmful dynamics and damage in play…

Moreover, she speaks to a much bolder societal statement when she says that as a culture we’re conspiring to keep children from playing because it simply isn’t ‘lucrative.’ In other words, creative play is free…there are no market-driven forces at work.

snidely.jpgThis became painfully self-evident to me seeing the ad industry marketing to kids, not parents, in ‘whatever works’ mode…

Colleagues were compromising ‘real’ play for ‘canned’ play, using a corporate ‘hold harmless’ type of clause that negates any responsibility, regardless of the potential for developmental, even cerebral harm.

As an indie/free agent, who never had to compromise values, and simply ‘resigned’ any account that didn’t pass the sniff test (I dumped a cruiseline who evidently thought dumping trash in the Pacific was a-ok-fine, since it was ‘the norm’ of most ‘at sea’ regulations)…it made me realize ‘all bets were off’ in terms of banking on industry accountability, and I’d commit the balance of my life’s work to reversing this trend.

Just as Susan Linn no longer ‘counts on kids using free time to play’ I can no longer ‘count on businesses to put public health interests ahead of profits.’

I’ll pull a media touchpoint from Marshall McCluhan’s medium is the message phraseology, and wonder if it doesn’t sometimes seem like it actually IS the message yet NOT the medium itself.

new-american-dream.JPGThen again, that’s a Catch-22…as Brian Swimme’s New American Dream article on Education.com reiterates…

Consumption cues can simultaneously trash minds, bodies and the eco-system concurrently as kids begin to define themselves by ‘what they have’ rather than ‘who they are’…

Any beach clean-up will reveal this truth in solid form, if you see the corollary between discarded trash primarily from junk food, media-licensed foil pouch processed crud, fast food Styrofoam and such…

I guarantee you won’t find nourishing items out there as trash. Why? Because it’s the same mentality…garbage in, garbage out. Trash your body, trash the planet. Nourish your body, nourish the planet.

It’s all interconnected…

twister-dial.jpgWe actually play ‘eco-Twister’ to connect the dots with how everything is entwined and get to a ‘cause and effect’ premise when we do our counter-marketing programs, because sadly that obvious footnote seems to be sorely lacking from traditional education. Susan Linn’s book takes the ecology of planet and play presence even further:

“I feel an increasing sense of urgency, the kind of urgency that environmentalists feel about saving the rainforest—about preserving time and space for children to play…

…Prevailing societal norms characterized by a commercially driven culture and bombardment of electronic sounds and images have devalued play to the point of endangerment, to where we can no longer ASSUME that children know how to play creatively…

The children I see at day care centers are often reenacting the exact same cartoon violence so popular on TV, bringing nothing of their unique experience to their play.”

This explains a lot of why I hear preschool kids asking if a doll, or puppet, or even a book, “does something”…in a ‘turn me on’ plea for social stimulation. Ugh.

susan-linn.jpgThe other uncanny thing is that hearing Susan Linn speak is almost eerily ‘sixth sense-ish’ to me, because each time I interact with her, it’s like she has a bead on my psyche, ready to address incredulous ‘yah, but what about…’ types of arguments always beating me to the punch.

Maybe it’s the ‘shrink think’ but it’s like she’s inside my head, second-guessing what ‘parents in the audience might say’…and then she addresses it.

Just when I’m about to pounce on her schpiel to ask about the quantifiable value of open-ended role play and virtual worlds, or gaming that goes beyond twitch games of coinage and consumption… she heads me off with her view that:

…”It IS possible for thoughtful screen media to be a springboard for creative play,” when used with older kids as an adjunct rather than a replacement for the natural world…

That said, the bulk of her book makes a rock solid case for limiting if not eliminating screen time in the early years of development based on the erosion of creativity and packaged play, and reinforcing ‘no baby media’ whatsoever. Why?

hatset.jpgShe gives multiple examples where kids literally don’t know what to do with the materials they’re given in craft projects for open-ended play, relying more on duplication of a ‘sample’ or mirroring peers…

At Shaping Youth, that’s EXACTLY what we’re seeing in our K-5 counter-marketing interventions…(shades of the Verb Yellowball article I wrote about kids being ‘prompted’ to play!)

