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