Kids’ Stuff

Beady eyes stare out from behind the shadows of a dark forest. In an instant, the menacing figure bounds into the light. He is Rex, a trusty mountain lion ready with his flashlight and sleeping bag to guide American youngsters through the ins and outs of surviving disaster on Ready Kids, the US Department of Homeland Security’s website for children. By following Rex through the jungle of emergency preparedness, kids learn to ‘Be Prepared in Every Situation,’ and get acquainted with the constant threats that face them in the form of earthquakes, tsunamis, and terrorist attacks.

The ‘For Kids’ sections of government websites have been around for years, and as technology has improved, so too have these sites for child-oriented propaganda and recruitment. Perhaps the latest and most blatant manifestation of this phenomenon is the CryptoKids section of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) website. Released on November 1 of last year, a month and a half before the New York Times exposed the Bush Administration’s secret program of domestic surveillance, the website features a group of anthropomorphic cartoon characters who espouse the pleasures of cryptography and give children resources on ‘How can I work for NSA?’

Writing for The Nation, Simon Maxwell Apter calls websites like these ‘recruiting portals for America’s youth.’ Apter points to NROjr, a website set up by the National Reconnaissance Office, that offers games and music for young kids. It also features a story read by a (space) alien called ‘Proud to be an American.’ The Drug Enforcement Administration has a similar site, Get It Straight, featuring an ethnically diverse group called the ‘Prevention Posse.’ The drug-free gang brings to mind the heartthrobs of the 80s show 21 Jump Street and purports to give kids the ‘straight’ facts about drugs. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a kids’ site that follows Herman the hermit crab in his search for a ‘disaster-proof shell.’

Apter believes these online appeals to children work by mixing ‘fiction and fact, imagination and reality on their child-friendly sites.’ The website Ben’s Guide to US Government for Kids offers a comprehensive guide to these websites, hosted by Benjamin Franklin. In a section marked ‘Careers,’ children are directed to the sites of various branches of the armed forces, including the official US Navy website, which features a flash video game called ‘Strike and Retrieve.’

But the US Navy and the NSA aren’t the only ones catering to a younger generation. The Chinese government just unveiled its two newest agents of the state: Jingjing and Chacha, two adorable cartoon police officers who appear on computer screens informing users that they’re being watched. Knute Berger of Seattle Weekly describes these characters as a ‘Hello Kitty meets Big Brother’ duo that serves as a friendly reminder of the state’s policy of surveillance and information suppression. They also allow users to click on the icons to report internet crimes. With Jingjing and Chacha’s help, you too can become part of China’s not-so-secret police. According to Berger, the government has been taking the advice of Mary Poppins: ‘A little bit of sugar does make the medicine go down.’

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Hey, Kids: Spying Is Fun!

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