If ‘screen time’ replaces pretend play, self-discovery and self-soothing in the natural world, it results in the inability for free-thinking, open-ended play vs. what I call ‘packaged play.’

In Susan’s book she explains:

“If children are, from birth, provided mostly with kits and electronic or media-based toys, they won’t have a chance to learn how to enjoy or even approach challenges that call for imagination, experimentation, inventiveness, or creative problem solving.”

foam-crafts.jpgWhether it’s a ‘pre-cut stem of a flower to add buttons, pre-cut vs. free form foam shaped crafts, or formerly open-ended toys like Playdough and Legos now being commercialized into “kits” imposing what ‘should’ be done with them, the global message is that the more we do FOR them, the more we’re narrowing play.

Clearly, we need to watch out for this…It’s one thing for a child to feel self-satisfaction in having art look remotely like the object itself, but we don’t want to usurp creativity, negate problem solving, or alter the self-expression that ultimately adds meaningfulness in our lives.

Worst case scenario? Producing rote, rigid portrayals with very little challenge, and a mindset that we ‘need’ the things corporations sell in order to have kids occupy themselves constructively…

digital-baby.jpgAgain, she’s not talking about older kids and their capacity to use media creatively to engage, she’s talking about increasingly younger kids being given techno-toys that ‘do things for them’ to amuse and deprive them of core experiences necessary for their healthy development.

In short, Susan Linn is favoring self-calming (and stimulation) over an electronic crutch.

Must say, this part REALLY resonates with me, because I see this play out everywhere from restaurants to car trips when kids are tossed a screen or gizmo to engage with, as parents live in mortal dread of ‘dealing with’ disruptive, bored, anxious, offspring.

tvkids.jpgParents don’t seem to see the link that ‘we reap what we sow.’ In other words, ‘at what price, convenience?’

It certainly does give me pause, seeing stressed out parents plop kids in front of screens as a default time and again…thinking it’s ‘sanctioned’ or even ‘educational’ due to blurred, fuzzy lines of baby media selling folks a bunch of hooey.

Fact is, the AAP recommends NO screen time for children under two.

According to Susan’s book and the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine:

“…Almost 50% of parents believe baby videos have a positive effect on child development, and by the time babies are two, 90% are engaged with screens for an average of an hour and a half per day, with 14% spending more than two hours a day.

40% of three-MONTH old babies regularly ‘watch’ TV/DVDs an average of 45 minutes a day, and 19% under the age of one have a TV in their nursery.”

E-freakin’ gad. How can this be?

Where’s the common sense and public health interest to to place information over profiteering?

Where are the ethics of corporations who KNOW better, but bury the facts, shrug it off and mislead parents to glean a sale?

She makes a good point when she says that unlike older kids, babies are not ‘nagging and pestering’ for screen time or media toys…parents are the ones buying into this.

Venturing out of the scientific evidence and potential harm of early screen time and into the very tactile, joyful reverie of experiencing childhood, my favorite phrase in her entire book is simply this:

“All the world’s a toy to a baby.”

It’s so true for wee ones. Their toes. A sunbeam. A mirror. A ceiling fan. Sand running through their fingers. Ishy squishy mud. All ‘toys.’

Now take it out of the baby context and think about it for a sec.

ALL the world’s a toy. Period.

Isn’t that the awakening we all strive so hard to achieve in adult life, too?

Being alert and alive, and in the moment, not just ‘present and accounted for,’ or zooming from point A to point B missing the nuances along the way?

For me, it’s something I’m striving hard to rediscover in midlife…

…The beauty and simplicity of watching ducks on the water through a picture window; the conquest of a tennis ball in a golden retriever’s mouth, whimpering and trilling with joy swimming back to home base; hearing echoes underwater in a lavender bubble bath immersed in the sensuality of auditory, smell, and tactile sensations.

THESE are things that can soothe and calm even the most harried ‘Type A’ overachieving taskmaster (yes, yours truly is struggling to get some life balance here).

