Consumer cannibalism

I am a strong believer in the merits of technology. When I was a little kid, my mom was (and is) staunchly against computers, mostly on principle. And by principle I mean a deathly fear of change. One might think such circumstances would produce a technophobe. In my case, that is not true.

Though our home lacked a computer, I couldn’t be insulated from computers, and that only had limited exposure only made me more interested. Maybe that’s part of the reason for my time spent as a computer engineering student, and it is certainly responsible for my obsession with gadgets. So if it isn’t obvious, I’m a big proponent of technology for education and benefiting society in a myriad of other ways. Today, something happened that dampened my optimism.

Earlier this year, I bought my youngest sister Stella a tablet. Nothing fancy, just a cheap little Lenovo. In my mind, this was a fun present that would open up educational stuff to her with some occasional games for long car rides. That worst case scenario would render her a gamer with a better understanding of the basics of technology than I did at her age. If only.

With Christmas break rolling around, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Stella, and it is great. At school I really miss getting to be a hero for breathing and playing the Mr. Scrooge game with her. While I spent a good portion of last Christmas break and the summer like this, that isn’t what she wants anymore. She is devoted to YouTube Kids.

I’m not judging watching YouTube, I think there’s some really good content on there and frankly can’t stand the majority of current “family” shows. Pair that with a fostering of DIY ethics for a lot of creators, YouTube’s something I don’t have any inherent qualms with. Then I saw what she was watching, and I felt kind of gross.

This is all content curated for Stella’s age group, so nothing that even registers PG, The gross part is that Stella is enchanted by ads. I understand that to have free content, some adds are necessary, that’s fine. But she will watch hours and hours of videos of toy unboxings and channels that just talk about how cool the new Frozen grab bags are so cool. The voices are pandering, and I really had trouble believing that this many adults would be so enchanted with these products.

So, it was time to dig. It is important to note that the YouTube Kids app doesn’t allow easy access to description or comment sections, so I had to go and find some of these videos in my Chrome browser. Upon the slightest scrutiny it turned out that, almost without exception, they were made by people being paid to pretend they are really, really into Shopkins, just like every kid should be. The internet has made finding ads a lot more confusing. Sure, some stick out and a lot go unnoticed due to the popularity of ad-blocking software. What if the content that drives internet traffic is, to some degree, an ad?

Paid content in mainstream media is nothing new, but there have always been federal regulations that require disclosure that the content is being paid for. So if you read a review someone was paid to write for a product on Amazon, they are required to disclose any financial gains, including a free product, in the words. Videos don’t work the same.

On YouTube, there only has to be a disclosure in the description. No one, child content creator or otherwise, makes a point to mention this in a video, so its always in the description. Personally, I already think this is kind of deceptive for adults. Kids? That’s a whole other ball game.

As previously mentioned, it’s hard to get to that description through the app to begin with. Even if a kid figures out, it probably wouldn’t make a difference. Stella is a smart kid. Really smart. Still, like most 5-year-old people, she can’t read. Assuming that the population of her age group is on the same or lower levels, getting to the description doesn’t make a difference, they can’t read it. This is unfair on multiple levels.

For those who don’t know, I listen to podcasts semi-obsessively and one of my favorites is “Stuff You Should Know.” Recently, Josh and Chuck ran through some information about advertising to kids, and that is some really, really gross stuff.

Until the Reagan administration, advertising to kids was heavily regulated, but then laissez-faire took over, and the next thing you know there are full length shows that are basically ads. Adults can differentiate, but children can’t. No, literally. Studies show that until around the age of 12 the human mind can literally not differentiate between the fun toons they were just enjoying with some Cap’n Crunch and the products people want to shove down their throats. Their mouths are wide open to these early stages of consumerism.

Most of the videos Stella watches are for licensed products, Disney Princesses and Trolls in particular. They found a devious way to sell a lot of these, grab bags. I won’t pretend I don’t understand part of the fun of collecting, I had my own obsessions with Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh cards, but I think that’s different.

Maybe it’s my old man deep down already getting angsty about the kids threatening to step on my lawn, but this seems more dubious. Those cards were part of a game and encouraged trading and social behaviors. That’s why I still like TCGs. These have no purpose beyond growing a horde, and Stella knows so much about them. When I opened a Zapdos card, I knew it was special because I knew that was a cool character that was hard to find. Thanks to her videos, Stella knows specifics of rarity and and class of these little figures. And because there is no way to know what is in the bag ahead of time. So she always wants more.

Here is where I will differentiate consumerism as a problem. Full disclosure, it’s a drug I still struggle with, but this seems like purchasing for the sake of purchasing. I had a lot of cards, but they were for a game. I had books, but I read them. I had movies, but I watched them. Now, the toys go unplayed with, collectible heirlooms for kids. Many would argue that they make them happy, so who cares. I understand that, but that is going somewhere really scary.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the summer I really started to rage against the machine and reduce my possessions, and I realize now that it was probably because I was groomed by Pokemon cards, even though I really do hold to the belief that it was more innocent and valuable. This is really the same model, but much, much more potent. When I was advertised to, I didn’t realize it, but I hadn’t been trained to seek it out. Maybe I’m just worried about the kids of today, but I want it to be clear that I do not blame them, they don’t know it’s happening.

I understand that we live in a mostly capitalist society, and so some of these issues are unavoidable. But every segment of every industry seem to be collaborating to make the next generation wonderful at buying crap they don’t need or necessarily want until they see a very enthusiastic description online. It’s the same as its always been, just a lot worse. It’s taking advantage of people to make a profit. That’s not okay.

What’s worse? I have no idea how to fix this mess. We can try to teach kids about how to identify ads, but who knows how effective that would be? Even if it worked, that’s still consumerism, just a bit smarter consumerism. It doesn’t get to the central issue of this sociological tumor. And it makes me really sad. This is why I’m liberal. I’m not nearly as worried about Big Brother watching me as I am society selling its soul for a few trinkets.

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