‘The system will still need you to compose symphonies’

I listen to music with my daughter on YouTube and Spotify; she likes YouTube because of the videos. I choose the songs. Often I choose music by written and, or, performed by women: Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Eliza Carthy, The Chordettes, 4 Non Blondes, the Be Good Tanyas, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Sandy Denny, Aretha Franklin. (Click on the links and have a party!)

Part of the point of this has been to let her listen to music, but to avoid inappropriately adult lyrics. Also to let her look at different hues, shapes and styles of women: people she can admire who aren’t stick thin and gyrating in their underwear. An inoculation against the MTV effect.

I mention MTV because, when I worked in a boarding school – ten years ago now – that is what the girls (aged 11 – 18) played constantly in their common room. I watched with them. I remember a few particular stinkers – Britney Spears ‘Piece of Me’ and Girls Aloud ‘Can’t Speak French’. But there were thousands of videos; millions of closeups of gleaming quivering thighs and pouting parted mouths. I hated the way the younger girls drank it in with their eyes; I wasn’t surprised to hear from a parent that, after nine months at school, their twelve year old was adamant she needed a bikini wax. Kids probably watch more music online now, but I don’t imagine the demands made on female performers have changed.

Recently, I played my daughter Mama Cass, Make Your Own Kind of Music. A woman with a voice to make you cry, who proves you can be lovely and ignore modern rules about how women on TV must look. But, as I was searching for the song, the search algorithm suggested Paloma Faith’s version. The difference between the two exposes how conformist modern musicians are required to be. The video makes pathetic gestures at illustrating the meaning of the original words: a whispered voice-over at the beginning hints that the singer is unconventional; they put her in a couple of quirky outfits – sci-fi style and mardi gras. But the outfits are still skin tight, with stilettos, and Faith has a gym body. She is also advertising Skoda cars, which I guess doesn’t leave those making the video infinite room for creativity. Individuality, in the Paloma Faith video, becomes just another manufactured style – like the ready-made ‘punk’ and ‘artist’ accessories you can buy in Topshop.

My daughter (what a surprise!) spotted the Paloma Faith version and wanted that. She knew I didn’t; she could tell this was the sort of video other people in her class might recognise. And why shouldn’t she want that? It’s natural for a child to be fascinated by the big wide world, and it’s not a crime to want to fit in. Also, I want my daughter, ultimately, to decide for herself who she is. Listening to loud music as a method of scorning one’s parents is a traditional way for children to develop an identity (though maybe not at the age of six).

But it isn’t the 1990’s. We aren’t in Kansas anymore. What I found disturbing and insidious about this particular disagreement with my child was that I was in combat with an algorithm. (Not one that predicts what else you want to hear based on your data-set, but still – a mathematical program as oppose to a person.) I was not the stereotypical mother who fights a futile war against perceived corruption coming from other people. The corruption was being suggested to me, in my own home, by an algorithm.

Algorithms now shape what we watch and listen to – 60 percent of films watched on Netflix are recommended by Netflix’s own algorithm (Kevin Slavin, NPR, 2015). Kevin Slavin (Founding Chief Science and Technology Officer at The Shed, NY) argues that we’re living in a world designed for – and increasingly controlled by – algorithms: you can watch his extremely popular Ted Talk to learn about this. Slavin says we need to use algorithms in conjunction with human intelligence rather than allow them to run unchecked. He gives examples of algorithms ‘with no adult supervision’ causing all sorts of problems, such as insane prices on Amazon, stock market crashes, useless traffic control systems and worse.

I am worried about young people being shaped by algorithms rather than by other human beings. Because, as far as my limited understanding goes, algorithms create symmetrical mathematical outcomes. I don’t want my daughter to be sorted into a neat category of young people who like a certain type of thing, then pushed further along that same road along with all the other young people in the same category. Especially if that category is girls who like girly stuff. I don’t want a computer to suggest she listen to hours of sexy pop music and watch endless chick flicks starring skinny actresses with big breasts, whose acting consists of wiggling their buttocks and, or, eyebrows.

