Raising Creative, Critical Thinkers in a Commercialized World (with Susan Linn)

Janet’s guest is psychologist, writer, researcher, and Harvard lecturer Susan Linn. For decades, Susan has been a passionate advocate for our children and a steadfast fighter against the infiltration of Big Business and Big Tech into kids’ lives (and parents’ pocketbooks). In an eye-opening discussion, Susan describes how digital culture is designed to indoctrinate children into consumerism and brand loyalty, and how it’s geared to create dependencies on games and devices for stimulation and soothing. She explains how games and devices teach values that are often diametrically opposed to our own, how they can affect learning by shrinking our children’s world and even interfere with parent-child relationships. Ultimately, Susan and Janet focus on the positive actions we can take to lessen the impact of manipulative marketers while realistically acknowledging the role of digitized culture in all of our lives.

Transcript of “Raising Creative, Critical Thinkers in a Commercialized World (with Susan Linn)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m welcoming Susan Linn to Unruffled. She’s been a hero of mine for such a long time. I’ve been aware of her work for years now. She’s a writer, a psychologist. She founded Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and she’s a research associate at Boston Children’s Hospital and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. She is also a ventriloquist and even appeared on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

Susan’s authored three books Consuming Kids, The Case for Make Believe and her latest, Who’s Raising the Kids, and I’m looking forward to talking to Susan about how Big Tech and Big Business can infiltrate our children’s lives and influence their values, their relationships, and their learning, and what we can do about it.

Janet Lansbury:  Susan, thank you so much for being here. This is such a treat for me.

Susan Linn:  I’m thrilled to be talking to you.

Janet Lansbury: You’ve been a big hero to me for a very long time. And I remember back when you were taking “Your Baby Can Read” and then “Baby Einstein” to task for the false claims that they were making, taking parents’ money. These companies, they prey on our vulnerabilities. We all want to do the best for our children. So you stood up and you did all the work to get them investigated and you put “Your Baby Can Read” completely out of business basically, right?

Susan Linn:  The idea that they were claiming that babies can read with no evidence that they could teach babies to read and that it was good for babies to read was just terrible. And with “Baby Einstein” claiming that these videos were educational for babies when they had no evidence and when there was starting to be evidence that a lot of screen time isn’t good for babies or toddlers. So I’m really glad that Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, which is now called Fairplay, I’m really glad that we were able to do that. I mean, the organization was founded by me and some colleagues because we really saw this as a social justice issue. The commercialization of children’s lives and the corporate takeover of childhood was really about rights and freedoms, the rights of children to grow up and the freedom for parents to raise them without being undermined by greed. I’m thrilled at what’s happening at Fairplay today. They’ve really expanded and now they’re working with members of Congress consulting on bills. I’m so proud of them.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. Well you started it and your passion now has extended into… this is your third book, right? Who’s Raising the Kids: Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children.  You share some very daunting things. A lot of them I knew, but some of them I never even really thought about… like that we’re training children to be little consumers from an early age. So can you talk a little about some of the things that you consider the most threatening or the biggest concerns that you talk about in the book?

Susan Linn:  One thing that I think is important for people to remember is that the process of advertising and marketing to kids, that it’s not just about selling products. It’s about inculcating values and behaviors. And the values and behaviors that benefit corporations aren’t really good for children.

The primary value of marketing is to convince people that the things we buy will make us happy. And what research is telling us is that the things we buy may make us happy for a little while, but it’s not any kind of sustained happiness. What makes us happy are relationships and experiences. And yet kids immersed in our digitized, overly commercialized culture are just being pounded with that message. And as you know so well, young children’s brains are growing and developing, and the things that we learn in childhood can really become lifelong values, attributes, and behaviors,

Janet Lansbury:  Right, because this the foundational level, and the most intense time of learning

Susan Linn:  Except for video chatting with adults who love them, there really isn’t any benefit to young children being immersed in screens. I mean, it’s at the moment anyway mostly a two dimensional world. It shrinks their world down to less than a square foot. And when babies, when we take them out in the world, we really want them to be engaging with that world, to be looking around and experiencing the people passing by, experiencing nature, or the sights and sounds of the city. When we want kids to be curious about and interested in the world around them, and also to generate their own interests and to be able to soothe and amuse themselves, instead, kids spending hours and hours a day with screens are being trained to turn to screens for stimulation and for soothing. That’s a problem.

There was just a study that came out suggesting that toddlers who have less screen time are more likely to have good executive function skills. They’re more apt to be able to initiate tasks, see them through. And that’s so important for coping in life.

