First displaying a century-old studio portrait of an innocent young girl looking naively into the distance, Director of Children's Studies at Harvard Kiku R. Adatto flipped the projector to reveal a shot of a naked, waiflike Kate Moss gazing erotically into the camera while peddling Calvin Klein perfume.
With this contrast, Adatto opened last night's Institute of Politics forum, entitled "Sex, Commercialism and the Disappearance of Childhood," and began the presentation on the changing image of childhood in America.
In addition to Adatto, the panel at the ARCO Forum at the Kennedy School of Government included moderator Michael J. Sandel, professor of government; Alvin F. Poussaint, a Harvard Medical School clinical professor of psychiatry, and Bill Kovach, a former journalist and the curator of the Nieman Foundation.
Discussion centered on the influence of MTV-era programming and advertisements on children in America today.
Focusing her talk on the media's role in the recent blurring of lines between society's image of children and of adults, Adatto delivered her presentation against a backdrop of increasingly provocative images from the turn of the century up to modern pop advertisements. In words and pictures, Adatto chronicled the growing objectification of child sexuality in modern culture.
Professing his agreement with Adatto, Poussaint discussed the increasing objectification of children in the media as a symbol of changes elsewhere in society.
He pointed out the increasingly negative images children are bombarded with each day in movies, talk shows and the evening news, raising questions about the modern perception of children and the mature content they are forced to deal with.
Kovach ended the presentations by commenting on the increasingly active marketing directed toward today's youth. He charged today's children's and news organizations with embedding motivations to purchase consumer products within the body of information itself.
Kovach gained the audience's applause by suggesting that children be "taught how to read media critically, the way they're taught how to read works of fiction."
Sandel said there is a "tug of war" between the forces in society that try to make children into consumers and those that try to make them into citizens.
"Consumers are invited to satisfy their desires, and citizens are invited to critically reflect on their desires," Sandel said. The trend toward making them consumers is gaining momentum, he said.
The forum concluded with a question and answer session from the more than 200 audience members present.
Audience response to the forum was generally positive, with plentiful applause and nods of assent.
Daniel L. Nguyen-Tan, a student at the Kennedy School of Government, said, however, that the panelists did not offer concrete solutions to the problems they raised.
"It's interesting how we can be so passionate about preserving our culture's idealized image of children but then not have nearly as strong a reaction when it comes to helping real children in specific situations," he said.
The event was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York through a grant to the Harvard Project on Schooling and Children, one of five inter-faculty initiatives launched under President Neil L. Rudenstine