Remember the proverbial situation of a kid in a candy store? Gazing up at rainbow rows of sweets, his eyes become as round as the gumballs they reflect. If he’s lucky, his mother appears at his side, hands him a cellophane bag, and invites him to scoop some of his favorite varieties into it. Or perhaps she’ll say that they’re not buying candy on this outing, and those visions of sugarplums will have to dissipate – at least temporarily. Whether or not he goes home savoring a sugary treat, the candy shop’s aura has captured him. Indeed, the craving for saccharine satisfaction may never be fulfilled. A child who gets candy soon wants more, while one who must wait is reminded of his appetite every time someone else leaves the shop happy.
In today’s consumption-oriented society, marketers of myriad products seek to imitate the appeal of the candy shop. Old-fashioned sweets will always hold a special allure, and in fact food remains one of the primary categories of products marketed to children. But today, many kids want to go to the Apple store as often as the candy store. Swap the jelly beans for iPods that come in colors just as delectable, and you’ll understand the position of the modern kid. How can he indulge when the objects of desire are priced at 99 dollars rather than 99 cents?
Today’s young consumers simply cannot afford all of the intriguing items proffered to them. They depend on their parents. In The Great Tween Buying Machine: Capturing Your Share of the Multi-Billion-Dollar Tween Market, marketers David L. Siegel, Gregory Livingston, and Timothy Coffey calculate that American tweens, whom they define as eight- to twelve-year-olds, spend about $11 billion independently each year – although some of that sum actually represents allowance – while parents themselves spend around $176 billion on their tweens annually. Even though parents’ expenditures dwarf those of tweens, the influence of children on their parents’ spending has drawn the interest of market analysts who see potential for earnings. Whereas advertisers once relied on a gatekeeper model that targeted mothers, they increasingly turn to tweens. Pioneering market researcher James McNeal identified tweens as current consumers, future consumers, and influencers of other consumers, usually their families. Marketers who capture tweens’ interest can gain immediate revenue, long-term brand loyalty, and even walking advertisements tailored to a family. Such abundant possible profit means that many companies cater to tweens’ interests and needs with products ranging from drinkable yogurt to handheld video games.
While marketers see the potential for profit from tweens, many parents and cultural critics raise concerns about exploiting a population bombarded with messages about cool products and mainstream attitudes. According to Juliet Schor, who observed the advertising industry firsthand, the term “bombardment” fits marketing strategy well. In Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, she writes, “It’s a war out there. Those at whom ads are directed are ‘targets.’...Printed materials are called ‘collateral.’ Impromptu interviews with consumers are ‘intercepts.’” In short, marketers have assembled an arsenal of approaches they can deploy on tweens, a fairly defenseless segment of the population. Yet between the workroom of a marketing agency and the dressing room of American Eagle Outfitters, the vibe shifts from focused to laid-back. Making a product appeal to kids requires wise marketing and enticing advertising, and a company that masters both is likely to enjoy popularity.
A quick look around your local mall illustrates the variety of options for tweens. When they start to reject items made specifically for kids, they can turn to a bevy of brands that seek to fill the transitional space between childhood and adulthood. One popular development, brand extension, provides attractive products for tweens, then directs them to the parent brand when they have outgrown the youth version. This business model fosters brand loyalty, although the degree of loyalty depends upon the closeness of the extension and the parent brand.
The Gap, a bastion of shopping centers, demonstrates how a brand can offer related stores for a range of ages. Although GapKids provides clothes for tweens, it does not cater to them very specifically. The line proffers stylish apparel, but it sells clothes for young children too and can struggle to maintain the interest of older tweens. Parents like Lisa McDevitt, a mother of three girls in Milwaukee, see their kids start to reject what strikes them as childish. Speaking about her nine-year-old daughter, McDevitt says, “She’s still kind of borderline Gap, but she likes Delia’s,” and elaborates that cool graphic-print tees at the latter store pull her in.