And also, as you know, Janet, they learn in relationship. And one of the things that worries me the most about Big Tech and Big Business today is that they’re coming between parents and children. And they’re disrupting that critical relationship, not just with parents, but also with teachers and other caregivers. For instance, digital assistance like Alexa are being marketed as serving parental functions like helping with homework or reading stories or telling stories, things that ordinarily an adult would do with a child. And that relationship is being disrupted and it’s being disrupted purposely.

Janet Lansbury:   Yes. You go into a lot of the tactics that the corporations and Big Tech use to suck children in and suck parents in with them really. And getting children to…  You talked about the, what is it, “the nag something” <laugh>, “the nag factor.” That one of their goals is to get children to nag their parents to buy them the next thing that they need or the next update to their game or whatever it is.

Susan Linn:  In 1998, a company called Western Media International did a study on nagging. It wasn’t to help parents cope with nagging, it was designed to help corporations help children nag more effectively. And the researchers made suggestions about how corporations could get kids to nag. I mean, it would be funny if it just wasn’t so horrendous. We have these huge conglomerates basically doing things that disrupt family life. And as a colleague of mine said, “to make parents absolutely miserable.”

Janet Lansbury:  Right, and to create this brand loyalty with children for life, they feel like this is a happiness factor, this brand, whatever it is.

Susan Linn:  And I think the other thing that’s changed over the past several years is that I don’t think that we can just think about it in terms of screens anymore. It’s not just screens. I mean, there are also all of these tech enabled toys that sing and dance and do back flips all by themselves or just at the push of a button. And as the saying goes, a good toy, a toy that really promotes the kind of creative play that is beneficial to children is 90% child and only 10% toy. A good toy really just lies there until somebody picks it up and does something with it.

But these tech enabled toys, first of all, they advertise, well, they look like they’re a lot of fun in 15 or 30 second commercials, but really kids get bored with them pretty quickly. And that benefits corporations because if they get bored and if they believe that the things they buy will make them happy, then what they’ll do is go on and buy another thing, a bigger thing, a better thing, a different thing.

Janet Lansbury:  Something that I learned from my mentor, Magda Gerber, is that children are discouraged from exploring and investigating more thoroughly toys that they can’t understand. They can’t understand why that noise happens when they push that button. And so it kind of discourages this active exploration that children are so built to do in the early years.

Susan Linn:  Yeah, I think that’s really, really important.

I am at the moment particularly concerned about digital assistance like Amazon’s Alexa, Amazon makes an Alexa for kids. It comes with a smart speaker that I bought. I bought one and actually it’s incredibly cute, the smart speaker. It’s this little delightful looking tiger. And of course we are wired to respond to cuteness. And the thing is that even though Amazon is claiming that Alexa is commercial free, that Alexa for Kids is commercial free, it has a feature that’s called, “I’m Bored.” So the first thing I did when I got this little Echo Dot, the first thing I did is pretending to be a child. I said, “Alexa, I’m bored.” And it offered me, one after another, five commercial product games that were based on brands. “Would you like to play a Barbie game?”

Janet Lansbury: Oh gosh.

Susan Linn:  I said, “No.”

“Oh, well would you like to play a SpongeBob Squarepants game?”

I said, “No.”

“Would you like to play a Wizarding World game?”

Which is Harry Potter. I said, “No.”

“Would you like to play an American Girl Doll game?”

I mean, every single thing that the child I was pretending to be was offered to do basically was an advertisement for a brand. And what corporations want is for children and parents to think that the only way that they can have fun is with these branded choice.

Janet Lansbury:  As an adult, I have to admit, I miss a lot of the advertising that’s coming at me that’s more hidden like that. It’s just hard enough even for us as adults. And then we’ve got children kind of immersed in these things that they can’t really see. It just becomes normalized for them.

Susan Linn:  And they work with child psychologists to exploit children’s vulnerabilities, to understand what they are and then figure out how to exploit them.

Also, what has changed since my first book Consuming Kids, which was primarily about television and video advertising, is that now we and our children are just being surveilled all the time. So if kids are playing with a smart toy, it means that their play is being surveilled. And that can help corporations better how to market to that child. As you know, children’s play is a window into their hearts and minds.

Janet Lansbury:  Totally, yeah.

