Susan Linn, Ed.D., is Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee recently asked her a few questions about her background and how she got involved in her chosen field.
- You are the co-founder and director of the coalition Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. What led you to enter this field of study and advocacy and why do you think it is important?
I’m a psychologist by training, but I began my professional life as a ventriloquist, using my puppets to entertain children (for instance, I worked with Fred Rogers on Mister Rogers Neighborhood). Eventually I began using puppets to help children talk about feelings and cope with difficult issues. I care passionately about creative play— the foundation of learning, creativity, constructive problem solving, and the capacity to wrestle with life to make it meaningful. By the late 1990s, it became clear that the escalation of commercialism and screen devices was actually preventing children from playing. As I looked into it more, I found that research links commercialism and excessive screen time to a host of additional problems, including childhood obesity, eating disorders, precocious sexuality, youth violence, and family stress. I felt compelled to do something to stop the assault on children, and CCFC was born.
- You’re also an author?
Yes. I wrote my first book, Consuming Kids, to highlight both the pervasiveness of commercialism in children’s lives and the harms. So much of marketing today is either under the radar, or looks like fun. How can media icons like Dora the Explorer or Scooby Doo be harmful? But they are. It’s not usually the characters themselves, or even the programs, that are the problem. It’s that they are powerful tools for selling kids junk—junk food, junk toys, and even junk values such as the false notion that the things we buy will make us happy or that our self worth can be measured by what we own.
My next book, The Case for Make Believe, grew out of my lifelong passions for play and creativity. It celebrates play and serves as a wake up call about how and why the unprecedented convergence of ubiquitous screen media and unfettered commercialism undermines meaningful play. It was fun to write—my puppet Audrey Duck is actually a character in it.
- Do you still use your puppets?
Yes, often when I speak about commercialism and play. In fact, when I was asked to give a TED talk in Pittsburgh on play, I ended up doing the whole talk with Audrey. It was fun. Here’s a link to it.
- Recently we had a post on the ALSC Blog about a Library which decided to stop using copyright/branded puppets and stuffed animals in their play area or during storytimes. Do you think this is a viable solution for libraries?
Absolutely, I loved that post. It’s a great example of the leadership role libraries can play in reclaiming childhood from corporate marketers—and of the relatively simple steps librarians can take that make an important difference in children’s lives. One argument marketers give for commercializing spaces like libraries and museums is that children will stop coming unless they have access to media linked materials—but as this piece clearly shows, that’s not the case. Children are so inundated with commercialized toys and media that we need to make a special effort to carve out commercial-free time and space for them.
- If a children’s librarian is concerned about the influence of media and marketing on kids, what would you suggest he/she do to address this concern?
I’m going to be talking more about this at ALA. But the experience of Sara Patalita, who is featured in the blog you mention, provides a great example of the role librarians can play. She decided to encourage play and creativity by focusing story and play times only on books and materials free of licensed characters. Children play less creatively with media-linked toys. And she disproves the notion that books and toys based on commercial characters are the only thing that will draw kids and families to libraries. Librarians can also provide materials for parents and teachers that address the commercialization of childhood. At www.commercialfreechildhood.
- I am looking forward to your presentation on Sunday, June 30th at ALA! Is there one thing in particular that you hope librarians will take away from your talk?
Actually there are two—that today’s commercialism is so rampant that it undermines children’s health, development, and learning; and that librarians, and libraries, have a crucial role to play in helping parents reclaim childhood from corporate marketers.
Are you heading to the ALA Conference this weekend? The ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee hopes you will make time in your schedule to join us at Susan Linn’s presentation entitled Junk Food, Beer & Books: Intellectual Freedom in a Commercialized World this Sunday.