I don’t let her control the computers at the moment, but she is already under the influence of other children who are in categories, and their parents who have also been sorted by their computers.

Maybe our children will never have CD collections. Browsing, swapping compilations and stealing a friend’s CDs will no longer be normal ways to develop a personal taste. How can young people today develop their taste? A music critic for the New York Times, Ben Ratliff, recently published ‘Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now’, in which he offers ways to appreciate music in a world where we are fed playlists by algorithms – “At the very least we should try to listen better than we are being listened to.” A fair point – learning to listen carefully, with appreciation, is a way to combat the meaninglessness that can come from rivers of music, which an algorithm decides is your thing.

But discernment isn’t enough for children who might never encounter anything apart from what an algorithm spews out. I don’t have a good solution to that problem, but I  am going to hang on to my tapes, CDs and records. Because my children might one day go crazy and want to listen to music that is not at all connected to what they already like.

 

 

 

 

‘The Chimes of Freedom Flashing’

I have always been surprised by the enthusiasm with which other parents seem to relish it when their children have the same stuff – and like the same stuff – as everyone else at school: ‘I sent him off for the first day of term with his new little Star Wars backpack and he just looked so lovely.’ I nod and agree: he probably did look lovely with his face shiny clean, excited about seeing all the people in his class again. But (I think to myself) why was the Star Wars backpack part of his loveliness? I have never understood that impulse in other parents: to enjoy it when their children seem similar to other children. The question always comes back to me when it’s time to buy new uniform and my daughter desperately wants to conform: ‘I want the same shoes Mia has’; ‘I like those, so-and-so has those.’

I notice in myself an opposite impulse: when everyone else’s child has something, or likes something, my impulse is to avoid it. I used to expect there would be other parents who shared my suspicion of the crowd, but it always appears I’m the only one at the school gate feeling that way.

By the way, I welcome comments on this from readers with different points of  view – I want to question myself. My suspicion of the crowd is not always good for my daughter: if I reject everything that ‘everyone else’ likes purely because of the popularity – regardless of what the object of their approval is – then, to my daughter, my rejection seems meaningless.

But following the crowd without questioning is not right either.

You may find this a jump: to go straight from Star Wars backpacks to Nazis, but bear with me. I wonder if my stubborn suspicion of the crowd was absorbed from my Jewish father who grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s. (Yes, he was pretty old when I was born.) The thought, that it’s good for a child to follow a crowd because it’s fun to join in – and most kids want to join in – is obliterated if you think about Hitler’s electric popularity in 1930’s Germany and the success of the Hitler Youth movement. (My father, like all Jews of his generation, grew up constantly painfully aware that Nazi’s were real.)

Simone Weil, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Christianity, feared conformity. She explained this in a letter to a Catholic priest:

“I know that the moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi. That is a very great weakness, but that is how I am…..I am afraid of the Church patriotism existing in Catholic circles.” (Waiting for God, 1950)

There are countless expressions of fear of conformity voiced by Jews at the time, and since; another Jew who has expressed such fear is Bob Dylan. But Weil’s is the most eloquent I know.

We could all do with a little fear conformity. Life is becoming more uniform. I often think of a famous old photograph of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in 1963 standing next to a sign, which declares, ‘Protest against the rising tide of conformity‘. I have this poster permanently stuck in my head, because its sentiment is worryingly absent from the school gates. And I can hardly find in the media (correct me if I’m wrong).

Our modern Internet encourages us to think with the crowd. The word ‘like’ is shifting its meaning. We worry about how many likes we get for things we post (I try not to get sucked into that, but don’t always manage). We want others to like us; we list what we like. The word has gathered power, become a tyrant: we need likes to feel we exist; we use likes to guide us to truth; millions of likes are taken as evidence of truth.