Susan shares so much eye opening information and incredible research in her book. And then it’s almost as if you have two books in one, because then you have these chapters at the end that are very detailed and comprehensive about what parents can do, both in their personal life and to make societal change. Some of these points that you make remind me of really common misconceptions that I hear about from parents, and I wanted to talk about a couple of those or bring up those and hear your thoughts.

One is: “Remember that there’s no evidence that children must start using screen technologies in early childhood to succeed in a digital world.”

So that’s a concern that I hear a lot that, “well, I want to get them ready for this, they need to learn this.

Susan Linn:  That is so annoying, isn’t it, that that’s the message that parents are getting, and why shouldn’t they believe it? But in fact, first of all, the technologies are going to change. If you think about when laptops and smartphones and apps were introduced, everybody was saying, “Oh, this is active media. It’s not passive media and this will introduce your child to the technological age.”

But if you look at what kids do on a screen, little kids, what they’re doing primarily is swiping or tapping or making things bigger or smaller. That’s about it. And in fact, we’re going to move away from even touching screens at all. We’re heading towards “voice” where kids will just be able to talk.

And so I’m glad you brought that up because it’s so unfair to parents that that’s the message that they’re getting. And it’s a message unfortunately, that they’re getting not just from corporations, but also from some schools. It’s the justification for introducing tablets to kindergartners or even in preschools, when really, again, there’s no evidence that it’s beneficial. 

The tech, it’s not going to go away.  But what that means is that we really have to think about it in terms of what’s best for children and what kids are going to need in this increasingly digitized and commercialized world. They’re going to need to learn how to think critically. And that comes about through hands-on creative play and conversations with the adults who love them.

They’re going to need to be able to differentiate between what the tech industry calls ” in real life” and Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse that is already this digital corporate-controlled world.

What corporations want from children is not for the children’s wellbeing. What they want is to develop lifetime brand loyalty, to get kids hooked on the technology and to have them turn to the technology for information. And as I said before, is for soothing and amusing. And that means we’re really turning kids over to multinational corporations, basically, who come between parents and children.

Janet Lansbury:  And yet most of the heads of these corporations wouldn’t do that with their own children. So that’s always interesting too.

Susan Linn:  Yeah, there was just an article in the New York Times by a tech executive who was talking about how he makes video games that were marketed to kids and then he had children and decided that his children couldn’t play the video games.

But you know, you have to think about not just your children, we need to think about everybody’s children,

Janet Lansbury:  Right. Because as you so wisely said, a lot of this advice that you give (and that I give) is a lot easier for people with a higher socioeconomic status that are blessed to have two parents and spaces to go that are safe, to be outside, easy ways for them to self-direct their play, environments that make that possible. And that isn’t the case with so many families yet they want the best for their children of course, too. So that’s where societal change matters.

Susan Linn:  Yes, it has to be societal change.

I have a lot of suggestions for parents because societal change takes time and parents need help now, but I didn’t write this book to make parents feel guilty. I think it’s really hard to be a parent today. Parents are stressed about all sorts of things, but this unregulated, seductive, addictive technology, it makes things even harder. And one thing that we do as parents, I mean we all do things for convenience, especially if we’re stressed with our kids, and it’s so convenient and so seductive to hand a toddler or a baby a smartphone because they will be instantly captivated. I think it’s important for parents to know that giving your child a smartphone once or twice, that’s not going to destroy your child. The problem is that once you start, it’s hard to stop. And the more you do it, the less apt your child is going to be able to play on their own.

And it’s presented as kind of like a binary world. Either you are playing with your child all the time or your child is on a screen. But none of us can play with our children all the time. And also children need to have opportunities to be able to play on their own and to explore the world in a safe way on their own. The idea that you have to play with kids all the time or you’re a bad parent is not true. And if you start depending on screens when your kids are really young, then they are going to need screens in order to occupy themselves.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes, I think there are a lot of people like I once was, I thought that with my first baby, that I needed to entertain her all the time, that she was sort of this empty-headed person that really needed input and needed stimulation.  I had even read a book that told me I should do that. That’s what I thought my child needed until I found this whole other way I’m so passionate about. And the way I found it was that I took her to this little class and they said, just lie her down on her back and let her be and just observe her. And she was perfectly content for a long time and obviously had her own thoughts. That was the first time I actually saw: Oh, this is a person. Not only is it a person, is a person with a lot of stuff going on in her own mind that I want to know about. I feel really blessed that I was able to see that and then start on this track where I had a lot of help in figuring out how to develop what she was doing right there, which was basically entertaining herself. Developing that, and seeing all the gifts of it.

