A Parent’s Nightmare: Big Tech, Advertising, and the Exploitation of Children

By Madelynn Katz and Adam Sanchez

Illustrator: Sophia Foster-Dimino

On a bright summer day in June, we disembarked from our Amtrak train from Philadelphia to New York City with our daughter Yemaya — almost 5 years old at the time. It was Yemaya’s first long train trek and she enjoyed looking out the window while listening to a podcast for most of the journey. Many parents we know use screen time on long plane or train rides — it’s incredibly difficult to resist doing so now that almost all the adults around you are glued to a device most of the ride. But because this was Yemaya’s first time on a train we thought we could get by looking out the window, talking with her about the experience, providing a few coloring books, and if all else failed bringing her audiobook/podcast player. 

Whatever smugness we felt about our screen-free train ride was quickly erased by what happened next. We were visiting family and knowing we were going to be out at restaurants engaging in adult-centered conversation, we thought getting Yemaya a few toys to keep her occupied would be a good idea. After a neighborhood friend brought small plastic figurines called L.O.L. dolls over on a playdate, Yemaya had been asking for them. It didn’t help that these dolls are sold in our local CVS, so Yemaya was reminded of them every time she went with one of us to pick up a prescription. Until then, we had resisted Yemaya’s pleas because we felt uncomfortable with how the dolls — with enlarged eyes painted with fake mascara and eye shadow, stylish outfits, and exaggerated body proportions — personified unrealistic body and beauty standards. But with limited options at the train station Duane Reade pharmacy, we grabbed the large 7-inch plastic tube the doll came in. 

We had no idea the capitalist hellscape we were purchasing until we arrived at our hotel. We had assumed the large size of the packaging meant that there were two dolls inside — Yemaya always liked to have “friends” to play with each other. Instead what we found in addition to the doll, wrapped in plastic, was a plastic tube designed like a “vending machine.” Six small doors revealed various plastic accessories for the doll, each wrapped in more plastic. What we would find out later from reading Susan Linn’s Who’s Raising the Kids? Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children was that all these layers of plastic were part of a conscious effort on the part of MGA Entertainment, the company that produces L.O.L. dolls, to capitalize off of the unboxing trend. One of the most popular online activities for young children is to watch other kids — who are often paid as “influencers” by toy companies — open boxes of toys. Linn quotes Isaac Larian, MGA’s CEO and founder, saying plainly, “Well we gotta do a toy that’s a true unboxing so that every kid can unbox it.”

The particular version of L.O.L. dolls we had unknowingly purchased were labeled “mini-sweets,” which meant that the doll and the accessories were branded with “iconic candy brands.” We happened to get the one with a blue Hershey Kiss purse, drinking a Hershey’s milkshake — exploiting our toddler’s strong affection for chocolate by now associating it with this toy. 

But what is maybe most sinister about the L.O.L. dolls is their attempt to capitalize off of being a collectible. Before our daughter could see it, Madelynn quickly grabbed the piece of paper stuffed into the toy packaging that revealed through pictures the Hershey-branded L.O.L. doll was one of many in a series and encouraged Yemaya to “collect them all.” As Linn describes, this is “the second pillar of MGA’s marketing strategy — fomenting discontent and longing by positioning the contents of each individual package as merely one of a series of collectibles and therefore incomplete on its own. The message to children is clear: You can never, ever have enough.” Yet despite Madelynn’s swift move to hide the nefarious information, Yemaya like us had assumed that there were two dolls in the large package. When she realized there was only one she expressed her deep disappointment that her new doll didn’t “have a friend.” 

This is how Adam begrudgingly found himself walking to a nearby Target to purchase a second of what he now realized were dolls that epitomized everything we hated about trying to raise a daughter in a sexist, environmentally destructive, profit-driven society. We felt thoroughly duped as we could only hope we weren’t purchasing the exact same doll. As Linn explains, “One hallmark of marketing collectible toys is . . . ‘blind’ boxes or bags, which entice kids to buy more because of the possibility they will hit the jackpot and acquire something rare or missing from their collection. . . . Spending money on unknown and unseen collectibles in hopes of scoring a rare one is like training kids to love gambling.” I guess we were “lucky” when our daughter opened the second doll and it was branded with “Jelly Belly.” But as we looked at our daughter, playing with the big-eyed monstrosities in miniskirts and crop tops, we muttered to each other, “This is a fucking nightmare.”

