FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

From Toys to Gadgets... And From Kids to Adults

Childhood toyland
mystical merry toyland
once you pass its borders
you can never return again!

-- Perry Como

Last year, we first noticed the trend toward high-tech gadgets displacing traditional toys on children's wish lists. The trend seems to be even stronger this year, with kids asking for digital music players and digital video cameras instead of toys.

Manufacturing high-tech products for kids could be the saving grace for toy manufacturers, whose revenues have been shrinking for the past few years. Hasbro and Mattel are rolling out kid versions of digital video cameras and prepaid cell phones. However, this strategy has some serious problems:

The electronics strategy is risky for toy makers, though. Profit margins on consumer electronics are slim - and the problem extends to electronic toys... And while consumers may dash to the local toy store for the latest iteration of Elmo, they tend to wait, rather patiently, for prices to fall before adopting new technologies like DVD players and digital video recorders.

"There isn't an industry where product prices come down faster than consumer electronics," said Sean McGowan, an analyst at Harris Nesbitt.

There is also the possibility that children will pass up the kid-friendly version of digital audio players and cellphones and head straight for the adult version, a trend that analysts are already seeing with PCs and laptops.

Amber Eldridge, a 10-year-old from Atlanta, is transfixed by advertisements for the iPod and wants the real thing "so I can take my music with me."

The latter point is well taken, considering that kids are the "power users" of computers and other electronics in many families.

Regardless of how successful toymakers are with this strategy, it points to a continual blurring of the lines between childhood and adulthood. Just as young adults ("kidults") are living at home longer and continue to indulge in childhood interests long after reaching adulthood, kids want to emulate grown-up behavior at an ever earlier age. Perhaps in some way, we're reverting to the social pattern that existed before the Industrial Revolution, when children were largely seen as miniature adults.

This trend is important to understand, as it's fraught with implications and unintended consequences, both good and bad.

RELATED: Just as technology is blurring the lines between childhood and adult pursuits, it is blurring the line between work and leisure. As Geoffrey Bowker, executive director of a California research institute, told CNN, "This is always the case with new technology. Often the effects are paradoxical. The overall upside is that we can maintain a rich social and cultural life while dashing from pillar to post. The overall downside is that our spiritual development -- which requires empty time, contemplation -- is suffering enormously."

Sources: New York Times (via International Herald Tribune), pasta and vinegar