Brands such as Gap, then, do not harness the power of brand extension in the same way as youth-oriented stores. Abercrombie and Fitch, which glories in the youthfulness of its customer base, has expanded that base with the spinoffs Hollister, its surfer-inspired brand for teens aged fifteen to seventeen, and abercrombie, its preppy line aimed at kids aged seven to fourteen. Although an abercrombie store will not be attached to its parent store, as is often the case with GapKids, the continuity of style is much stronger between the Abercrombie brands than the Gap lines. Similar black-and-white photos of middle-class mischief line the walls, although those in the kids’ store expose less skin, and the striped polo shirts and destroyed denim simply appear in miniature for younger kids (one may argue that clothes from Abercrombie and Fitch are already tiny, but they appear in even more shrunken form for kids at abercrombie). Tweens who like the look of Abercrombie and Fitch or Hollister can shop for clothes in their sizes, and parents can avoid the loud music and dim lighting of the adult store. Indeed, the power of brand extensions lies in their ability to appeal simultaneously to youth and their parents. The best spinoff encourages parents who were once unwilling to make a stop at Abercrombie and Fitch to relent when clothes from the kids’ store no longer fit.
Even brands not originally meant for the tween population have observed the importance of a younger demographic. Appeals to adults’ youthful side have netted the attention of kids, too. Victoria’s Secret has enjoyed high profits from its PINK line. Situated in the front window of the mall boutique, PINK items playfully printed with polka dots and puppies invite customers with a less-sensual sensibility into the store and thence into the family of brand devotees. In his introductory letter for the 2008 annual report of Limited Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret, company CEO Leslie H. Wexner praised PINK for contributing to the growth of the brand. He wrote, “It has brought vitality, youth, energy, and an all-new customer base to Victoria’s Secret. PINK is a standout, and the PINK team has a laser-like focus on their customer and how to continue to delight her.” The letter does not specify who constitutes this new group of customers, and a representative of Limited Brands declined to define the target age group for PINK, but their “vitality” and “youth” correspond to a young shopper. The representative also would not comment about the company’s stance on attracting tween girls, which suggests an awareness of the issues stemming from winning them over. To claim that Victoria’s Secret promotes greater awareness of sexuality may be an overstatement, yet the store certainly does not hide its focus on the female body, and now a younger generation is invited to adopt this perspective.
Those grown-up looks available at the mall have made their way to schools. Kelly Endersby, a mother of four from the San Francisco area, teaches French to tweens aged eight to twelve at Pinewood Academy, a small private school. She says she has noticed the “seductiveness” projected by middle-school girls in the way they dress and wear make-up. The girls are “pushing the limits,” she observes, often “without even understanding the consequences of what they’re doing.” Having imbibed the cultural lesson that a risqué look brings the rewards of status and attention, some girls adopt skimpy skirts and loads of eyeliner, not realizing that they may be generating gossip among their peers.
The interest in projecting an adult appearance also has taken root among tween boys. Personal grooming aids like cologne and shower gel are among the products that have enjoyed considerable growth recently, according to The New York Times’ Jan Hoffman. Brands with a young vibe, such as Axe and Old Spice Swagger, stand at the center of the array. Although Old Spice once had a reputation for being old-fashioned, fresh packaging, such as that of a deodorant with the quip “10 Times Tougher Than Your Dad,” exudes a youthful relevance. In one advertisement for the Old Spice Swagger line, a yearbook-style photo depicts rapper LL Cool J wearing an overwrought chain necklace and grinning goofily, a look that contrasts with an inset image of the star looking much more suave after using the Swagger products. Thus, Swagger aims its message at a young man; but considering that its advertising scheme includes sponsorship of Xbox competitions, Old Spice is sure to reach some preteens as well. Much the same trickle-down effect occurs with Axe, whose brand development director, Mike Dwyer, has stated that the brand targets men aged eighteen to twenty-four. Much like the PINK line at Victoria’s Secret, Axe can profit from additional younger customers, even if the market expansion is unintentional. And again, complications can arise from Axe’s aura (not to be confused with the strong fragrance, although many people complain that the scent could knock a person over). Axe’s advertisements emphasize the attractive power of the brand; many commercials promise romantic “action” as an effect of using one of the products. Axe cannot be impugned for appealing to a desire for attractiveness; at the same time, the brand’s knowledge that young consumers buy its products has not altered its approach. What tends to rankle cultural critics is not that sexuality exists among youth – nature dictates its emergence in the later tween years – but that advertisers’ methodology prompts much younger children to embrace it.
