But now, says Harvard children's advocate Susan Linn, "For probably the first time ever, we can't assume that when children have leisure time they're playing creatively." More likely (at least in my house), they are watching TV, using the computer, playing a video game, screening a movie, listening to an iPod or even watching a battery-operated Elmo laugh himself sick.
In other words, they're consuming entertainment rather than entertaining themselves. And while this may not sound new -- feels like we've been deploring TV-zombie kids forever -- the fact is that now they are surrounded by electronic media in every room and sphere of their lives: the crib, the car, the grocery cart. And most of the time, those media have something to sell. Even the ones that pretend they don't. (Hello, McDonald's, proud sponsor of PBS!)
"This unfettered commercialism is a disaster for kids," says Linn, whose new book, "The Case for Make Believe," outlines how we got to this point and what may happen next as parents start worrying about this media onslaught from a mental- and physical-health perspective.
They may demand government regulation.
That's because the whole situation burgeoned thanks to de-regulation, says Linn, founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. In 1980, Congress curtailed the Federal Trade Commission's ability to regulate marketing to children, and in '85-'86 it allowed companies to create programming for the sole purpose of selling toys. "Within a year," Linn says, "all the best-selling toys were linked to media: Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles -- those kinds of things."
While there's nothing wrong with a Ninja Turtle toy or a Power Rangers pillow, the stuff just kept coming. Today, if your daughter (or son!) wants to be a Disney princess, you've got several thousand licensed items to choose from. But, of course, it's not just Disney out for kiddie cash.
Dade Hayes, author of "The Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom," writes that as a dad, he was quite happy about Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer. "I came to see her as a positive role model for my daughter -- solving problems and having adventures. But when you kind of take that same girl and you come up with a Dora princess line and a Dora mermaid line, and it becomes 300 different products and a theme park in Dubai," that's when you realize that there is no limit on how many watch me/buy me messages are bombarding kids, says Hayes. When media-friendly folks such as Hayes, a Variety editor, start getting fed up, it is time to take notice.
Consider that in 1983, companies were spending $100 million a year to market to children. Today they're spending 170 times more: $17 billion. Numbers like that make parents realize they cannot limit this media exposure by themselves. A movement builds.
Will it mandate curbs on marketing? Not until the government sponsors a definitive study of the effects of this commercial saturation, Hayes predicts. A bill authorizing $60 million toward such a study is stalled in Congress.
But Linn envisions a day when there's a major public-health campaign to get young kids away from the screen. And then another when America looks to Sweden, Norway and the U.K. as models of how to limit the commercials kids see.
Once parents realize kids aren't playing the way they used to and decide it's all marketing's fault, there could be a fight on the playground.