I hate Captain Underpants.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Captain Underpants is a book series that is widely popular among school-aged children. There are 10 books in the series, and it will soon be made into an animated movie. The Captain Underpants series details the adventures of Harold and George, two irreverent 4th graders who write comic books, play pranks, and battle mean classmates and teachers. It is at times funny and creative, and deals with issues that school-aged children can relate to (e.g., bullies, mean teachers). It is also full of potty humor, which undoubtedly increases its appeal for young boys. But this is not why I hate the book series. And why am I writing about a book series in my media blog? Let me explain….
I haven’t read all of the books, but last night I was reading one of them with Sparky. In the 9th book in the series, Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Re-Turn of Tippy Tinkletrousers, technology plays a central role in the antics of Harold and George. In the story, Harold and George seek revenge on the school bully, Kipper, by carrying out a variety of pranks on Kipper and his friends. For example, they send Kipper’s friends embarrassing texts that appear to have been sent from Kipper’s phone:
Later in the story, George and Harold trick Kipper and his friends into eating spicy pizza and then use their cell phones to videotape what happens next. To ensure maximum humiliation of the bullies, they post the video online:
After reading this book with Sparky (who like many first grade boys, loves the books), I talked to him about George and Harold’s actions. He said, “Oh, its okay Mom. Kipper and his friends are bullies.” We then discussed whether George and Harold’s behaviors were justified, given that Kipper was a bully. Fortunately, Sparky came to the conclusion of “no”. But what about the children whose parents don’t have this discussion with them? What messages are those children learning about “justifiable” harm to others? In addition, what are children learning from this book about how to use technology to hurt others? My 6-year-old has never touched a cell phone, but now has lots of creative ideas of how one might potentially use a cell phone to hurt others. And according to the book, doing these things is hilarious and entertaining.
George and Harold were engaging in cyberbullying, which is the use of electronic technology to repeatedly harm others, either physically, socially, or psychologically. Depending on the age of respondents and how it is defined, surveys indicate that 20-40% of youth have been the victims of cyberbullying. You don’t have to be a developmental psychologist to know that cyberbullying is a serious problem among youth today. There has been substantial national media coverage of a variety of cyberbullying incidents over the past few years- most of us are familiar with the well-publicized cases that ended in tragedy, such as suicides. Most recently, there was a horrific rape of a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in which the teenage rapists disseminated texts, photos, and a video of the incident online. In the aftermath of the rape, the victim has continued to experience harassment through social media. We are always shocked when youth commit a crime such as rape, but the posting of the video is one of the main factors that has garnered this particular case so much attention. “Who would think to do such a thing?”, people gasp? Hmmm. I would suggest that if you teach young boys that it is funny to dehumanize others (be it bullies or women) and use technology to humiliate them, this is how we end up here as a society. Am I saying that reading Captain Underpants causes children to grow up to become rapists and cyberbullies? Of course not. But I do find it deeply disturbing that children, who should be learning about respectful and responsible use of technology, are getting a very different message from this book series. I do think there is a connection between the perpetuation of these messages (e.g., cyberbullying can be justifiable and is funny) and the ever-increasing tendency for youth perpetrators of bullying and violence to use technology to proudly disseminate their “conquests”.
I am not advocating banning of this book (or any book, for that matter). I will actually continue to let Sparky read these books, because I want to encourage his love of reading and allow him to make choices about what he reads. I also think these books provide “teachable moments” about technology that will eventually need to be addressed with Sparky, regardless of whether he had read these books. But I do intend to discuss all of the content with him, and will try to nudge him as much as possible toward other books. I have no problem saying to him and others, “I don’t like these books, and this is why.” Who knows, he might give up on the books just because he is tired of having these conversations with me…
Oh, and when the movie comes out, I can guarantee you that our family will not be seeing it, no matter what the rating.