I use a capital letter in ‘Internet’ to remind you that the current Internet used to be just one way of linking a network of computers out of many possible ways. The capital letter used to distinguish the one we ended up with from the others (New York Times, 2016). We should remember that the way our current Internet works is not inevitable and could be altered, so that it wouldn’t encourage people to think in crowds. Read, or watch, Jaron Lanier (writer, musician and virtual reality pioneer) for an explanation of why and how we “must undo” the way our Internet works. (Ted Talk, 2018) I implore you, click on this last link it’s essential to know about Lanier’s ideas.

Lanier is a Jew whose parents were a mother who survived a concentration camp and a father who had lost much of his family to pogroms, so perhaps Lanier has absorbed the same mid-20th Century Jewish suspicion of the crowd that I have. He has written and spoken about his high hopes for technology, as well as his fears about the Internet in its current form. I can’t summarise his ideas. One relevant point however is his observation that cat videos are more popular than dog videos. In the introduction to his book ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’, he suggests that we love cats because – unlike dogs – they cannot be trained, they “are still in charge”: “Oh, how we long to have that certainty not just about our cats but about ourselves! Cats on the internet are our hopes and dreams for the future of people on the internet.” (Lanier, 2018, p. 2)

So to get back to the Star Wars backpack. My daughter happens to be more into the sparkly-stereotypicalgirly-princessy-Disney kind of style most girls in her class like. I have my worries about the style, which I have written about in earlier posts. But please notice, both styles are conformist (and both powered by Disney).

Our Internet conditions us to care about what the crowd likes. But we would do well to learn from the horrific experience of Jews in the 20th Century: that we must always question the crowd. This month I will be thinking hard about they ways in which I want my daughter to conform when she goes back to school and the ways in which I don’t.

 

All the Hills Echoed

The shadow of William Blake passed over my local playground on the final afternoon of the summer term. A large group of parents congregated in the park after school ended at lunch time. Unchained children, aged five to eleven, were free to roam in a pack, while the adults sheltered in a patch of shade on the brow of the hill – almost out of sight. I sat from two until five, only seeing my daughter to supply her water, or snacks, or nag her about sun cream. By five o’clock, there were only four mothers left, a pile of wrappers and two hot, tired, grizzling babies. We stood up, collected the debris and moved threateningly towards our happy remaining children. ‘The only problem now is peeling them away,’ someone said. We smiled and rolled our eyes; I thought I heard Blake cough.

In ‘Songs of Innocence’ Blake delights in the ‘echoing green’. In ‘Nurse’s Song’, pleading children are allowed to roam free until dark – “The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d/ And all the hills ecchoed.” But the nurse of ‘Songs of Experience’ is ‘green and pale’, possibly jealous of the children, or weary; she says, “Your spring & your day are wasted in play,/ And your winter and night in disguise.”

We – the mothers hovering by the zip wire – shouted ‘five more minutes…’, ‘one more go’, ‘I have to make dinner’, ‘don’t push in!’ while our children did their best to ignore the intrusion. I became both of Blake’s nurses at once. I was weary from sitting in the heat and hungry; I knew my daughter would be instantly ‘too tired to walk’ on the uphill journey home. But I was also loath to drag her off, take away freedom, end the fun.

We control our children’s freedom to play; we all contain both of Blake’s nurses. But we – like our children – have lost the ‘echoing green’: we are separated from nature. In a 2012 report for The National Trust, Stephen Moss (nature writer, broadcaster and wildlife television producer) borrows a phrase from Richard Louv  in order to describe what is happening to our minds and bodies as a result of separation from nature – “Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”

I feel this to be true for myself and for my children: when we are cut off from the natural world, it is more difficult for us to find joy. Our natural physical existence is a true source of joy: the sound of the wind, grass underfoot. Summer holidays are a chance for us to find such joy – packs of children charging around campsites, adults sitting for hours around barbecues, outdoor swimming pools jammed full of bodies.

For me, the nurse of Innocence usually wins: I want my daughter to play outside unfettered. But I am left with a problem – how can I  make that possible? Someone has to cook dinner and I will need to work again (when the baby is older). I can’t always sit in the park for three hours of an afternoon and I don’t always feel like spending half of my day with other parents making small talk. So it is difficult to find the time in an average day to enable her to play outside.