It was incidents like this — where parenting felt more like going to war, and often losing, against corporations desperate to sink their profit-hungry claws into our child’s brain — that led us to Who’s Raising the Kids? 

As Linn makes clear, leaving parents on their own to limit screen time or say “no” to their children’s requests is a popular but completely inadequate solution. This is because “You’re dealing with a culture dominated by multinational corporations spending billions of dollars and using seductive technologies to bypass parents and target children directly with messages designed — sometimes ingeniously — to capture their hearts and minds. And their primary purpose is not to help kids lead healthy lives or to promote positive values or even to make their lives better. It’s to generate profit.”

Linn describes how drastically this has changed parenting over the last 40 years, beginning with the deregulation of children’s television in the 1980s making it legal to create programming for the sole purpose of selling toys. The anti-regulatory political climate combined with the dramatic development in digital technology has created a multibillion-dollar children’s advertising industry much more powerful than previous generations of parents had to contend with. Corporations pour billions into marketing that combines technological advances with developmental psychology to sell children the belief that the things they (or their parents) buy will bring them happiness and to hook them on addictive screen time.

The amount of time children spend on screens is entirely out of line with the near universal agreement of pediatric health organizations around the world: avoid screen time for babies and toddlers, limit to less than one hour a day for preschoolers, and no more than two hours for school-aged children. Linn cites a pre-pandemic Common Sense Media study that found on average 0- to 8-year-olds use around an hour more of screen time than these recommended amounts, while also noting that by some estimates screen use for children during the pandemic increased by 50 percent. In their first post-pandemic study of older children, Common Sense Media found that on average, 8- to 12-year-olds used entertainment screen media for five hours and 33 minutes each day, and teenagers used it for eight hours and 39 minutes a day — about an hour more per day than before the pandemic. These averages mask class and race differences. As Linn points out, “Kids from households with lower incomes spend nearly two hours more with screens than kids from higher-income households. In addition, Black and Latinx children spend significantly more time on screens than their white peers.”

And more time on screens means more time watching advertising. Not just commercials, but the shows themselves are branded and sold in a myriad of ways. Programs don’t end when the TV, tablet, or smartphone is turned off. Kids are likely to see the characters and brands they are watching appear on all sorts of merchandise sold at the supermarket, pharmacy, or really any store you walk into. MGA entertainment’s L.O.L. dolls not only have their own Netflix show and movie, but in addition to the dolls you can purchase L.O.L.-branded backpacks, pillows, coloring books, water bottles, hoodies, bathing suits, even an inflatable water slide. The branding of toys is particularly pernicious because it directly contradicts what is best for children’s development. As Linn writes, “Toys that promote creativity are less likely to be huge moneymakers because they can be used repeatedly in lots of different ways. The big money in toys is not in selling families a particular toy or a one-off game, film, or TV program . . . [but] in selling kids on the necessity of acquiring a series of toys, apps, and games and convincing kids that they always need the latest one.” 

When our family turned to children’s podcasts as an alternative to screen time, we were dismayed that even children’s podcast creators encourage listeners to go to their YouTube channel or follow them on Facebook or Instagram. We were excited to find out that the PBS show Work It Out Wombats!, a wholesome program clearly intended for PBS’s youngest audience, had a podcast. But at the end of the podcast they encouraged listeners to “watch videos and play games for free at pbskids.org,” pushing more screen time. Yemaya promptly turned to us and asked to play their video game. Linn points out that the defunding of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) also means there is almost nowhere parents can turn to for commercial-free programming, as they now “rely on commercial sponsorships, brand licensing, and apps and games to keep kids’ attention.”

It’s not just the shows and the toys, but the devices themselves that are part of the problem. The explosion of children’s access to smartphones, tablets, laptops, and all sorts of screens has given corporations unprecedented access to children. At the same time, the neoliberal economic philosophy that dominates politics in the United States has prevented meaningful regulation. 

Linn’s discussion of how advertisers and tech companies use data collected from smartphones is particularly insightful:

[Smartphones] are conduits for tech companies to surveil and mold our behavior kind of like alluring, fun, charming, endlessly engrossing, and benign-seeming corporate spies who are expert at insinuating themselves into our lives and manipulating us to their own ends. We take them to dinner, on vacations, to the park with our kids, and to bed. We ask their advice, rely on them for information, and count on them to calm our kids down or to keep them entertained. While appearing to serve us, the real mission for smartphones is to serve us and our children up to advertisers to generate corporate profits. In other words, corporations have figured out how to infiltrate and monetize family life, and we pay them to do it.