The world of personal appearance, however, is not the only one in which adult brands and lifestyles have filtered down to youth. The entertainment sector also has a strong presence in the tween psyche. I recently felt somewhat bemused, but more disturbed, as I listened to my eleven-year-old sister sing along to “Blah Blah Blah,” a pop hit by singer-rapper Ke$ha. As my sister chanted, “Think you’ll be getting this? Nah, nah, nah / Not in the back of my car, ah, ah,” I wondered how much of the song she understood. For her, it’s a catchy tune that everyone at school knows, not a blunt statement about getting drunk and telling a guy to stop talking so that they can hook up. Ke$ha’s song may be intended for a mature audience, but young kids can access it too, thanks to the proliferation of media ranging from traditional radio to the relatively new YouTube. Indeed, technological innovations have made for broad, speedy dispersal of pop entertainment. Many tweens can hear a new song on the bus ride from school and buy it on iTunes when they get home.
And in the realm of technology, the infiltration of adult habits can be complicated. Most people get riled up by skimpy clothes that make children look like “prosti-tots” and music that promotes analogous behavior, but the issues related to giving a kid a technological tool are less clearly delineated. In the case of cell phones, for instance, appreciation of the security they provide opposes concerns about their health hazards. Many parents cite the comfort of being able to contact their children as a reason to get them cell phones, but some researchers warn that children are especially susceptible to cellular radiation. In Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age, George Louis Carlo and Martin Schram write, “The radiation plume that emanates from a cell phone antenna penetrates much deeper into the heads of children than adults.” This potency may lead to serious health problems; research on cell phone radiation has connected it to genetic damage, which can lead to tumor development and cellular malfunction or death. A lack of consensus among researchers and regulators, however, has limited the extent of warnings about radiation dangers.
Cell phone providers hope to limit concerns about their products’ health hazards, of course, and their focus on providing convenience and security for families, combined with general social pressure to have a phone, has brought many more mobile devices into the hands of tweens. The number of kids who own cell phones has increased dramatically in recent years. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which released its third study of media use among American eight- to eighteen-year-olds earlier this year, calculated that, between 2004 and 2009, cell phone ownership increased from 39% to 66%. An even larger leap occurred in ownership of MP3 players. In the same time period, the number of kids who own iPods and other such devices grew from 18% to 76%. In just five years, these technologies have become a normal part of daily life for many kids. McDevitt, the mother in Wisconsin, explains that she and her husband decided to get their youngest daughter a cell phone because “it would be a good way to communicate” when they need to find each other after school or a soccer game. But as soon as Bella could get her phone working, all she wanted to do was “text, text, text.” The social element of possessing a phone obviously excites kids.
Additionally, use of mobile devices operates similarly to brand extension. Cultural critics have pointed out that, once established, reliance on cell phones and iPods persists, and cell phone companies with family plans, for example, have taken advantage of this fact. As phone and music technologies merge, however, a new phenomenon arises. In Ars Technica, Scott Foresman observes that Apple’s iPod Touch is a “gateway drug” to the iPhone. Kids who own an iPod Touch soon develop a preference for its operating system and are likely to remain loyal to the Apple brand if they have a chance to buy a multimedia cell phone. Of course, many tweens do not own an iPhone, one of the more expensive cell phone options widely available. But the vocabulary Foresman uses to describe kids’ attachment to technologies like it suggests addiction.
Indeed, youth participation in the world of technology has advanced beyond the occasional sugary indulgence of candy. A sack of jelly beans provides temporary diversion, but a backpack stocked with a cell phone and an iPod affords extended personal entertainment, often to the exclusion of other activities. Kelly Endersby, the San Francisco mother, recently has observed what she terms a “weird phenomenon” in kids’ socializing. Not long ago, tweens and teens in her town gathered after school, and “they’d all be chatting and talking and laughing” together. Now, when Endersby passes, she sees a pack of kids bent over their cell phones, “silently texting.” She notes that they spend more time telling others where they are than on “actually living in the moment.” This change in sociality, which is not limited solely to youth, strikes many observers as disheartening, yet the tendency to turn to technology for stimulation can take even more worrisome form. Endersby says she and fellow parents have learned that some boys who attend school with their fourteen-year-old sons access pornography on their iPhones. These boys are beyond the tween years, but their younger peers may not be far behind them. Because of Pinewood Academy’s location in the Silicon Valley, Endersby says iPhones have a strong presence even among her tween students, which opens up the possibility of their accessing the same material sought by boys just a few years older.