It also feels important that she is allowed to play without me breathing down her neck, which is even harder to manage. Relatively few children in England are ever allowed to play outside without adult supervision; the percentage of those allowed out alone is even lower for girls. A report commissioned by Natural England, conducted in association with Kings College London, found that “boys were slightly more likely than girls to take visits to the natural environment with no adults present (24% compared to 20%).” (Natural England, 2016, p.27)

Stephen Moss argues that it is important for children to play without excessive interference. Moss says that, “In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90%”. He links the decline in freedom to “declining emotional resilience and the declining ability to assess risk, both vital life-skills in the development of which outdoor experience is vital.” Children need to be in control of their own decisions and their own experience; it is not enough just to take them to feed the ducks.

At a time when the mass media controls our children’s perception, and social media pressures them to conform, they need emotional resilience and they need to be able to make their own choices. Girls, especially, are in desperate need of self-confidence and self-reliance. I imagine that freedom to play outside would give my daughter space to develop away from the glare of a screen, and would give her time to enjoy her body without worrying about how she looks. I say ‘imagine’ because she doesn’t play outside alone yet, unless we go camping. She is only six, but I don’t know how I will let her go out alone when she is older.

At the moment, I read to her about playing outside alone. The experience of childhood freedom has been immortalised by countless writers who remember it. They may idealise, but the idealisation is beautiful. Lucy M. Boston, for example, in her series of children’s books from the 50’s:

“The sun had not yet pierced the haze of morning. The water was like a looking-glass with a faint mist of breath drying off it. The children felt it so bewitching that without even a discussion they turned downstream, drifting silently along, willing to become part of the river if they could.” (The River at Green Knowe, 1959)

But reading about life is not the same as living.

Children’s ability to delight in being their natural selves is what Blake values so highly. Blake’s nurse of Experience believes that our “winter and night” is wasted in “disguise”. Could the tablets and the smartphones and the TV be a kind of disguise – a place for our children to forget themselves? Perhaps the mental stress many teenagers experience is made worse by their never having learnt to notice and enjoy themselves and the natural world.

When children are lucky enough to have a playground, their play is fenced in and their parents stand around checking the time on their phones. And our hills echo only with the sound of motorways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Facebook is after our children’s eyeballs, which should surprise no one. In December last year, Facebook launched ‘Messenger Kids’ for 6 – 12 year-olds; in May they ignored a petition signed by 21,000 child health advocates asking them to scrap it (Guardian, 2018). 

Facebook tells us that their app is designed with the help of ‘experts’ and gives parents ‘control’. Messenger for Kids decorates the screen with bright digital splashes, as if the children have been busy painting. (I prefer to think of the splashes as the vomit of billions of parents who find this marketing nauseating.)

Everyone knows that social media is addictive and designed to be so! Several high profile statements have been made by Silicon Valley insiders on how these products are designed to be habit-forming. Sean Parker (first President of Facebook – quoted in my title), and Tristan Harris (ex-Google Design Ethicist) have both described how social media companies deliberately exploit animal behaviour patterns first documented by Skinner in the 1930’s and taught in basic Psychology courses in American universities.

The most powerful behaviourist tactic employed by social media to addict us is the ‘variable reward’. Harris explains the ploy clearly – “If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.” (Tristan Harris, 2016) That is what happens with ‘likes’ on Facebook -sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t, which makes you want more and more.

Facebook also relies on painful emotion to keep us hooked. Nir Eyal, a serpentile writer who calls himself “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology,” speaks enthusiastically on how “negative emotions” are the “most frequent internal triggers”, which are “critical to forming these long term habits.” (Ted Talk, 2015) Eyal goes on to quip that “depressed people check e-mail more.” So carefree about manipulating the unhappiness of others for his own financial gain – what a sweetie! We are compelled by our worst feelings: algorithms feed us news that will make us furious, because the algorithm knows that we are more likely to click on stuff if we’re angry; we feel lonely, so we have a look on Facebook.

