It’s a question that most parents of young daughters face: “Has she hit the ‘princess phase’ yet?” Not all parents are upset by this, of course: many happily buy their girls princess costumes, toys and accessories ranging from shoes to purses, all in pink. Some, though, despair of the powerful gender stereotyping this delivers to young girls and each new piece of princess gear can be a source of conflict.

On Saturday, September 26, 2009, the US network Nickelodeon did something unusual: it switched itself off. This was in observance of the “Worldwide Day of Play,” an event Nickelodeon inaugurated in 2004. The network – along with its sister channels Noggin, the N, and Nicktoons, and their associated Web sites – went dark for three hours to encourage its young viewers to “ride a bike, do a dance, kick a ball, skate a board, jump a rope, swing a swing, climb a wall, run a race, do ANYTHING that gets you up and playing!”

Last year in this space we wrote about how summer movies serve as advertisements for various kinds of merchandising. The success of 2007’s Transformers and its sequel this summer point to a different but similar trend: making movies that are actually about the toys companies sell.

It’s been widely said that attention is the currency of the 21st Century. In an age where media occupy an increasingly central role in our lives, the need to have that media focused on you becomes intense. For no-one is this more true than for children and teens, who now expect to be connected twenty-four hours a day and for whom the Internet and cell phones are essential parts of their social lives. An interesting Facebook page, amusing Tweets, outrageous YouTube videos, even shocking photos sent by cell phone – most of us are aware of the ways that young people seek their peers’ attention. In today’s media environment, is it still possible to teach young people the value of privacy? What, indeed, does the idea of privacy even mean to today’s children and teens?

It’s a persistent phenomenon: the faster we move into the future, the more we find it embedded with the bones of the past. Why else, for instance, would we still talk about “dialling” a phone, and later about “hanging it up”? Few people remember the early TV remote controls that worked by sending high-frequency sounds, but we still call remotes “clickers.” We still say “stay tuned,” “CC” (carbon copy) e-mails, “rewind” DVDs, and “post” online messages. Even new media darling YouTube contains an old-media artefact of this kind: the name is obviously meant to make us think of television, the “boob tube,” but few TVs have tubes in them anymore.

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