While technology has the potential to absorb tweens to a disturbing extent and may facilitate kids’ exposure to adult content on the Internet and in video games, it can be a powerful learning tool as well. Tom Brown, who has taught fourth- and fifth-graders in Illinois for twenty-eight years, has observed some instances of Internet misuse by students, but he also believes in the instructional use of technology, which he has integrated into his classroom over the years. A handful of desktop iMac computers with playful blue plastic frames once blended into a backdrop of colorful posters; now sleek laptops have replaced them in greater numbers. When the time comes to do projects like animal reports, Brown’s students conduct online research and present their findings with the help of computer programs. He says they are “remarkably savvy” about using technology, and he can envision using even more computer programs in the future, when the school district provides laptops for each student.
Considering the “cool” factor of so much new technology, I wondered if students would get distracted from the work itself in the course of using computer programs to prepare reports. Brown, however, feels no grave concerns about that issue; drawing on his years of experience, he says, “that same distractibility has always been there,” and he foresees a day when the computers will simply be tools, not toys. In the meantime, the most trouble with technology has occurred during unsupervised time. Brown recalls an incident at his district’s middle school in which some girls harassed a peer by sending her hate email and creating a fake social networking account in her name. The harassment occurred outside of school, but the girls were using computers bought by the district for academic use. The case caused considerable consternation among school workers and parents, yet instances of tweens using technology to harmful ends are not altogether rare.
Middle school counselor Tameka Marsh, who works with students at a magnet school in North Carolina, also has observed technology misuse among students. One day, I visited Davidson International Baccalaureate Middle School to talk with Marsh about the experiences she has had with her tween charges. Wearing a utilitarian blue fleece jacket, black pants, and big plastic earrings that glinted with a rainbow of tones, Marsh projected a mixture of maturity and youthful flair. She is young, but already she has worked with many teens; before counseling, she taught English to middle and high school students. Now she focuses her efforts on helping youth deal with anger management, divorce and loss of family members, and the social pressures of growing up.
Like ugly cinderblock walls and jammed lockers, some problems have been part of middle school for years. But Marsh, like Brown, has observed that the social issues may be played out via new technologies that did not factor in to the lives of students even a decade ago. In one example, Marsh says, “a group of friends had an email group...one person got into the group under cover and was sending nasty emails about someone.” Inappropriate cell phone text messages and calls have come to her attention, too. Given the increased opportunity to engage in destructive behavior, who needs to take greater responsibility for technology use – the tweens, or the adults who give them access to the new gadgets? Marsh acknowledges that the problems raised by the influx of personal electronics yield no easy answers. Of her students, she says, “It’s hard because they were born into this age. So that’s all they know.” The depersonalized nature of technology makes some harassment seem less real. Indeed, tweens forget how very traceable their contacts can be. “Kids don’t think about that,” Marsh explains. “They’re just so one-dimensional sometimes, you’re like, are you serious?” She chuckles indulgently, yet she strikes at a concern of cultural commentators: kids have access to the same technologies as adults, yet they are generally less ready to use them wisely.
One prominent analyst of tween girls’ culture, Denise Restauri, wrote about this disconnect between access to technology and maturity level on her blog, Tween Girl Confidential. Restauri founded AK Tweens, which conducts research about tween culture and consults on marketing to tween girls. The company also runs a website, AllyKatzz.com, where tween girls can read about topics that interest them, write blogs (which are proofread by adult staff for security purposes), and respond to surveys. In 2009, AK Tweens conducted a survey about “sexting” – sending sexual text messages – on the AllyKatzz website, and its results suggested that middle-school social machinations constitute only one part of the misuse of technology by tweens. Among the nine- to fifteen-year-old girls surveyed, 30% said they had sent or received sexy messages or photos, and nearly half acknowledged having thought about sending them. To make sure that the girls surveyed had the same general idea of what sexting entailed, the survey asked respondents to give examples of what they would include under the sexting label. A sample message was, “You can do whatever you want babe,” punctuated by a winking smiley face; another girl said you could send a photo “that one of your friends takes of you while your [sic] in your undewear [sic] while you’re playing around at a sleep over, and then texts it to one of her guy friends.” Commenting on the fact that such young girls participate in these behaviors, Restauri wrote, “Tweens are just as tech savvy and connected these days as their teen counterparts, but even less equipped to understand or deal with the negative and long lasting consequences sexting produces.... They aren’t thinking before they hit the send button.”