Facebook know that we know they addict us on purpose, which is why they have not included overtly addictive features on their kids app – no “like” buttons. Thus it appears as if Facebook have designed the app purely out of love for humanity: so that little Tilly and Oceana can wear digital cat masks and gossip about school.

There is no charge for Messenger Kids; it has also been aggressively marketed. Sound suspicious? Of course it is! So, what’s in it for Facebook? Property. Our data is Facebook’s property. And now they own detailed data about our children too. If you read the small print it tells you: your child’s “registration details”, “content and communications” as well as “activity” will be collected. And Facebook, “may share the information we collect in Messenger Kids within the family of companies that are part of Facebook”. Also, “If the ownership or control of all or part of Messenger Kids changes, we may transfer information to the new owner.” (Facebook)

Facebook profit from selling data. The companies that buy the data then control personalised advertising and newsfeeds for those on real Facebook. Third parties to whom Facebook sell data decide what we see; the third parties are able therefore – by algorithm or deliberate design – to manipulate us. Sandy Parakilas (an ex-operations manager on the platform team at Facebook) urged in the New York Times (Nov, 2017): “Facebook needs to be regulated more tightly, or broken up so that no single entity controls all of its data. The company won’t protect us by itself…”Jaron Lanier – American computer philosophy writer – encourages everyone to “delete all social media accounts right now”; on Channel Four News (June, 2018) Lanier explains that social media “leeches your free will…makes the world a little darker because you’re not perceiving reality clearly anymore you’re being manipulated.”

It is murky how unnamed third parties may be using our children’s data: there are no ads or newsfeeds on Kids Messenger. But it is certain that Facebook are priming children for complete Facebook addiction as soon as they turn 13.

Facebook pretend in their advertising that they are just helping kids to play. The word ‘play’ is used twice in the 1 minute and 21 second official promotional video for this app. My first response was to think, ‘what do you mean ‘play’? They’re just on their phones!’ Then I remembered my daughter was talking on a pretend mobile phone from the age of three – a spoon, an envelope, anything she could grab off the table and hold up to her ear. She was playing.

Kids on Facebook Messenger are playing at what will go on to occupy much of their adult lives. Lev Vygotski saw play as a way children develop: through play they move towards what they will become – “the play-development relationship can be compared to the instruction-development relationship.” (Vygotski, 1978)  His insight is relevant. Now children can play at Facebook, until they are on Facebook for real; Facebook knows it is invaluable to catch them early: by playing at it from a young age, children make using Facebook part of who they are.

My six-year old finds it ‘annoying’ when a child turns up to a party or wedding and won’t play with her because they are on a phone. But she also feels excluded from all the fun she imagines she could be having if we’d let her have a phone like ‘everyone else in my class’. I dread the day when she also feels excluded from social media – which is beginning to replace real human interaction for children too.

I want her to develop relationships in real-life, not online; I do not want Facebook to sell her data or force-feed her with personalised news and ads. And I have a horrid image in my mind of her left alone in the real world because all the other children have disappeared into a silicon labyrinth.

 

 

 

“Smells of dust, the dust of time, Egyptian dust…”

Books are being pulped(Unison, 2017) What else could happen when the schools, libraries and shops no longer require them? In my town there are two charity shops where you can buy a book for 25 pence; the same shops have recycling bins for the piles of useless pages they just can’t shift.

Children don’t necessarily encounter too many of these paper dinosaurs: they have YouTube for kids, Kids Smartphone,  Kindle Fire, etc etc etc. And libraries in the UK are closing faster than you can say, ‘Books? What are they?’ 449 libraries closed between 2012 and 2017 (The Bookseller, 2017) Those remaining are reduced and forced – by cuts – to rely on volunteers, (CILIP, 2017)

‘We don’t need books anymore, computers do that job; books take up space and collect dust.’ I hear you thinking. (Space is especially precious to us in the UK, as our living rooms shrink around us – Alice in Wonderland style, (Guardian, 2018))

But children need and want books and libraries are invaluable. Ian Anstice, (Library manager since 1998, winner of Information Professional of the Year 2011 and Editor of Public Libraries News) in the New Statesman, argues that the internet can’t be blamed for the decline in library use in the UK – “Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA are all not seeing the decline that we’re seeing.”

