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Buy now, pay forever: the business of tech toys

The New York Times says that toys are going high tech. Where are they taking our children?

LeapFrog Clickster Computer
My First Computer, for ages 3 to 6 LeapFrog

The New York Times' Technology section leads with the story headlined "For Toddlers, Toy of Choice Is Tech Device," declaring:

Cellphones, laptops, digital cameras and MP3 music players are among the hottest gift items this year. For preschoolers.

On the plus side, retailers and toymakers have learned that children are not satisfied with fake gadgets. Hooray for authenticity!

On the minus side...

this has come about in part because the toy industry, according to Times source Jim Silver, see themselves as vying for kids' leisure time. Leisure time? What about play time? It gets more incredible.

If you've been reading our blog you already know that any TV (including Baby Einstein) is bad for kids under 2 years old and that violence on TV leads to elevated levels of aggression in children. So why not turn off the TV and reboot that old laptop you've been too lazy to recycle? Are you baffled by complex user interfaces? Simplify the experience using a fuzzy little Webkinz and enjoy a little bit of relaxation! For now...

You will soon realize, as our friends who own them have realized, that one person's "social networking" is another person's marketing mother lode. Soon, everybody is caught up in a new game, pimp your webkinz. And before you know it, children are focused on competing for KinzCash and obsessing about what to buy with their new-found virtual wealth. Is that really social networking, or is a generational take-down sponsored by media conglomerates with the complicity of unwitting caregivers?

If we really what to understand whether this is a blip or a trend, consider that Disney will pay up to $700M USD for Club Penguin. In contrast, News Corp paid only $580M for and all its related sites. If you follow the money, the 6-14 year old demographic is worth more than the 12-18 year old demographic. Why?

Club Penguin Home Page
Waddle around and meet new friends Club Penguin

Well, looking at the Club Penguin front page, I think I have it figured out. As you can see in the image, there are three snow-covered buildings: one labeled "Coffee" (for kids!?), one labeled "Nightclub" (for kids?!), and one labeled "Gift Shop" (you know, for kids). That's the life of hell.

Club Penguin predicts Igloos will be decorated with Cactii
Decorate your Igloo with Cactii! Club Penguin

What's a techno-parent to do? There are not one, but two creative laptop projects that may provide a far more enriching (and less devastating) experience for parents and children. The first requires only construction paper, a pencil, and perhaps a bit of string. The first is something we've come to know as the laptop club. It's like decorating a cyberpenguin's igloo with environmentally appropriate plants (like the cactii shown in the above picture), except it's crafty, creative, and not tethered to a credit card. The second is the One Laptop Project available via the Give One, Get One Program. This laptop project gives children a techincal workbench and tools to literally do anything they can imagine (subject to these hardware and software specifications which, by the way, exceed the computing capabilities of any computer I had access to when completing my BS CSE at the University of Pennsylvania in 1986).

Image of XO Laptop
Laptop As Seen by Child One Laptop Per Child
Image of XO Laptop motherboard
Laptop As Seen by Curious Child One Laptop Per Child

So, as consumers we have a choice. Good! As parents, we should be mindful of how the choices we make for our children prepare them for life. Do we need to put them into early intensive consumeristic training? Are we afraid that if they don't enjoy their leisure time at age 6, they might not know what to do with all the time they have after high school? Or are we concerned that our children are going to need to understand complexities we did not imagine? Solve problems we could not face? Share a culture of communication and cooperation with children around the world who all share a common fate? If so, then they are going to need to build their imagination, develop their problem-solving abilities, and build real bridges to cultures that don't take American Express. They are going to need to become producers, not consumers. That doesn't mean they need to give up play. We parents just need to remember what it is.