Most experts would agree that kids should avoid addictive substances, but addictive behaviors -- especially those involving digital technology -- are not only tolerated, but encouraged among an ever-younger group of targeted consumers. I mean kids.
Nobody would have to think twice about the wisdom of serving a kid a beer, or suggesting that a teenager should start smoking cigarettes. There's lots of attention being paid to issue of childhood obesity. We've also created over the generations some agreed-upon thresholds for doing things like driving a car, voting, and getting married.
When it comes to stuff that humanity has had time struggling and dealing with, we have pretty clear rules in mind (and in law) to limit consumption. Certain things are not just controlled, but evoke a duh, yeah reaction if we were ever challenged to consider otherwise.
It's the exact opposite when it comes to the categories of newer entertainment content and new technology.
The implications of a sliding scale of thresholds on entertainment content isn't conclusive to any two people, even as the degradation of said standards is conclusively useful to producers, and angering to parents. It's a tough one, since there's no biological, causal link between content and health akin to calories and fat. So it's harder to establish and hold to thresholds.
Sure, we have a movie ratings system, but it's squishy, and at times very capricious. Sex is more dangerous than violence, and inappropriate scenes in a violent movie are somehow made more appropriate when embedded in comedies. The general trend is to risk exposing ever-younger kids to ever-more adult (violent and sexual) themes, even as we see a commensurate surge in the number of lone gun toting kids spraying bullets in classrooms and malls.
Two-hour mega-violent movies and endless hours of gore-splattering, murderous video game playing have no connection to the ways people act, interestingly enough, just as experts in branding and marketing celebrate the awareness and influence merits of 30-second TV commercials and sentence-long posts in social media chat rooms.
But that's another story.
On the technology front, it's even harder, even though we know already that certain technologies are addictive: chat, email, Internet surfing. They're not necessarily bad addictions, but can certainly be put to nefarious uses (i.e. be dangerous for kids). And over-use in general is a bad habit we're happy to note and decry in adults. "Crackberry" is not a nice term.
So what's the threshold for using a mobile phone? According to Telefonica’s Imaginarium, it's about 6 years old. Its MO1 phone is designed so that "...your child can use whenever you want." Nevermind the broken English translation on the web site; the presumption here is that it's a good thing -- or at least a neutral gesture -- to give your 6 year old a cell phone.
There are other providers targeting these youngest consumers: Firefly and Kajeet are two examples. I am not slighting them for their efforts. In fact, both of these providers seem to go out of their way to offer limitations, protections, and customization of their products so risks are minimized for even their youngest consumers.
But so many precautions make me think of what it would take to make starter cigarettes seem acceptable? Maybe thicker filters, or wider rolls so they're more easily held by younger hands. Starter guns could use a larger gauge bullet and a smaller trigger for easier loading and shooting. Just like starter sex education can come from adult themes buried in raunchy comedy movies.
Marketing consumption as safe for young people is not the same as it being safe.
Where are the objective, third-party regulators that should be looking at this stuff? Do we want teenagers texting endlessly (the phone companies are happy to provide no way to limit the activity, and every way to pay for "unlimited" services)? Is it a good idea that the only way to limit access to certain web sites is at the user’s discretion, and not stopping it the source (the way it's managed now would be like letting ads for X-rated content run in, say, People, or even Highlights, and just telling readers to look away).
I wonder if, and then when, consumers will want this sort of oversight. It may never happen, and maybe that's a good thing, considering the abuses that such controls have been put in the political past (can anybody say "Soviet Union?").
Even discussing it makes me think of censorship and thought-control. We've all been taught to avoid going there because limits are inherently wrong, the Free Market is the best determinant of value, and we, as parents, have the ultimate authority to decide what our kids will and won’t see and buy. The movie industry will "voluntarily" regulate itself.
Technology isn't neutral, despite the hyperbole from the tech lobby that consistently declares otherwise. Unfettered, endless uses for devices, and quasi-categorized consumption of content, aren't objectively good things or bad things. The devil is in the details.
If we can have a government that approves what ingredients and drugs belong in the bodies of one age group versus another, why can't it do something other than shrug when it comes to what we put into our minds, or what devices we surround ourselves with?