Wednesday, August 24, 2011
THE KIDS ARE NOT ALL RIGHT
No doubt my parents felt similarly about the things I did as a kid, as did my grandparents about my parents’ childhood activities. But the issues confronting parents today can’t be dismissed as mere generational prejudices. There is reason to believe that childhood itself is now in crisis.
Throughout history, societies have struggled with how to deal with children and childhood. In the United States and elsewhere, a broad-based “child saving” movement emerged in the late 19th century to combat widespread child abuse in mines, mills and factories. By the early 20th century, the “century of the child,” as a prescient book published in 1909 called it, was in full throttle. Most modern states embraced the general idea that government had a duty to protect the health, education and welfare of children. Child labor was outlawed, as were the sale and marketing of tobacco, alcohol and pornography to children. Consumer protection laws were enacted to regulate product safety and advertising aimed at children.
But the 20th century also witnessed another momentous shift, one that would ultimately threaten the welfare of children: the rise of the for-profit corporation. Lawyers, policy makers and business lobbied successfully for various rights and entitlements traditionally connected, legally, with personhood. New laws recognized corporations as legal — albeit artificial — “persons,” granting them many of the same legal rights and privileges as human beings. In an eerie parallel with the child-protective efforts, “the best interests of the corporation” was soon introduced as a legal precept.
A clash between these two newly created legal entities — children and corporations — was, perhaps, inevitable. Century-of-the-child reformers sought to resolve conflicts in favor of children. But over the last 30 years there has been a dramatic reversal: corporate interests now prevail. Deregulation, privatization, weak enforcement of existing regulations and legal and political resistance to new regulations have eroded our ability, as a society, to protect children.
Another area of concern: we medicate increasing numbers of children with potentially harmful psychotropic drugs, a trend fueled in part by questionable and under-regulated pharmaceutical industry practices. In the early 2000s, for example, drug companies withheld data suggesting that such drugs were more dangerous and less effective for children and teenagers than parents had been led to believe. The law now requires “black box” warnings on those drugs’ labels, but regulators have done little more to protect children from sometimes unneeded and dangerous drug treatments.
Children today are also exposed to increasing quantities of toxic chemicals. We know that children, because their biological systems are still developing, are uniquely vulnerable to the dangers posed by many common chemical compounds. We also know that corporations often use such chemicals as key ingredients in children’s products, saturating their environments. Yet these chemicals remain in circulation, as current federal laws demand unreasonably high proof of harm before curbing a chemical’s use.
Joel Bakan, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, is the author of “Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children.”
By JOEL BAKAN
Published: August 21, 2011