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In 1954, the same year Lord of the Flies came out, researchers at the University of Oklahoma recruited 22 boys, all 11 years old, for an experiment that has become a Cold War classic of social psychology. They split the homogeneous bunch into two groups and sent them to different areas in a wooded Boy Scout camp in Robbers Cave State Park. It was billed as a camp experience. But the counselors (researchers in disguise) kept a low profile as they set about studying a topic much on Americans' minds in the era of the communist menace: the dynamics of group identity and hostility. The real agenda was to observe the boys bonding in their respective groups and then watch how animosities escalated after the groups were brought together to engage in an array of competitive games. The scientists wanted to see what it would take to orchestrate harmony between the tribes at the end of the three weeks. As it turned out, all hell broke loose way ahead of schedule (sticks and stones flew), and the researchers struggled to engineer a truce. By inventing a common enemy, they finally got all the guys to work together—warily.
Sound sort of familiar? Ours is a culture regularly panicked about children's vulnerability or their precocity, or both. And with Kid Nation, a new reality show from CBS that debuted last night, we may have our own social psychology classic in the making. For weeks now, it has been clear the network has hit a nerve with its Survivor-junior idea of corralling kids in the New Mexico desert and leaving them to fend for themselves. Do grown-ups really have kids' best interests at heart? It's a question that never ceases to titillate and terrify us, steeped as we are in a consumerist ethos that has parents, and hordes of marketers, hovering over children—and also hurrying them onward to … maturity or a life of vacuous, status-seeking insecurity?
CBS has played on both hopes and fears with agility. Charges of child exploitation, even abuse, made headlines over the summer. Questions arose about the participants' long hours and the network's dodgy approach to the state's child labor laws; some parents also complained about safety issues and egregiously broad liability waivers (which you can read here on Slate). CBS capitalized on the attention to broadcast its benevolent motives in a promotional video that strikes a "we're-on-your-side-kids" Nickelodeon note. The hypothesis the network has set out to test has a romantic ring very different from the cold-eyed Robbers Cave agenda: that children, far from being incipient savages, can "succeed where adults have failed."
The premise is this: Liberated from helicopter parents and teachers, 40 children—a 21st-century multicultural bunch aged 8 to 15—will work together for 40 days under the guidance of four young leaders, who divide them into groups. Their goal is to rebuild a ghost town, Bonanza City, destroyed by their elders' lack of "leadership, resources, and will." As one cute shaggy-locked boy of 14 proclaims in a moment featured on the promo, they are there to "prove that kids of all age groups can actually get stuff organized and actually create a society where people actually share without greed." And CBS really is rooting for them, out of cynicism if not idealism; after all, the network is well aware that no advertiser or family audience really wants to watch Lord of the Flies unfold on the screen. In fact, the producers aren't just rooting for the kids. They're putting their thumbs on the scales. Disingenuous though it may be of CBS to describe Kid Nation as a "camp" experience for labor law purposes, the truth is that the supposedly raw and rugged show has barely begun before it turns into, what else, yet another adult-scripted activity.
The opening segment of the first episode may be the only pioneer shock that kids and viewers alike ever experience on Kid Nation. And it is a shock, not just because of the city's desolateness, but because we know there are cameras everywhere, and these kids, for heaven's sake, have gone through an elaborate application and recruitment process to get here. They're not delinquents being sent to boot camp; they're child-star wannabes out to generate buzz. Yet, like many reality TV show participants, they weren't told what would actually transpire, and they seem totally unprepared: You could almost imagine they'd been dragged from their beds by their parents. The four leaders, flown in by helicopter, look as genuinely clueless as the 36 others who tumble out of a school bus. Greeted by a cursory introduction from the show's host, Jonathan Karsh, they are left to their own devices. They drag heavy carts down a long road, encounter ramshackle buildings, and face the challenge of serving up macaroni (which no one knows how to cook) to a famished group that is losing patience. The camera crew, whom the kids are too weepy and exhausted to notice, doesn't step in to help. The kids retreat to thin mattresses in misery.