And like you said before, it’s not just critical thinking, it’s problem solving, curiosity, imagination, creativity, innovation, the things that they do that look like, with a certain lens: Oh, they’re just messing around or they’re just goofing around with those toys. And when you really look, they’re developing all kinds of theories and testing things out. It’s so powerful. But parents don’t know how to develop that. So that’s been a lot of my work, helping parents cultivate that time that is the most beneficial time for children. And that makes it very possible for parents to know that they can take breaks and not have to give their child something to keep ’em occupied during that time.

Susan Linn: I’ve watched children when they’re in situations that are boring in line at grocery stores or if they’re going shopping with their parent and their parent has to try on clothes and that kind of thing. And they don’t just stand there, they make funny sounds or they move their bodies in fun ways. They invent things to do in that situation. And if they’re being handed a device, they’re being deprived of that.

Janet Lansbury:  And most of us have lost, well, I don’t want to say most of us, but I’ve lost the ability to, or lost the desire to want to do that in line: just thinking about life, looking at other people. I want to go to my phone because I have it and- 

Susan Linn:  I know it’s a problem, especially if your work is online. So I know I can’t tell if I’m work addicted or screen addicted or both. Constantly checking. And that’s also something that we need to take care of ourselves. I mean, we can’t help children cope with technology unless we can cope with it as well. 

Janet Lansbury:  At least in front of them, at

Susan Linn:   At least in front of them. But that’s really important. And I do encourage parents to try limiting their screen time when they’re with their kids. University of Michigan, I think that it was them, did a study looking at parents at a playground with their kids. And what they found is that if the parents sitting around the playground or the sandbox or whatever, if they were immersed in their phones that they didn’t even hear their kids call them, they didn’t respond anyway. And then when they did respond, they were more likely to respond with irritation. And they didn’t do that if they were involved in analog things like talking to other parents.

It’s so powerful, these screens, and so purposely designed to capture our attention that they’re hard to resist.

My daughter was an infant, a toddler preschooler, long before all this technology. So I’d like to think that I would be a parent who would be able to resist it and things like that. But I think it’s also important for us to acknowledge that being the parent of a young child. I mean there are times when it’s absolutely wonderful. There are also times when it’s really boring,

Janet Lansbury:   Really boring,

Susan Linn:  Really boring. And I’m fascinated by children, but I read a lot. I usually had a book with me when I took my daughter to the park or when she was playing on her own. There are no studies on books and an adult and whether kids can get their attention. I didn’t see a study like that. But with kids, kids reading an analog book or playing with analog toys are not as irritable or hard to separate from what they’re doing. It’s not as hard as when kids are immersed in screens. I suspect that that’s true of adults.

Janet Lansbury:  I believe it definitely is true of adults. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, just my own experience with it. And it’s just a different level of engagement. It is more active because you’re having to exert effort to be engaged in the book. So it’s not like you got sucked into something that has the hold on you. You’re doing the holding.

Susan Linn:  And I thought about this a lot when I was writing. I mean, books can be incredibly engrossing, but the medium itself isn’t designed purposely to be addictive. The words on a page, they don’t move around. We don’t get little rewards every time we turn a page. All the things that with tech give us little squirts of dopamine that make us feel good. I mean, that’s not happening with the book. So one thing that I do suggest to parents is bring something to do when you go to the playground, but try to have it not be your phone. If you like to bring a pad of paper and a pencil or if you knit, knit. For me it was reading

Janet Lansbury:  That is helpful and it acknowledges that maybe we don’t want to sit there and observe all the time. Although that can be beneficial, too, because then our child is getting that attention that they don’t then need to think she has to play with me or he has to play with me, they have to play with me. They’re not going to give me attention if I don’t make them part of it. So showing them that too can really help to encourage their independent play.

Susan Linn:  And the other thing that I talk about in the books is that it’s not that the parents always gave into their children’s requests, but they acknowledged that their children were making a request. Nobody likes to be ignored.

Janet Lansbury:  I really liked what Sherry Turkle said, and you say it too, that it’s not about that we can’t engage with our tech devices, but it’s just having some boundaries for ourselves that, actually, we’ll feel good that we did that sometimes.

Susan Linn:  Yeah, I think that that’s right because otherwise we feel out of control and that’s a really scary feeling

Janet Lansbury:  That we can’t manage the things that we don’t want to be doing, but we find ourselves doing them.