Anstice points out that libraries give everyone equal access to books and thus foster literacy, “If you’re wealthy and you can afford a lot of books, that’s brilliant, you don’t need a library. But if you’ve got a child, from toddlers – who are absolutely voracious for picture books – onwards, to give your child the same access to books, and thus to improved literacy, you need a library.” (New Statesman, 2017)   Necessary for a country in which, “around 15 per cent, or 5.1 million adults in England, can be described as ‘functionally illiterate.’ They…have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old.” (National Literacy Trust)

Libraries give children more than literacy: they provide thoughts, facts, ideas, possible identities. A child can wander around a library and encounter the world for themselves, without the interference of a parent, teacher or creepy algorithm programmed to predict their personality type.

Ray Bradbury says that, for him as a child, books were people – “I’d look in and…people are waiting in there, thousands of people…when you open a book the person pops out and becomes you…you are Charles Dickens and he is you…” (NEA, 2017) A child needs access to books in order to choose who they want to be – to invent themselves. In a library, any child can do that.

‘Alright alright, but why fiddle about with all that paper when you could just use a kindle?’ I hear you exclaim. I find it uncanny –  threatening – that the name of the device invented to replace the book is ‘Kindle’; if you want to use apps simultaneously choose ‘Kindle Fire’ – an even scarier name. ‘Why scary?’ you cry. ‘Stop whinging. There’s no conspiracy! Change is inevitable!’

But why did they have to call it the ‘Fire’? It’s as if the brand development people – somewhere in their minds – were conjuring a good old-fashioned book burning. It was Hitler’s book burning that frightened Bradbury into writing Fahrenheit 451 – his classic dystopia about a ‘fireman’ who burns books.  (Watch the short film I mentioned above to hear him talking about it – here’s another link. It’s worth watching.) It does strike me that – when you turn a real page – no cookies are stored anywhere…

Putting that uncomfortable thought to one side for now, I want to make a final point. A child values a real book with real pages. A child can hold a book; they can stare at the cover; they can encounter, at their own natural pace, any number of strange new worlds, which may be a complete mystery to them. Mystery is fine. A book doesn’t need to be relevant, or accessible. It could be; or it could be a vague impression of an alien landscape you don’t understand that makes you want to know more.

Patti Smith writes about her childhood and the books lying around her parents’ house. Here she describes her fascination with a textbook her father owned:

“…I remembered copying such things from a heavy textbook that sat on the shelf above my father’s desk. He had all kinds of books rescued from dustbins and deserted houses and bought for pennies at church bazaars. The range of subjects from ufology to Plato to the planarian reflected his ever-curious mind. I would pore over this particular book for hours, contemplating its mysterious world. The dense text was impossible to penetrate but somehow the monochromic renderings of living organisms suggested many colours, like flashing minnows in a fluorescent pond. This obscure and nameless book, with its paramecia, algae, and amoebas, floats alive in memory.” (Patti Smith, M Train, 2015)

She conveys the world as experienced by a child through a physical encounter with a book – an experience so vivid that its impression never quite disappeared. I am not pretending that all children could – or should – be voracious readers, but all children can discover something from books, if only an intimation of what they don’t know.

In a world where the mass media offers children a limited menu of who – or what – they could be, children need books desperately. They need other ideas; they need the past. And children want books. A recent experiment in French schools, which dictates all children and staff must read for fifteen minutes each day, (anything except school books and magazines) has proved very popular, (The Connexion, 2017).  Based on my eight years as an English teacher, I can guess that fifteen minutes private reading would go down very well with British children. The only problem is, where could they find the books?

