Archive for November, 2006

What Can We Learn About Kids from Nickelodeon & MTV?

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

Nickelodeon and MTV recently announced their findings from their Wellbeing Study of kids and young people across the globe. The study looks at differences and similarities with today’s youth across fourteen different countries. The data collected in this study reveals noteworthy differences between developing nations (Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa) and developed nations (Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, UK, US). This study groups its participants into two major demographics; kids ages 8 – 15 and young people ages 16 – 34. Removing the research findings for young people to focus just on the findings for kids the following observations appear…

Experiences that all kids share:

  • Kids are growing up younger and appear to be experiencing higher levels of stress in their daily lives
  • Kids across all ages and in every country feel pressure to succeed
  • In 12 out of the 14 countries surveyed, two thirds of kids said that getting good grades in school was their top priority
  • The more news media outlets a nation has, the less safe kids feel regardless of where they come from in the world

Experiences that are different for kids in developing nations versus their counterparts in developed nations:

  • Kids in developing nations feel more positive about their future than kids in developed nations. They are also happier and expect to have more fun in their future
  • Kids in developing countries expect to earn more than their parents, while kids in developed nations expect to earn less than their parents
  • Bullying happens everywhere but it’s generally more of a problem in developed nations than in developing nations
  • Kids in the developing world are more patriotic than their counterparts in developed nations

What is noteworthy about this study is how MTV plans to use this research to generate new programs for young people ages 16 – 34. For example, one noteworthy concern for all young people across all nations is the worry about jobs and working. As a result, MTV plans to develop programs specifically for this demographic that demystifies the job market.

What insight is unveiled here for kids ages 8 – 15? What content could be created that would appeal to a broad base of kids everywhere? Certainly creating content that informs kids about media literacy skills and strategies to feel safe in their surroundings. If getting good grades in school is a major concern for all, what content could be created that empowers kids to be better learners? How can you create a lifelong love of learning with this information? While the findings suggest a path for how to make content more relevant, and possibly more appealing to kids, translating that relevance into successful content is the challenge. While the available data is limited, it defines universal issues important to kids and important to include in all new product development.

Children’s Interactive Media Presentation at the Dust or Magic Conference

(Have you found a balloon?)

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been a part of a conference called Dust or Magic held in Lambertville, NJ, for many years now. This conference reviews the best interactive products developed for children over the past year. It’s attended by many noteworthy electronic toy developers, video game developers, child researchers, and content experts. This year I was asked to be the closing speaker (November 7, 2006) and I decided to do something really different.

My presentation was delivered through a parody of the successful Nintendo DS learning game called Brain Age. Before the presentation started, I handed out laser pointers to the 60 or so conference attendees. I instructed the audience to participate with my presentation through the use of these laser pointers.

The content of my presentation covered a variety of topics touching on children and interactive products, including:

  • Children and the time they spend with objects that have screens. Among the stats shared, new research indicates children 1 year old and younger are watching just about 80 minutes of television a day. 19% of this demographic also has a TV in their bedroom.
  • Revenue trends in the toy and video game markets. The NPD Group projects a big year for the toy industry, with supercategory leaders in Learning & Exploration (toys that teach, now showing a six year growth trend) as well as Youth Electronics (the blending of toys and consumer electronics). For the video game industry, we are just at the beginning of a new console revolution by the three main platform leaders; Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo.
  • Alternatives to user input in technology toys. Expect to see more dance pad, bongos, guitars, digital cameras, and other motion based input devices.
  • Opportunities to be found within the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative out of MIT’s Media Lab. Even if this initiative only partially succeeds, it has already sparked a technology race to create cheaper hardware components that run on less power and has added fuel to the open source movement.
  • How best for large corporations to get technology traction in the living room. If plug and play electronic toy devices are so prevalent now, and High Definition Televisions (HDTV) are projected to overtake our living rooms within the coming years, isn’t it possible that computer products in the future will ship without a screen to be plugged into your home HDTV?
  • A discussion about the idea of childhood and what we can do collectively to improve childhood for children everywhere (I called this part Childhood 2.0.) Children have remained the same throughout the ages… It’s the society around children that has changed. Being aware of this allows one to see that actions taken by adults in commerce, healthcare, government, and many other social institutions shape the idea and experience of childhood. Collectively we have the power to improve childhood for all children through our thoughtful actions.

Within the game Brain Age, the user is often asked to write down an answer to a question on the game screen using a stylus pen… a question like “What did you have for breakfast last Monday?”. I asked my audience the question “What can you do to make childhood better for children?” Each member of the audience wrote an idea down on an index card that was handed out at the beginning of the presentation. The audience later learns that the ideas they wrote down will be tied to balloons and launched into the great blue sky. (After the event, a couple of participants expressed concern about released balloons causing harm to wildlife and sea creatures. Researching the matter online I found a detailed article about Balloon Releases which states latex balloons are biodegradable and the potential harm to land and sea creatures is virtually nonexistent.)

My presentation is posted on YouTube in 6 parts (click a video clip number to see any of the posted videos: 1, 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 ). The videos collectively make up a runtime length of 34’14”.

Recommended Reading for Developers of Children’s Interactive Media

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

Every year I attend a great conference called Dust or Magic (DorM) which is sponsored by the Children’s Technology Review. The DorM event focuses on children’s interactive media of all types; software, interactive DVDs, classroom products, electronic toys, video games… You name it. If it has some digital component and it’s core audience is kids, you’ll find it at this conference. The term “Dust or Magic” itself refers to an old quote from Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) which says “An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending upon the talent that rubs against it.”

Before the event concludes, the attendees share a list of books, research papers, lectures, and websites that are important to the development of successful interactive products for children. I’ve been asked again this year to present my updated list of recommended readings for those who work in the kids industry, be it in gaming, education, early learning, or toy development. To download a PDF copy of these recommendations, click here (5.4 MB).

Screen-based Content for the Very Young

Friday, November 3rd, 2006

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