Tweens’ lack of perspective makes them see potentially dangerous habits as innocuous. Goofing around at a sleepover is nothing new, even if prank calling has shifted from landlines to cell phones. But that readiness to play with technology can take a serious turn, whether in the form of sexting or Internet misconduct. Tom Brown posits that tweens do not hesitate to add strangers as friends on social networking sites, for example, because they “lose focus” and forget that not everyone can be trusted. Now, Illinois state law prompts him to teach lessons on Internet safety in order to prevent engagement with strangers, sharing of personal information, and other risk-laden online activities.
What makes tweens think they can engage in questionable behavior without consequences? Brown has noticed one salient cause – technology allows kids to communicate “in a way that circumvents parental units.” Some parents play an active role in supervising their tweens’ habits, but even the most scrupulous monitors cannot keep tabs on a child all of the time. Plus, as Endersby observes, every parent thinks, “Oh, my kid wouldn’t do that.” Another reason for irresponsibility has its roots in tweens’ observations of other youth. “There’s a great pressure and interest to be older than you are,” says Brown. He notes that some of that interest has “always been there,” because kids look up to older siblings and students at school. But modern popular culture plays a role, too. Tabloid stories of celebrity escapades crop up frequently – recall Britney’s missing underwear or Lindsay’s arrest for drunk driving and cocaine possession. Even Disney starlets have ignited controversy with ill-considered actions. In 2007 and 2009, nude photos of High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens appeared online. Hudgens never intended for the photos to be made public, and she later apologized, saying she was “embarrassed” about them. While Hudgens drew censure for her personal impropriety, even an official photo shoot of Miley Cyrus, conducted by acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, upset many adults who felt that the poses were suggestive. In some of the photos, Cyrus appears to be draped only in a satin sheet, and a heated debate about the appropriateness of the images ensued. In spite of the fact that the photos of Cyrus were more artistic than those of Hudgens, the Hannah Montana star still felt compelled to apologize for taking part in the shoot. These young celebrities certainly have felt the repercussions of indiscretion, yet they have been able to continue their careers, and sometimes, the additional fame they gain may ultimately help them. Hudgens, for instance, still appeared in the final High School Musical movie, and then won a role in a non-Disney film, Bandslam. When kids see their favorite stars misbehave with impunity, they may want all the more to imitate what they see, forgetting that the consequences for them may be more serious than for celebrities who can bounce back.
Even if tweens stop short of replicating the misconduct reported by the media, they can channel Hollywood thanks to the influx of fashion lines bearing the names of young celebrities. Partnerships between starlets and national chain stores have allowed tweens across the country to access styles inspired by their favorite stars. Miley Cyrus teamed up with designer Max Azria to create a line for Wal-Mart, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have a new collection available at JC Penney, and Selena Gomez just announced at the end of March that she will have a line called Dream Out Loud at K-Mart stores. The development of these collections and others demonstrates the importance of another type of brand extension in today’s market: celebrity branding. With the right guidance, one star can build a small empire of products bearing his or her name or image. Miley Cyrus, for example, sells millions of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games linked to her name or to her Disney Channel persona, Hannah Montana. And in addition to her clothing line, Cyrus lends her image to 140 Disney items sold at national chains. If you need a bike or a guitar-shaped hairbrush, you can get one featuring Hannah Montana.
Items emblazoned with the faces of tween stars sit at one end of the celebrity product spectrum; branding may take a more subtle form. Material Girl, a recent addition to the group of celebrity-inspired fashion collections, reflects the teamwork of pop icon Madonna and her thirteen-year-old daughter Lourdes Leon. The line, which will be sold at Macy’s stores starting in August 2010, references the early 1980s, when Madonna made waves with her daring style, but Leon’s fashion sense has informed the designs as well. The mother-daughter collaboration stands out in a business in which parents of starlets must yield some of their decision-making responsibility to teams of handlers.
The importance of adult guidance in the careers of famous tweens cannot be understated. Twin moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who took the reins of their Dualstar Entertainment company when they turned eighteen, demonstrate that motivated tween stars can transition to self-directed work. Until young celebrities reach their majority, however, adults – both their parents and their management teams – play an important role in shaping their careers.
