Childhood Under Siege

By Joel Bakan

University of British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan, who scored a surprise bestseller with The Corporation (a book later made into a popular documentary film), is back on the anti-corporate attack with this new account of how unrestrained, psychopathic capitalism exploits the most vulnerable members of our society: children.

For corporations children constitute a historically new market to exploit, which has led to big business squeezing “childhood into forms and practices designed to yield profit.” Our modern belief that children should be protected and nurtured has been pushed aside by strategies aimed at maximizing their economic value, even as child labour. And big business has no conscience to prevent it from sacrificing the best interests of children to their bottom line.

That is Bakan’s thesis, and while he makes good points about the rise of “kid marketing” and the greater impact suffered by children from some forms of corporate misbehaviour, it’s fair to say that in many cases children are secondary targets, or even collateral damage, resulting from what is a more general assault by big business on all of us. Young people are far from the only members of society to suffer the effects of videogame addiction, junk food, the over-medicalization of mental health, and environmental toxins. One suspects a personal concern is often driving the argument, as Bakan frequently draws on childhood anecdotes and occasionally mentions his own children and his concerns over their being at risk.

Childhood Under Siege is also a quick book, and given the range of subjects it covers one sometimes feels a need for greater depth to the analysis. The chapter on education is particularly weak. A bit more historical perspective might have helped as well, since our modern concept of childhood is in fact a fairly recent cultural development.

Arguments urging us to “think of the children,” even in this context, are not new. And Bakan’s suggestions for fighting back through stronger regulation that respects the precautionary principle (erring on the side of caution in cases where full scientific certainty is unavailable rather than putting children at risk) will likely sound familiar. But his book is nevertheless a useful reminder of the kinds of real threats that are out there, and a call for concerned parents to become concerned citizens – both for their children’s and for the nation’s health.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2011.

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