Susan Linn goes on to say that “the capacity to play is a survival skill,” and that most child development experts agree that play is the foundation of intellectual exploration, or ‘how children learn how to learn.’

Play is linked directly to creativity and mental health.

dollar-sign.gifSeems if we fixate on goods and shoulds being sold to us from womb to tomb, then life itself is at risk of becoming merely pre-programmed ‘role play’ with a ‘false sense of self’ gleaned from ‘what you have’ rather than ‘who you are.’

“Money talks?” Does this mean consumption is our default message? ugh.
I’ve seen plenty of ‘Barbie-moms’ ostensibly going through the motions of how life is ‘supposed to be’ in a weird sort of virtual world MMORPG intellectualization that is ‘make believe’ all its own. Okay veering off toward the esoteric there…

Suffice it to say Susan Linn’s talk and her book itself moved me profoundly by tapping into some ‘whys’ and ‘aha moments’ that have puzzled me working with some of the K-5 children today.

I’m seeing some of these issues from a very different lens of fantasy/creativity, and it’s validating a lot of my own research on ‘what goes into kids minds and bodies’ in terms of media consumption and daily intake altering kids’ very being.

In part two, we’ll tackle specifics from NEW parents in the digital age, sorting out the pragmatics of their own realities and their children’s use of media and make-believe from a much more commercialized culture, as Susan Linn answers audience questions to ‘defend pretend.’

Stay tuned…

Related Resources

Kaiser Family Foundation Entertainment Media Studies

Shaping Youth: The Value of Unstructured Play: Susan Linn On Tour

Corporate Babysitter: Interview with Susan Linn, by Lisa Ray

Buy, Buy, Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents & Harms Young Minds

Raising Kids in the Media Age

A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting

Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Media Saturated World

Convergence Culture: Where Old & New Media Collide

Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of Your Children

Visual Credits:

Foam Craft Projects, Shopping Thrifty.com

Funny Face: ImaginaryWorld.com

Product Views: Amazon.com



  1. I saw this book, and was intrigued. Thanks for the series. Question: why do books stimulate imagination and other media not? Is it the need for the reader to visualize the words? I have a rule around the house about NO TV during the week and only two hours on weekends. Too much to do outside!

  2. Expat Chef! Great to hear from you…yes, that’s indeed the stimulation situation, in fact, if you click on the link in part two, you’ll see Susan Linn answers that very question! It’s the whole ‘less is more’ concept of inspiring innovation and imagination vs. media that ‘does all the work for you.’

    btw, are you going to BlogHer this summer? I’d love to meet you F2F finally, Beth; and how do you enforce that house rule so well? Tips, pls? Ages of your kids? I ‘over’ limited screen time when she was in her early years and the forbidden fruit element came into play in ‘reverb’ style…sigh. Thankfully, she’s an outdoor girl too, but still, with summer coming I dread the nag factor…so SOS if you have extra tips?!

  3. Great blog! I’m just embarrassed that I didn’t discover it until now; but as a uncle to several toddlers (two Gen Y’ers of my own now in college) AND as a marketer, I’m dismayed–if not disgusted–by the manipulation of too many kids and their parents. Pre-cut/pre-shaped crafts materials: hey, what better way to create drones ready to work on assembly lines or assemble supersized Blubbo Meals? To Expat Chef’s question about books stimulating the imagination, I’d guess that it starts with the fact that the reader controls the pace of the experience, rather than being force-fed. Anyway, great site and great blog, and you’re now on my “Favorites” feeds!

  4. Hey, Pete, funny you should mention the assembly line bit, my little media brain went straight to the Lucy & Ethel moments of retro sitcom fare when they were sorting ping pong balls and the conveyor belt sped up…so ‘zactly!’

    Thanks for the warm thoughts, and feedster friending…will check yours out as well! (gawd I love the internet, intelligent life forms on the marcom planet!) 😉 Why does your name sound so familiar to me? Hmn…gonna go check out your blog right now!

  5. Don’t miss Susan Linn’s new interview at USA Today posted 6-25 here:


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