Susan Linn:  And it’s also really important, and I try to make this clear in the book, I’m not, I mean, I worked in television, I worked with Fred Rogers, I was on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I came of age at a time when there was a lot of hope for television. And, not for younger kids, but for older kids, I do think that there can be benefit. But it it’s the business model that’s the problem, that tech companies are in a war for our attention and they will do anything they can to capture it. And that’s not good for us and it’s not good for our kids.

Janet Lansbury:  So there are other points that I wanted to bring up from your book that stuck out for me and one that kind of surprised me. I never thought of it, but makes a lot of sense. You said to be wary of the difference between active and passive media because what we consider active media is like you said those games were in the beginning. People thought, well, at least they’re actively engaging with the technology and that’s better. But you said these are prepackaged choices and the children’s involvement becomes more reactive than active. But then you talked about how story-based programs and watching a show isn’t necessarily passive because of the effects that can have that are actually evoking deep feelings, empathy, introducing words and concepts. So when we do want to have our child use the screen or tech to consider the options and what might be preferable. What might be better for our child? It’s not what we necessarily thought. The old-fashioned TV might be better than a game on a tech device.

Susan Linn:  Because they are learning narrative, and story-based programming really is a way of helping young children. Again, I’m not talking about babies and toddlers. I think three, when kids can follow a storyline that way, the parents can look for movies and television programs that tell stories. But the apps that are being marketed to kids, first of all, they’re marketed as freemiums, so they’re marketed as free, but they’re really not free. You can do a limited amount of things with them and then you need to upgrade and pay money. And the apps are designed to be frustrating if you don’t upgrade because, again, their purpose is to make money and they also function on rewards and that’s not so good for kids.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, And here comes the nag factor.

Susan Linn:  The nag factor. But the message that kids are getting is that it’s not worth doing anything unless you get a reward, whether it’s a star or some digital little doodad thing.

Janet Lansbury:  Right, there goes the intrinsic motivation.

Susan Linn: Yeah.

Janet Lansbury: I wanted to also bring up your point… I thought this would be a good one to kind of end on. “Remember that one of the most troubling consequences of our commercialized culture is that it thrives on exacerbating some of the worst of human tendencies: envy, selfishness, unthinking, impulsivity and disregard for the common good.” And those aren’t things that we wanna teach our children. So how do we counter that?

Susan Linn:  Yeah, I mean, I call the book “Who’s Raising the Kids” because the digitized, commercialized culture influences children’s values, their learning and their relationships. That’s big for kids. And the idea that we’re letting corporations do that is harmful. What Big Tech and Big Business want us to believe is that this is just the way it is. It is immutable that they have so much power and that it will never change. And that’s just not true.

I see this as not just a family problem, it’s a societal problem and we need to deal with it that way. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know that things are more hopeful than they have been, certainly in my advocacy career. There’s more advocacy and activism around tech and, therefore, around commercialism than I have ever seen. And that’s really, really encouraging. Some families are taking a tech sabbath one day a week, for instance. There’s no technology. There are local groups that are forming to help parents deal with technology and help children have a healthy relationship to technology. And so I actually think it’s more hopeful than it’s ever been.

Janet Lansbury:  Well that’s good news.

Susan Linn:  Yeah. Social change doesn’t come easy and it comes from the bottom up and it takes time. But I think that the tech companies and Big Business, they want us to feel as though there’s nothing we can do. And actually there are things that we can do, and I talk about them in my book.

Janet Lansbury:  It’s not a level playing field. That’s one thing that you say. It is tough. We’re not going to, be able to monitor everything, but we can be aware and awareness is powerful and that’s the beginning of any kind of change.

Susan Linn:  And also it’s easier to set limits in early childhood. If kids are growing up with limits, it’s easier to expand than it is to take away. So I encourage parents to really be thinking about technology and how much technology they want their kids to have with the understanding that it increases as they get older.

Janet Lansbury: Yes.

Susan Linn:  And I’m very glad that you brought up the issue that it’s much harder for parents who are stressed and parents working serial jobs and parents who are unemployed or single parents. It’s much harder for them. And that’s why it’s important that we think not just about our own kids, but about what’s best for everybody’s kids.

Janet Lansbury:  Absolutely.

Well, thank you so much for being on my show and I’m just thrilled to finally get a chance to connect with you. As I said, I’ve been a huge fan of yours for a long time. Thank you for all that you do and all that you’re giving our children and us as parents. I really appreciate it.

Susan Linn:  And back at you. Thank you for everything that you do and it was really great to talk to you. I hope we can do that again.

Janet Lansbury:  Me too.