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Wiring the Kids

Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5    by Christopher Martin and Bettina Fabos

Satellites help relay the "Angela likes Bobby"
message in an AT&T commercial

Monitoring the Future
As television ads lay claim to creating the best educational environment ever with the Internet, they also frame the Net as the solution to a multitude of parental concerns. The focus of home use is not only education, but also the surreptitious monitoring and surveillance of adolescent behavior -- or the elimination of the need for such direct parental supervision.

At home with the Internet, children sit at their "home learning centers," oohing and ahhing as their curiosity transports them to higher levels of cognition. One 1996 advertisement for WebTV Network Inc. (acquired by Microsoft in 1997) shows three young boys positioned attentively in front of a huge living room monitor emitting a blue halo of light. Thus, WebTV transforms after-school sloth in front of the boob tube into intense parlay with technology, where the medium conveniently imparts knowledge and parents can leave their children in the protective custody of wholesome, academic content.

Parents need not be around to provide inspiration to children working on homework because all school assignments now become positive self-directed experiences when they’re done with the aid of an Intel computer chip. A 1996 Intel commercial portrays an elementary-aged girl researching a book report on jazz via the Internet. She "interacts" so completely with the audio and video files supported by the computer chip that she is transported into the glowing circuitry of the chip, while expertly playing a jazz riff on the saxophone. The young girl has fun, and absent parents can conclude that her Intel-enhanced imagination will help her get a better grade on the paper. The reality behind these images is that most kids — and adults — don’t have scholastic inclinations without being prodded into them, and would often rather play video games than research historical questions.

The Internet works as a babysitter for innocent youth, but for curious teenagers with rising hormone levels, the Net can also serve as electronic monitor and chaperone. With two slick advertisements, AT&T WorldNet Service suggests ways to forever alter teenage dating and flirting. In a 1997 commercial, a girl exits a car and says goodnight to her date as her wary father steals a glance from a second-floor window. Inside, the girl says goodnight to her father and goes to her room. From the isolation of her bedroom, the date resumes past reasonable hours, compliments of AT&T WorldNet Service. To the tune of Patsy Cline’s 1957 hit "Walkin’ After Midnight," the creative and interactive capacities of the two high school sweethearts is unleashed, as they use advanced multimedia software, computers, cameras, and scanners to cut and paste digital love messages and send them back and forth from their home computers. In the awkward times of teen dating, AT&T makes everyone happy: Dad gets his daughter at home in time, and his daughter can carry on suggestive communication on an account more visual and (presumably) more private than the family phone.

In a similar ad, which debuted during the January 1998 Super Bowl, gossip about a teenage girl with a crush is transmitted to seemingly everyone with the help of AT&T. Angela, the girl, entrusts her school friends with knowledge of her fondness for Bobby Templeton. Soon, the whole school, and then the whole world is abuzz with the news. The gossip doesn’t travel through secret paper notes or whispered conversations, but through computer labs, a boy at home with a computer, laser-printed love signs, cell phones, pagers, and satellites. When Angela gets home, her mother says "Hey Ange, that Bobby Templeton’s pretty cute." The girl replies "You know too?!", and then finds the real Bobby in the next room. The ad ends with a voice over: "Spread the word on the world’s most powerful network."

Both commercials have the effect of empowering teens with a secret communication medium and providing parent control or knowledge of children’s activities. But in this case, the world’s most powerful network serves only to provide communication avoidance or surveillance between parents and children.

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