 

 

“Beauty always promises, but never gives anything”

‘Dance like nobody’s watching’ is an injunction to rediscover child-like freedom and joy; there is innocence in not being aware of what others think. But, imperceptibly, children become conscious of what other people think of them – first their family. Then, everybody else; it’s inevitable – we have to live in society, whether we are Amish or Zoroastrian.

Sometimes, when I am worrying about my daughter, I envy the Amish their seclusion. The Western media chokes innocence by making children painfully aware of their appearance. Children are swamped with images constantly; and images of femininity tend to conform to a narrow type – thin bodies, revealing clothes, manicured hair and makeup, (probably airbrushed). Girls’ clothing and toys reinforce the effect of these images – you can buy a bra for your five year old and Unicorn Sparkle eye-shadow. You might allow yourself to fall for the fake innocence of such products, (but I don’t think any of us seriously believe that unicorns wear eye-shadow, we’re not that stupid). And what is innocent about a child wearing a bra when they have no breasts, whilst painting their face to resemble the adult sexual women they see on TV?

The idea of the perfect body is constantly in front of our eyes and our children’s eyes. Susie Orbach describes this situation clearly –

‘The supersized, digitally enhanced images of airbrushed and Photoshopped individuals which penetrate into our public and private spaces are reshaping the way we regard our bodies. The visual Muzak, omnipresent in lifts and queues, projected everywhere to keep our eyes busy, makes us super-aware and hyper-critical of our own bodies. This has created a cultural climate in which improving the way the body looks and functions is seen as a crucial personal responsibility,’ (Bodies, 2009, p. 136).

Orbach argues that, from a very young age, we are made to feel that we have to change our bodies, to work on them. She says that the constant struggle to change the body, rather than accept it, causes people (especially girls and women) to become alienated from their natural sensations, to struggle and to feel permanent unhappiness about their own bodies.

Ariana Grande is a star whom children love. She has been praised, too, for her ‘feminist convictions’, (Guardian, May 2017). But, probably under pressure from business types around her, she also sells her image, which is thin, made-up and sexual. You only have to watch a little bit of Dangerous Woman to see this, (‘Something ’bout you makes me wanna do things that I shouldn’t’). It disturbs me beyond words that it is acceptable for little girls to call themselves Arianators. It is hypocrisy for Grande to write on Instagram encouraging her fans not to cover their faces in photographs,  “You show me so much unconditional love all the time no matter what tf I look like. You deserve to show yourselves that same kindness. ” (Teen Vogue, March 2018) As if her appearance is irrelevant! Her whole Instagram page is based on pictures of her looking exactly the way that girls are taught is beautiful – a look that is impossible for most girls to achieve.

I want my six year old to feel comfortable in her body; I don’t want her to see pop videos and emulate this impossible physical ideal.  I have witnessed how dramatic the effect of MTV can be. I used to work in a boarding school where I helped in a boarding house. MTV played constantly in the common room and, after one year there, new girls (aged eleven and twelve) had started asking their parents for bikini waxes. No more dancing like no one is watching for them!

How can we protect children from it? My daughter already refuses to wear a pretty denim sunhat because someone in her class made fun of it, (the fashion in her class is American-style baseball caps with Disney characters). She has already been told by another child that her freckles are ugly. To me this feels like an augur of what is to come, and what she might already be absorbing without saying anything.

The energy unleashed by the #MeToo campaign could be harnessed. Women could use this moment to challenge the narrow, unnatural and harmful idea that we are sold of how women, and men, should look. The problem for individual adults, however, is that we have absorbed these images and judge ourselves accordingly.

It’s time for #IlookOK.

‘There is something sad about a music box…’

My friend – who is in her seventies – came across a music box as she searched for things in her house to entertain our children. My friend thought it was the quality of the music that made her sad. Gentle music: played by metal pins plucking a comb as you turn the handle. You almost need to hold your breath while it plays; so quiet and slow that even a happy tune can make you sad. But I think the melancholy runs deeper than that. Music boxes evoke nostalgia for a world many of us never knew – a world where something so quiet and slow could hold a child’s attention.