How these adults fulfill their roles affects both the kids whose work they manage and the legions of tween fans across America. Let’s return for a moment to the photo shoot of Miley Cyrus for Vanity Fair. Critics who disapproved of the adult look of the photos worried about both the subject and her fans. Complicating the debate were questions about the motivations of Leibovitz, Vanity Fair editors, and Cyrus’ parents. A Disney spokeswoman, Patti McTeague, expressed concern that “a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a fifteen-year-old in order to sell magazines,” while many parents posted angry comments in online forums about the apparently growing acceptance of kids as sexual objects. The presence of Cyrus’ parents during the shoot reassured some people, but it struck detractors as evidence of their poor judgment. In fact, many adults found photos of Cyrus with her father Billy Ray even more disturbing than the solo shots. Father and daughter posed for several shots by Leibovitz; in the pictures, they half-sit, half-recline, as Miley leans on her dad’s knee. Although outtakes show the two laughing together, the serious expressions and intertwined limbs in the formal shots struck some people as eerily Lolita-esque.
A number of other scandalous episodes among famous families have demonstrated the difficulties faced by parents of teen stars as well as the psychological power of both older siblings and celebrities in the minds of tweens. For Jamie Lynn Spears and Noah Cyrus, an older sister happens to be a world-famous celebrity too. Spears, who became pregnant in 2007 at age sixteen, could not help but absorb lessons about sexual permissiveness after watching her sister Britney build up fame with songs like “I’m a Slave 4 U.” More recently, Noah Cyrus, Miley’s nine-year-old sister, has stirred up controversy with questionable clothing choices, such as a 2009 Halloween costume consisting of a short, lace-trimmed black dress paired with lace-up knee-high boots and accented by bright-red lipstick. In each case, the girls’ observations of their sisters, both of whom developed increasingly sexy stage personas, coupled with an apparent lack of parental oversight, led to bad press for them. In Noah Cyrus’ case, negative public opinion has snowballed. In February 2010, an Internet rumor, fueled by awareness of Cyrus’ proclivity for grown-up fashions, quickly spread the word that she was launching a lingerie line for girls. In fact, Cyrus simply appeared in some promotional photos for the L.A.-based dressmaker Ooh! La, La! Couture. The company makes flouncy dresses in a variety of prints, from floral to leopard. In the wake of the controversy, Ooh! La, La! Couture’s website includes a prominent commitment to “never make anything that isn’t age-appropriate,” and in fact, most of its designs are whimsical, not sexual. Nonetheless, that the rumor spread so easily suggests that Noah Cyrus’ parents could have drawn stronger boundaries so that no one could mistake their nine-year-old daughter for an aspiring lingerie designer.
Understandably, parents in the public eye lose perspective or control when their kids achieve fame so early. And they face particular scrutiny, perhaps because they tend to be more identifiable than the many other adults who oversee tween stars’ careers. While these parents are subject to plenty of criticism, many adults recognize that they, too, would struggle to parent a child worth millions of dollars.
But what about the adults who sell products for tweens? Even if they have children of their own, they have fewer personal ties in their day-to-day work than a celebrity’s parents. Plenty of cultural critics believe that this enhanced objectivity should prevent them from feeding the trend of “kids getting older younger.” Somehow, the pattern continues, at least on the production side of the economy. But consumer preferences have influenced some of these trends. Parents who draw the line or demand alternatives have been noticed. After all, their approval ultimately seals the deal on most purchases.
The need for parental approval explains the failure of the Club Libby Lu mall chain, where little girls once attended birthday parties centered on makeovers and dressing up in suggestive outfits. Amid the sparkle of glitter and the fruity scents of spa products, girls put on fashion shows or imitated their favorite pop stars. Critics pointed out that Club Libby Lu maintained a very narrow vision of dress-up. In the Washington Post, for instance, Stacey Garfinkle asked about the missing doctor and astronaut outfits. Enough parents disapproved of the “shallow, girly-girl crap” that Club Libby Lu became unprofitable, and its parent company, Saks, decided to close it down in 2008. Its demise has caused rejoicing among parents, whose comments in online forums typically run along the lines of, “Good riddance to bad rubbish!”