As this passage makes clear, Who’s Raising the Kids? is not just for parents. By probing the ways that new technology and marketing affect children, Linn also makes us think deeply about how these changes affect all of us — and our classrooms and schools.

Linn’s chapters “Branded Learning” and “Big Tech Goes to School” illuminate how schools too often allow these companies in and further exacerbate the problem. She discusses how corporations publish curriculum in the interests of their own bottom line. Discover’s Pathway to Financial Success teaches students to use a credit card to build good credit without discussing predatory interest rates and late fees. Google’s Be Internet Awesome encourages youth to be careful what they share online without discussing the regular mining of personal information tech companies sell to advertisers. Companies use curriculum to promote a narrow narrative of individual — rather than corporate or governmental — responsibility for society’s ills, shielding themselves from criticism and encouraging practices that keep generating profit.

Linn also cites compelling research that suggests kids using devices a lot in school tend to fare worse academically and argues the primary beneficiaries of handing out computers in school — whether via a $30 per Chromebook management fee, the data collected on students, or the potential of lifetime brand loyalty — “are the companies like Apple and Google who make the devices and their operating systems.” 

When we toured our local public school, we were disappointed to hear that kindergarteners were given Google Chromebooks to complete 20 minutes of reading homework on a screen each week. We learned that 130 schools across the district use this program as part of a partnership started during the pandemic between i-Ready and the School District of Philadelphia. Indeed, Yemaya was invited to participate in the district’s “Virtual Summer Kindergarten Transition Program,” preparing her for school by sitting her in front of a screen for 90 minutes two days a week during the summer. While the World Health Organization recommends extremely limited or no screen time for children under 5, schools are making it harder for parents of young children to reach this goal.

Who’s Raising the Kids? can help parents, educators, and students think through how the explosive growth of marketing to children and the expansion of personal electronic devices has changed the lives of children and families and continues to distort our schools and society. Teachers could use passages to help students name and analyze the ubiquitous marketing around them. Excerpts could be read at PTA and staff meetings across the country as a starting point for transforming schools into sites of resistance against — instead of acquiescence to — corporate profiteering.

Of course, Linn offers practical advice such as “the more a toy can do, the less a child needs to do” or “postpone getting your child a smartphone until at least 8th grade.” But she also acknowledges the limits of individual actions in an anti-parent society that denies most new mothers maternity leave, demands a work schedule leaving most working parents exhausted, and does little to provide parents with access to the most recent research on child development. 

In the final chapter “Making a Difference for Everybody’s Kids,” Linn highlights stories of individuals like psychologist Nora Shine, who worked with teachers, administrators, and district leaders to create stronger language around intrusive and manipulating advertising to students in the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District in Massachusetts. And Rachael Stickland, who connected with parents in districts across the country and successfully stopped the implementation of inBloom, a Gates Foundation edtech tool designed to capture and aggregate student data, including discipline, counseling, and medical records.

Linn asserts the need for collective action to successfully push back against the growing corporate influence on children and she paints a powerful vision worth fighting for. In response to people who ask her “I get what you’re against, but what are you for?” she writes:

I am for a world where children are universally valued for who they are, not for what they or their parents can buy. Where family and community values no longer compete with commercial values for precedence in children’s lives. Where kids have lots of “in real world” time with their friends and with the adults who love and care for them. . . . Where opportunities for wonder abound.

For us, this has meant doing our best to nourish our daughter’s mind and spirit while attempting to protect her against the negative influence of harmful marketing. We do turn to technology for podcasts, to watch a TV show or movie, or to play an occasional game. Madelynn spends countless hours researching age-appropriate media online, utilizing essential tools like Common Sense Media. But this is an unreasonable amount of labor to expect from parents simply to keep their children safe. We need better tools and better regulation. The work of Fairplay, Defending the Early Years, and other organizations committed to defending a joyful, noncommercial childhood and advocating for more meaningful regulation is essential. Ultimately, our best shot at winning the childhood that all kids deserve is to partner with other parents and educators to transform our homes and our schools into a line of defense for our kids. In doing so, we begin to demand a world that prioritizes the interests of children over corporate profits and build the organization necessary to bring it to fruition.

Madelynn Katz is a stay-at-home mom and a former middle school special education teacher. Adam Sanchez is the managing editor of Rethinking Schools. Madelynn, Adam, and their daughter live in Philadelphia.

Illustrator Sophia Foster-Dimino’s work can be seen at hellophia.com.