When I first heard about Kid Nation, the new reality tv-show by CBS, I was excited. Having been recently been made aware by Dr. Epstein about the ways our culture’s infantalization of young people can restrict their growth, my thoughts were similar to those which he recently expressed:
The show itself is amazing. CBS took 40 young people between ages 8 and 15 and gave them an old abandoned ghost town in New Mexico to run entirely on their own – no adult supervision at all – for about 6 weeks. As horrifying as this concept may sound, when I heard about it I knew immediately that these young people would do beautifully…[Kid Nation] is a potent, incredibly graphic reminder about the extraordinary abilities of young people, abilities we have increasingly buried while trapping millions of young Americans in the bizarre, media-driven world of “teen culture.”
But for those hoping for a realistic portrayal of what young people can do when faced with the challenges of real life, Kid Nation isn’t it. As Ann Hulbert points out, the show is more “Kid Survivor” than “Lord of the Flies”:
One day in, the format shifts from a hardscrabble, kid-controlled struggle and begins to look more like a standard reality show, with producers micromanaging teams, orchestrating contests, and dispensing rewards. Chaos is kept at bay, and commerce is ushered in, when Jonathan explains the new deal: The four groups will rotate roles—as the upper class, merchants, cooks, and laborers—based on their performance in a “showdown” shaped around team-building exercises. And CBS rides into town with, as one of the leaders puts it, “some of the comforts of home.” First, the kids get to show their wisdom by declining a TV and instead choosing new outhouses to supplement the stinky single one they’ve endured for a day (“not good for your colon,” comments one kid who has said he’s not about to use it). Then come candy, soda, toys, and prizes—and, along with a cash economy, an emphasis on shopping, evidently the core of town-building. All these innovations are greeted with cheers. Good for morale, one of the four group leaders says with a relieved sigh…
The Wild West this is not. But now that civilization has intruded, I guess we might wonder whether henceforth we may see something more revealing than consumer-era kids coping in a state of nature: trophy-conscious kids going after gold stars. What unenviable pressure this puts on the four prize-dispensing leaders!…Rather than banding together against a common enemy as the Robbers Cave tribes did, these kids are bonding in pursuit of a common goal: materialistic comfort.
I was only able to catch about 25 minutes of the show, and am inclined to agree. For one, the show suffers from the same problem of all reality shows, namely, unreality. The presence of cameras makes for a profound sense of self-consciousness that inevitably restricts the possibilities of authenticity.
In addition, the incentives for the young people quickly shift away from the meaningful, rewarding aspects of life such as providing for one’s own existence toward gimmicky games designed to entertain more than inspire. The rewards, in other words, are extrinsic to the activities–rather than drill wells for water, they drill them to determine the social class for their “team” (another artificial imposition on the show). They are hardly the sort of rewards that prompt young people to “grow up,” namely, deep and close connections with people or the sense of fulfillment that comes from providing for one’s own well-being.
This doesn’t mean that the show won’t provide interesting insights into youth culture and behavior. But it does mean that for this show, youth culture will remain youth culture.