Monday, September 26, 2011

Secure play for a day, national security state for a lifetime

Secret Service protection helps to minimize the risks of outdoor play.
On Saturday Sept. 24, Nickelodeon, a cartoon network owned by Viacom, urged parents to turn off the television for one whole day.  The White House played host to the network's "Worldwide Day of Play."  As the rate of childhood obesity continues to skyrocket, the Viacom scheme aimed to convince the public that its Nickelodeon brand is socially responsible. But as useful as the idea sounds in theory, it presented organizers with two big challenges.

One of the two surveillance watchtowers at the Worldwide Day of Play.
First, our efforts to convince parents that outdoor play is dangerous have been largely successful.   Episodes of America's Most Wanted and nightly news broadcasts teach parents to keep kids indoors.  American parents fear their little Aiden and Chloe will be kidnapped.  Far better to let the sedentary little things eat their way to diabetes -- at least there are drugs for that. 

Second, American kids know how to navigate their parents through a shopping mall, but few know how to play.  They spend their free time sitting in front of a TV watching Nickelodeon, learning what they need to be happy from the commercials.  That's what American children do. On those rare occasions when schools or parents tell children to go outside, the kids don't have the faintest clue what to do.   Put an American child in a park and he will just sit there holding his Game Boy.

Until we invaded, these children lacked access to Nickelodeon.
These are daunting challenges. Of course, Nickelodeon executives were essentially designing a spectacle touting their social responsibility, they knew they didn't actually have to actually fix the country.  Yet the two problems remained, however limited the number participating.  How to convince parents to bring their kids outside to play; how to recruit the unpaid extras?  

Nickelodeon addressed parental paranoia -- the conviction held by American parents that outdoor play is too risky.  The cartoon network thought to situate an outdoor play area on the world's most secure park.  What venue offers greater safety than the Ellipse on the National Mall?  It's essentially an extension of the front lawn of the White House.  With the Secret Service handling security, it stood to reason that even the most anxious American parents would green-light a few hours of outdoor play on the Ellipse.

The Viacom subsidiary also addressed the "clueless about how to play" problem. The solution was to get groups to sponsor organized "Day of Play" activities.  We were impressed that Nickelodeon picked one sponsor that enthusiastically promotes the vocabulary of the national security state. 

List of "Worldwide Day of Play" sponsors and activities. 
#24 "Preschool Activities."

If play is to have a future, it must not only encourage the consumption of goods and services, it should teach children what it means to be an American patriot in the Twenty-First Century. 

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Dr. Rebecca Wolf
Undersecretary for Community and New Media
United States Department of Fear