There are a number of big events throughout the year for the toy industry. In the US, none are bigger than the New York Toy Fair held every year in February. Much of what’s shown at this event finds its way to store shelves in time to be sold during the winter holiday season leading up to Christmas. (or what people in the toy industry simply refers to as “holiday”.)
Every year it’s interesting to see where the toy industry is going, what trends will emerge over the year leading up to holiday. Now looking back on Toy Fair, it’s amazing to see those trends moving at full speed today and spreading out to other industries as well! One clear trend is the number of companies offering learning products specifically targeting young children ages 6 months to 2 years old. Now companies offering learning products to young kids is nothing new, but companies offering screen-based learning products specifically for children under the age of 2 is, and this new trend has sparked some significant debate about if children this young should be exposed to screen products at all, what’s appropriate content for the very young, and are these products beneficial to learning.
Over the last year two noteworthy research efforts have become available that take a more in-depth look at screen products for children between the ages of 0 and 24 months old. They are both from the Kaiser Family Foundation; the first being a report called A Teacher in the Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers, the second, a report and panel discussion called The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers and Their Parents.
An interesting statistic that pops out immediately in these reports is just how much time young children spend with screened content. While children ages 2 to 3 years old spend an average of 127 minutes a day with screen-based devices, children ages 0 – 12 months spend an average of 80 minutes a day. What’s shocking is that 19% of this younger age group have a television in their bedroom (see page 10 of The Media Family presentation.)
More and more television shows are also being created for younger audience and focus groups conducted by the KFF demonstrate that many parents are educated consumers of children’s content found on the television networks PBSkids, Sprout, Nick Jr. and Noggin. Parents allow their young children to view television for many reasons according to research. Some are just looking for a safe content to leave their child with while they do other things around the house. Others feel that doing so creates learning opportunities for the child that may not occur when they’re not around.
More and more DVDs, software and electronic products are are being made for children six and under as well, but this year companies are targeting this younger demographic more than before (see the Teacher in the Living Room report). Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein are two video-based companies that offer educational DVDs to this younger audience. Knowledge Adventure’s Jumpstart Advanced Toddler and Disney’s Learning Toddler offer computer-based software products for children ages 18 to 36 months. In the toy world, electronic toys that hook up to your television are another growing trend. Two toys you will begin to hear more about include VTech’s V.Smile Baby Infant Development System and LeapFrog’s Little Leaps Grow-with-Me Learning System. (A side note about the early learning market, be prepared to see screened products that will teach sign language to your baby. That’s right sign language!)
While companies may simply be responding to parent’s desires (or fears) to help their child get a head start on learning, educational claims found in the marketing of screened products are way ahead of research efforts related to the effectiveness of using such products. While the American Academy of Pediatrics clearly states that children under the age of two should never be exposed to content coming from a screen, the reality is that many parents do use television (and other screened devices) as part of a young child’s media diet. As such, the effects of screen use on young children, as well as the short and long-term benefits (or detriments) of such use, are unknown and should be explored more fully. (Did you know that there’s more research about how young children can learn sign language before they have learned how to speak than there is about the effects of screened media on the very young!) Ultimately, it is a parent that decides if their child should be using screened media or not, and though the experts say the jury is still out about this being a good or bad thing for children, parents seem to place great value on the recommendations of other parents about how beneficial a screened product can be for their growing baby, overlooking the advice of researchers and pediatricians.
Lessons for developers of children’s media:
While the theoretical debates related to screened media will continue until more research becomes publicly available, a few critical development considerations are already clear:
- No matter what age, it’s the content, not the medium, that matters. Content that actually speaks to a specific audience should always be priority number one. Parents of young children are looking for high quality educational material and content that is considered safe for younger viewers. Also, there is existing research available that does show a benefit to using reality-based content (like real people and real objects) within a title as opposed to animated content.
- Developing products for the very young should include ways for parents and caregivers to include themselves WITH the child during the use of the product. Existing studies suggest enhanced learning opportunities to the child if parents participate with their child during the use of screen products as opposed to leaving a child to view or use on their own.
- Include additional parent specific content so that parents could learn how to include themselves in the learning process with their young child.
- Look for opportunities every step of the way to include interactivity, repetition, leveled content and customization within your product