Why would kids play with a music box when they can watch TV? According to an Ofcom report from November 2017, during an average week British children aged 3-4 spend fifteen hours watching TV, nearly 6 hours gaming and 8 hours on the internet,  (Fig. 1, p. 26). The report underlines that these amounts might overlap: if children spend some time watching TV on the internet, for instance. It also points out that the figures rely on children and parents remembering their habits accurately – so in truth they probably  spend more time than this. But, just going by these figures, we can say that the average British three year old is about six hours short of a full working week – if it’s their job to stare at a screen.

It’s hard to find statistics for younger children, but you just need to read Mumsnet, or ask anyone with a small child, to know that people worry about their babies and toddlers being drawn to screens and don’t necessarily know how much to limit screen-time. Health warnings often focus on children under three, when the brain develops at an incredible rate. Professor Dimitri A Christakis, from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington, is a leading campaigner for limitation. You can read about his research online, or watch a Ted Talk by him. One of his central ideas is the ‘over-stimulation hypothesis’. Christakis says, ‘…prolonged exposure to rapid image change during this critical period of brain development would precondition the mind to expect high levels of input and that would lead to inattention in later life.’ (Ted Talk, Dec 2011). Christakis warns that TV before the age of three could lead to attention problems at school. Of course the brain needs to develop normally if your child is going to do well at school.

And could this interference with brain development take something away from a person less obvious, less measurable, than academic achievement? Watching screens might dull our experience of the world. A different friend of mine said to me that when her TV is off ‘it’s like the room has been switched off’. A twelve-year-old I once taught found out I didn’t have a TV, and exclaimed ‘but what does all your furniture point at?’ The TV is what little children watch the most: it’s right there in the centre of the room, big, bright and easy to use. TV, since it’s invention, has increasingly dominated childhood. So children become conditioned to expect ‘high levels of input’. In other words, they need the flashing screen and the quick changes, the sound effects – the action. But the world doesn’t go at that pace. If you’re waiting for action, you won’t notice ants, clouds, the sound of the wind, your own tummy rumbling, birds – you can make your own list.

Maybe worse, if all the adults are watching TV – or on their phones – children miss out on the adult world. Doris Lessing observed the death of an adult culture when she lived with Italian immigrants in London in 1950. She describes how she and her little boy shared their lives. I will quote her at length:

‘Before, when the men came back from work…the radio emitted words or music softly in the corner, they washed and sat down at their places, with the woman, the child, and whoever else in the house could be inveigled downstairs. Food began emerging from the oven, dish after dish, tea was brewed, beer appeared, off went the jerseys and the jackets, the men sat in their shirtsleeves, glistening with well-being. They all talked, they sang, they told what had happened in their day, they talked dirty – a ritual; they quarelled, they shouted, they kissed and made up and went to bed at twelve or one…And then from one day to the next – but literally from one evening to the next – came the end of good times, for television had arrived and sat like a toad in the corner of the kitchen…It was the end of an exuberant verbal culture.’ (Walking In The Shade, 1997, p.17 -18)

Children need to talk to adults and watch adults. That is why they stare: because they are learning. A toddler watching adults sit around staring at the TV, or their phones, must learn that life is based on the interaction between a person and their screen; the screen is where it’s happening.

We don’t have a TV at home, but our kids do watch stuff on a laptop – there are some great programmes: recently a BBC documentary about burrowing animals with Chris Packham. But my six-year-old daughter still wants what she imagines ‘all the other children’ in her class have: a tablet, an iPhone, loads of telly. As I mentioned before, she is not averse to winding me up. The other day – when the tedious subject of princesses came up – I argued that she didn’t have to plan to get married when she grows up and that’s it:

‘You could do anything! You used to want to be someone who looks after snails…what do you want to do?’

‘I want to sit on the sofa and watch TV all day.’

OK, I probably don’t have to take that too seriously. She just likes TV and she wants more, the same as most kids. I like TV. But it is difficult to stop it from becoming the toad that just swallows everything else.