Social scientists trying to figure out why so many children are committing so many crimes might want to start reading the latest literature on product marketing. What does marketing have to do with youth violence? Plenty. And the connections run much deeper than kids mimicking the blood-and-guts antics of their favorite action-adventure "heroes."
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Marketers, who already know more about the emotional needs of children than do most parents, lately have begun to exploit neurological research to help them design products that fulfill the physiological needs of a youngster's rapidly developing brain. Many of these tricks are described in the recent book What Kids Buy and Why, by child-marketing consultant Dan Acuff. For example, Cabbage Patch Kids, Acuff writes, are perfect matches for 3- to 7-year-olds because these children are in the midst of developing the limbic, or "mammalian," part of their brain, which governs relationships, emotions, bonding, and imagination. Skeletor works for the same reasons, though the character's "dark side" appeal, as marketing types call it, is especially potent because children's brains at that age are highly bipolar—that is, they are drawn to stark divisions of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil.
At the same time, first-graders also crave love, support, and emotional security. Marketers have learned how to exploit this, too. Because a child's logic center—the left cortex—doesn't typically start to develop until the age of 7, kids will find and latch onto that love, support, and security anywhere they can find it. During this delicate "pre-logical" stage, youngsters literally don't care whether they get it from their parents or a Power Ranger doll. Kids even derive emotional security from "dark side" characters such as Skeletor and Darth Vader, the perverse effects of which are obvious.
The problem, a growing body of research has revealed, is that as parents rely more and more on toys, video games, and other products to provide this emotional safety blanket to their children, and as they spent less and less time playing with, reading to, and talking with their kids, such neglect can actually retard the development of a child's cerebral cortex. Kids who suffer from this lose the ability to control their impulses, empathize with other people, plan for the future, solve complex problems, and—perhaps most importantly—think about their own thinking.
With an underdeveloped cortex, a child is essentially forced to rely on the "older" and "lower" parts of his or her brain—the "reptilian," which governs bodily functions and survival instincts, and the "mammalian," which deals with feelings and emotions. Child-development expert Joseph Clifton Pearce (author of The Crack in the Cosmic Egg and Evolution's End) warns: "Thinking can get short-circuited, resulting in emotionalism or even territorial, survival-of-the-species, violent activity. The old mammalian or reptilian brain takes over." All of this gives new meaning to the expression "What an animal!"
By age 11, the window of opportunity to develop a healthy cortex is slammed shut. Underutilized neural connections are literally swept away—a profound use-it-or-lose-it scenario that may explain the recent upsurge in violent crime. Research is beginning to turn up some disturbing trends. A 1994 study of 22 convicted murderers in California revealed that every one had an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. This translates into what's called "low physiological arousal," which explains why people with dysfunctional cortexes seek emotional "highs" through drugs, crime, promiscuity, and other high-risk behavior. It also explains why children and young adults nowadays are having a tougher time in school. A 1981 study showed that half of Brandeis University's incoming freshmen lacked the kind of abstract reasoning ability needed to solve even basic algebraic word problems. Test scores at all educational levels are either flattening or outright declining.
Add the effects of television, which can cause the left (creative) brain to shut down and prevent it from cross-processing information with the right (logical) brain, and it's little wonder that people of all ages—not just children—seem to be thinking less and reacting more.
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Related Links and information:
Information on Joseph Chilton Pearce
Complete Masters of the Universe page
Seattle Press online