WHITNEY: Exploring the jungles of childhood media use
My daughter is growing increasingly vocal about what she wants, and right now what she wants is to watch YouTube videos without interruption.
Her favorites are “Wheels on the Bus,” a montage of different species of dinosaurs, and “Roar” by Katy Perry.
That last one seems odd for a 2-year-old, right?
“Roar” isn’t your standard gyrating music video featuring scantily-clad back-up dancers. It has a plotline. Katy and her boyfriend crash their plane in the jungle. He gets eaten by a tiger. She had to find a way to survive. She not only survives, but becomes the queen of the jungle, tames the tiger, bathes with an elephant and a monkey, and finds a way to make lip gloss out of a pomegranate.
These plot-driving occurrences seem to be what allures Olivia, and she takes great delight in narrating them for me. “Tiger eat him. Fent (elephant) bath. Perry lips.”
It’s colorful, splashy and fun. Liv loves it. I don’t mind it. She feels the same way about “Shake It Off,” by Taylor Swift and, several months earlier, the same about “Happy” by Pharrell, which is now banned from our house to keep my head from exploding.
Now, here’s another development. I promise to circle back.
At the age of 2, Olivia reaches from the grocery cart to grab the Spongebob Squarepants branded shampoo as she declares “It’s Spob!” She can identify Mickey Mouse on her diapers even though I’m certain we’ve never once watched or spoken about Mickey and his ilk (come at me, Disney fans). She can pick the Curious George books off the shelf and find the episodes on my phone simply by navigating to the bright green PBS Kids icons.
I’m careful to avoid too much exposure to characters that are brands unto themselves because, frankly, it freaks me out. Watching children’s television these days, it seems each character is crafted for future marketing potential. Each show seems positioned to spawn a line of toys, clothing, food, bath products and home goods all its own. If the kids enjoy the show, they’ll demand the products that line the kids’-eye-level shelves of the grocery store.
Maybe that’s just me being a conspiracy theorist or maybe it’s capitalism. It’s hard to tell sometimes.
So what about Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and the other catchy-tune singers who seem to command my daughter’s attention? Are they better, worse or on par with Spongebob Streamlined-Product-Integration-Pants?
If my daughter can look at a logo on her father’s work shirt and correctly identify that it signifies “yogurt,” is there something that Katy’s image symbolizes to her, something she doesn’t yet have the words to express? Is that something I should be worried about?
Am I over-intellectualizing something that doesn’t need this much examination?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. Surprise!
I talked about it with a friend, a non-parent, and he summed it up pretty simply: “If you can think critically, it doesn't matter if later in life you’re flooded with all types of weird influential things,” he said. “You have to separate the BS from things that are useful.”
Listen, I’m actually a big fan of BS – trash TV, junk food, bad music, time wasted – and think it can be useful in itself. But you can’t create a meal from a bucket of Halloween candy (which we’ve recently tried, with poor results). A few pieces of candy, a half an hour spent watching Spongebob or Katy Perry videos, isn’t going to destroy anyone.
But thinking carefully about how much exposure your children have to certain images and brands isn’t out of line. In fact, that’s part of the parenting game.
I’ll hold out hope that Katy Perry’s “Roar” image inspires my daughter to one day bathe with elephants and make friends with tigers. In the meantime, we’ll be listening to bad music as we lace up our boots for another adventure in the woods.