It’s broken! The family unit has fractured into a tiny million units

Much of the time, modern parents have little or no idea what’s going on with their kids or who their kids are talking to or listening to, writes Ailin Quinlan in her weekly column
It’s broken! The family unit has fractured into a tiny million units
TOO MUCH TIME ONLINE: Do you know what your child is doing locked away in their room, or who they are communicating with?

I HAD just purchased a copy of Peepo! the much-loved classic by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, hailed as the best book ever published for babies and currently enjoying its 30th anniversary.

My kids loved it when they were smallies, and now here I was, 20 years on, buying it again for my tiny grandson.

It’s a beautiful book and as I flicked nostalgically through its pages, I was struck by something that never occurred to me before — by how happily solid and inviolable the Peepo! family home seemed to be.

There’s granny doing the ironing, and, look — Mum pouring hot porridge into bowls — while Dad brings in a bucket of coal. There go the sisters turning the shed upside down looking for jars to go fishing in the park with — later we see them un-self-consciously fishing in the pond with their dresses tucked into their knickers. Everyone’s buzzing around doing something. The kids are behaving the way we mostly used to behave ourselves when we were small — flying around getting into mischief. Everyone in Peepo! just gets on with their lives. And you know why? Nobody in the outside world is the least bit interested in what this family is doing.

These kids aren’t self-consciously taking selfies and snapshots of every single thing they do and every single meal they eat in order to upload this fascinating information for other people to comment on.

They’re not using their smart-phones to bully classmates. They’re not videoing their parents in order to ridicule them on the internet. Marketers are not befriending the kids in Peepo! to extol the wonders of sugary cereals and subtly, insidiously, disdain Mammy’s bowls of hot porridge. In fact there’s not a digital device in sight.

The family home of today, however, is a very different unit. It’s fractured. And at the expense of being called (and not for the first time) a total drama queen, dare I say, possibly even broken.

You see, corporations are very interested in families now because they’re able to sell them things so they have inserted an arm into the heart of every home through digital media, recommending and advising families what to wear and what to do with their time.

Corporations are far more influential than mum or dad or granny. Their aim— to disseminate uncertainty about what is and what is not socially acceptable clothing, behaviour or food. It’s silent; it’s insidious but it really works. Which of course, is why so many children today are so bloody self-conscious about everything — down to the brand of shoes they wear and whether they have a socially acceptable lunch-box.

And now, it seems, they’re even being told by marketers what they should get mammy to put into their lunchbox. How scary is that? Which, of course, is why they feel they have to walk around with the names of manufacturers printed down the side of their legs or across their chests. They worry about the number of ‘likes’ they get on social media and they’re bullied over the phone about their haircut.

Much of the time, modern parents have little or no idea what’s going on with their kids or who their kids are talking to or listening to. If you see a child fishing in the pond, you can be fairly certain that that’s what the child is focusing on. But if the child spends its time up in the bedroom with an internet-enabled smart phone or tablet, Mum and dad don’t know what the child is doing or who he’s talking to. And that’s how the family as a unit has fractured into a million tiny pieces.

Unless she’s very on the ball, Mum, it seems, no longer even has the power to determine what her children eat. How could she — junk food brands now have completely inappropriate access to children online. They pester them relentlessly in school, at home and even in their bedrooms, mostly through their smart phones — and, quite literally, on an individual basis.

It’s almost as if, according to Irish Heart, which launched a survey on this whole issue during the week, that each child has their own personal marketer following them around wherever they go.

“They get onto children’s newsfeeds and interact like real friends. They’re anything but. All these marketers really want to do is encourage children to consume as much junk as possible,” says Irish Heart Dietitian and Health Promotion Manager Janis Morrissey. Worse still, she says, it’s being done behind parents’ backs.

“The vast majority of parents do not know that these brands are individually targeting their children.”

And it’s fuelling Ireland’s childhood obesity problem.

According to Irish Heart, it is very difficult for parents to have visibility of how junk brands are targeting their children on social networking sites like Facebook. Earlier this week an Ipsos MRBI study found that 76% of people surveyed support a ban on the marketing of unhealthy products to children on digital media.

It showed that 80% of people surveyed believe that advertising and promotion is either a very big or fairly big contributor to childhood obesity, whilst 87% rated childhood obesity as a very big or a fairly big concern in Ireland.

The Stop Targeting Kids campaign is being conducted amid growing concerns over how online marketing is fueling Ireland’s childhood obesity problem, in a society where children as young as eight are presenting with high blood pressure-an early sign of heart disease once mostly seen in middle-age.

The thing is, it’s often very difficult for parents to know how junk brands are targeting their children on social networking sites like Facebook.

The government is being urged to regulate the way digital marking is aiming at Irish children — Irish Heart’s Head of Advocacy, Chris Macey, points to conclusive and long-standing proof of a causal link between junk food marketing to children and child obesity. That’s why, he explains, that the junk food ads on TV were restricted four years ago.

But as Macey points out, there’s still no regulation of digital marketing which is more personalised, targeted, effective and therefore potentially much more damaging to children’s health.

“We know junk food marketing to children is rampant, we know it is fueling obesity, we know this is damaging children’s health and we know the State is not doing enough to tackle the problem and is failing in its duty of care to protect children’s health.”

Irish Heart’s Stop Targeting Kids campaign is seeking public support through a petition which calls for action by the Government to regulate digital marketing aimed at Irish children. It wants to close what it describes as “gaping loopholes” in broadcast restrictions — loopholes which mean that children still see over 1,000 junk food and drinks ads on television every year.

According to the World Health Organisation it is possible for individual States to compel digital platforms like Facebook to remove junk food marketing in the same way as they do with adverts for tobacco and alcohol products.

Isn’t it time the Irish state tackled this? There’s no point trying to encourage your children to eat healthily when you have these insidious, trendy brands, continuously pestering them to eat junk .

Wouldn’t I love to just step into the pages of Peepo! never to return to our noisy, stressful toxic world of today? Wouldn’t you?

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