Age Compression Essay

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The phenomenon of age compression is the tendency  in  recent  years  for  children  to  express more sophisticated tastes at younger ages for commodities such as toys, clothes, and other consumer   goods.  Within   the  toy  manufacturing and marketing industries,  this is known  by the acronym KGOY (kids getting older younger). The emergence  of  the  age  compression  phenomenon has been a cause of concern in the toy industry  and among  educators, psychologists,  and  others  with an  interest  in  ensuring  that  children’s  emotional, intellectual,  and personality development occurs at a gradual  pace.

Child Development

Experts  in child development observe that  the fact that  children appear  to be exhibiting  more interest in products and services previously thought to only appeal  to older  shoppers  does  not  mean  that  the children are actually  more mature  or that  they are maturing at a faster rate. An alternative possibility is that  the children are receiving more exposure  to media at ever-younger  ages. This increase in media exposure  could  be providing  children  with additional behaviors  that they wish to emulate. An example  of this  would  be  a  young  child  who  is given a tablet computer to play with and one of the games emulates  a cosmetics studio  where the user can learn  how  to apply  cosmetics  to an animated face. Because of the tablet’s simple interface, a very young child could play such a game and thereafter seem to be interested  in cosmetics.  However,  this would   not   mean   that   the   child   actually   has developed  an  understanding of why  people  wear cosmetics,  in which  situations they  are  appropriate, and so forth. Seen through this lens, age compression becomes not so much a developmental event as a behavioral shift.

Child psychologists  warn  that  age compression may have a number  of undesirable consequences. First and  foremost  is the effect that  age compression  may  have  on  attention  span.  As  children exhibit  more and more interest in technology  such as cell phones,  tablet  computers, video game consoles, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter,  the fear is that they will gradually  lose their ability to use their imagination to create their own entertainment. In previous generations, children could be “turned loose” in the neighborhood to spend the afternoon playing with sticks,  stones,   marbles,   toy  soldiers,   dolls,  and other  traditional amusements, often  inventing games based on whatever materials were readily available.  Now  that  the  pace  of modern  life has quickened  and the common  perception is that neighborhoods are  unsafe  for  children  to  be  in without adult  supervision,  the thinking  goes, there is an increasing  reliance  on managed  experiences, so-called  electronic  babysitters like television  and computer   games.   This   means   less   time   for invention and exploration, and children’s cognition may suffer as a result.

Another   concern   voiced   by  child   advocacy groups is the tendency of age compression to cause children  to be more  materialistic. This is particularly true because so many of the interests that  are replacing   children’s   toys  are  technology   based: Video games and cell phones  are the most prominent examples. The issue with technology  is that  it is constantly evolving at an extremely fast rate; the best cell phone  on the market  today  will be all but unusable  2 years from now, having been outpaced by the demands  of new applications and new network  services.  In  the  realm  of  age  compression, this issue plays out with children not simply wanting to have their own cell phones but also wanting to  have  the  very  latest  cell  phone,  even  if  they already own one that functions  perfectly well. This kind  of “keeping  up with  the Joneses”  attitude is an  often  frowned-on trait  among  adults,  so it is still  more  objectionable when  emulated  by  children  as young  as kindergartners. Social scientists warn  that  just when society should  be focusing on the  reduction of consumption, children  are  being added  to the ranks  of the “early  adopters.”

Industry Perceptions

As mentioned above,  the  changes  in  purchasing behavior that have followed the advent of age compression have  been  of great  interest  to  firms engaged   in  manufacturing  and   marketing  toys. From the perspective of these companies,  the landscape  has  completely   changed   under   their  feet. Once  upon  a time  it could  be taken  for  granted that  every  10-year-old girl  wanted  a  Barbie  doll with a dream  house play set, a toy car for the doll to ride around in, and  even a Ken doll to be her boyfriend.  In a very real sense, toymakers only had to look at census data  in order  to predict  demand for their products, because every child wanted  the same thing.

Now,  perceptions have  changed,  and  the  toys and  games  that  have  been  mainstays  for  generations  are  only  of interest  to  the  very young,  and even then for only a short  time. Giving a 10-year old  girl  a  Barbie  doll  would  more  likely  inspire scorn than  gratitude because by the age of 5 or 6 most girls feel that  they have outgrown such toys. This  means   that   companies   specializing   in  the production of  traditional toys  must  scramble  to either  partner with  firms  that  can  meet  modern kids’ expectations or work  hard  to sell to younger and younger children.

The  combination of  parents   concerned  about overly mature  children and children determined to fit in with  their  sophisticated peers is a challenge for those trying to market  to youth. This is because the desires of parents and children are often in opposition to one another in matters  of age compression: Children  want to appear  mature, but parents   want   them   to   retain   their   innocence, knowing  that  their  children  are  not  prepared to handle the things they think they want. This forces marketing teams  to  walk  a  fine  line,  presenting their   products  in  a  way   that   will  appeal   to age-compressed children  yet do  so in a way  that will still feel safe to the parents  of those children.

Bibliography:

  1. Balnaves, Mark, Stephanie Donald,  and Brian Shoesmith. Media Theories  and Approaches:  A Global  Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  2. Schor, Juliet. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture.  New York: Scribner, 2004.

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