Gearing Up for Generation Goo-Google

[July 23, 2010]

Behind the proliferation of child-oriented Web sites are a number of conflicting impulses. Concerned parents want a safe-haven apart from the Internet’s narrow alleys and dark corners. Educators persist in hoping the hypnotic power of video will motivate children to learn. Meanwhile, merchandisers vie for the most compelling word-of-mouth market on the planet (“Can I have it please, can I? Please?”).

The result is an unappealing mishmash of every societal and cultural trend since the 60s, when mass-market marketing to kids began its conquest of diaper space in earnest.

Contributing to this distressing array of mixed-messages is the thoughtlessly generic way we think about children in the first place. One word, “child,” covers about three-quarters of the entire span of human development. Sure, there’s “baby” and “toddler” and “school age” and “tween,” but their pull on our consciousness is weak. That the Kid-Sector of digital space is no less a blur of contradictory stimuli is therefore hardly surprising.

I’d like to suggest we owe children more than this. It’s not even a matter of “education” versus “entertainment:” It’s a question of craftsmanship. On the Education front, for example, the “counting and kumbaya” mode of teaching has its limitations.

At some point, educational tools need more focus than an interactive playground can provide. Yet parents seeking a digital learning experience for their kids will spend hours sorting through “Sesame Street” clones, or endless iterations of the hapless “Math Fax R Funn” approach to learning.

They’re listening…
You want to teach? Teach by example. Stop teaching children they must be too dumb to understand anything beyond another explosion, another CGI mutant or another adventure of the shy but brilliant detective and her intrepid pony. Kids only like this stuff because we can’t be bothered to offer them something better.

At the other end of the spectrum, whatever passes for “pure entertainment” ought at least to be based on a better understanding of the way kids process information. After decades of research by countless clinicians, I’m kind of amazed to see the only thing anyone outside of the lab has picked up—is that bit about “short attention span.” Well, here’s another catch phrase for you: “cognitive pollution.”

Think of it. You’ve managed to capture a young mind’s attention with the magic of narrative (or a narrative about magic). Isn’t there anything we, as adults, want to say to our children while they’re actually listening?

…to the heartbeat of an era we must shape and guide.
I suppose none of this would matter half as much—if we weren’t heading straight for a digital makeover of everyday life. A hundred years from now, every square foot of the planet will be touched, in some way, by a digital access point. The way things are going, genetically engineered cows will one day have touch screens embedded in their sides to help farmers monitor their health. At that point, the word “CowPad” will take on a whole new meaning.

In fact, we’re moving into an era in which our first language will be some form of digital communication. What we seed today in our children’s minds will determine the outcome of that future. It will determine whether we’re heightened and enlightened or whether, like the lab rats who begot us, we simply exist to click the pleasure bar over and over and over again.

For an unscientific survey of the depressing array of child-oriented sites, I encourage you to follow the links you’ll find below. Then ask yourself a simple question: Is this any way to raise the next generation of Goo-Googlers?

Cartoon Network
The Nick
CIA Kids Page


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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