Among the companies that understand the importance of parental approval of kids’ products, Ganz, which operates the Webkinz line, stands out. Webkinz stuffed animals fly (or hop or waddle) off toy store shelves thanks not only to their cuteness, but also to their innovative online component. Owning Webkinz animals grants kids access to a website where they can care for their critters virtually and play games to earn the money needed for pet upkeep. They can also instant-message with friends via a chat area, but their conversations are regulated by a live monitor and by a dictionary that allows for only approved words. As Ganz’s communications manager, Susan McVeigh, explains, “Our mandate was that the site had to be safe enough for us to let our own children play on it!” Indeed, as a privately owned company, Ganz encourages a family-oriented perspective to pervade its work. “We designed the sites for the children,” McVeigh continues, “and as such we also need to earn (and maintain) the trust of their parents who allow us to be part of their family’s play.” By designing the Webkinz World site with security concerns in mind, Ganz eliminated many parental worries about Internet use. In fact, parents’ requests for something like Webkinz World for preliterate kids contributed to the development of the newer Webkinz Junior site.
Family-owned businesses are not the only ones to see the benefits of winning over parents. Firefly Mobile, which launched in March 2005, also endeavors to balance youth appeal with parental satisfaction. It touts both the trendy features of its designed-for-kids cell phones and the account control options that give parents “peace of mind.” Following the success of its initial line, Firefly now offers a new glowPhone for kids and a tween-directed flyPhone that includes MP3 and video players, a camera, and games. At $49.99 and $124.99, respectively, these cell phones are expensive, but the Firefly concept created enough buzz among parents worried about overuse or misuse of phones that the company generated $20 million in annual sales soon after entering the market. Some analysts, however, have questioned whether the tween population will embrace a phone with limitations. Kids skeptical of the childish associations of the flyPhone may demand an adult style, which continues the cycle of adult products making their way to tweens. Nonetheless, Firefly Mobile’s success indicates the value of appealing to parents as well as to their kids.
In the music industry, where song lyrics and music video images often run counter to family values, stars who win parental approval also achieve success. Indeed, an entire subcategory of pop music – with acts such as the Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber, and Miley Cyrus at the forefront – caters primarily to tween audiences, yet secures its appeal by remaining palatable to parents. Taylor Swift, who enjoys huge popularity among soccer moms as well as their daughters, sold over four million albums in 2008, which ranked her first among U.S. artists, and she is the only singer to have had two top-ten albums in the same year. Swift and the Jonas Brothers ranked in the 60s in the 2009 Forbes Celebrity 100 listing of 2009. They were far surpassed, however, by Miley Cyrus, whose high earnings and visibility placed her at number 29 on the list. The mania surrounding Cyrus’ 2007-2008 Best of Both Worlds concert tour demonstrates how much parents will support an artist whose music is appropriate for kids. Tickets sold out rapidly, and secondary markets with much higher prices emerged. Many fans were upset that they could not obtain tickets; in fact, some members of the official Miley Cyrus fan club later filed a class-action lawsuit against the fan club because they had been promised access to tickets. The McDevitt family numbers among those who managed to obtain concert tickets. Lisa McDevitt, recalling that her husband had to pay about $300 for each of their four tickets, acknowledges, “He spent a fortune.” Yet she also explains that he thought it would be “a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing” for the girls.
On one hand, this rationale seems to be undercut by Cyrus’ continued popularity, which ensures more concert dates in the future. As Cyrus has gotten older, however, her family-friendly persona has morphed into that of a mainstream star. A noteworthy reversal of the normal trickle-down effect occurred in fall 2009 as college students ignored Cyrus’ earlier tween associations and adopted her hit “Party in the U.S.A.” as a dance-floor anthem. And the singer’s grown-up dance performance at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards raised eyebrows around the country. After emerging from a trailer wearing a skimpy top that revealed a black bra underneath, tiny shorts, and boots, in a nod to the country-girl theme of “Party in the U.S.A.,” Cyrus danced holding onto a pole. The McDevitts, meanwhile, enjoyed a show that Lisa described as “totally appropriate” and “a class act.” Perhaps what they saw truly was a fleeting version of Miley Cyrus.
While Cyrus’ earlier concert series pleased many parents who appreciated its family orientation, it remained squarely within mainstream culture. Some adults believe that expectations of conformity present almost as much danger as the sexual or violent messages presented in certain media. In other words, a family-friendly Miley Cyrus concert may be more palatable, but why should kids be prompted to like this particular star in the first place?
Non-normativity can seem like the worst possible disease during adolescence. But a number of groups are trying to make alternatives to mass-produced pop culture more available to youth, with the hope that building an entirely different culture will give kids greater freedom to grow up unconstrained by expectations. For example, Boston-based Teen Voices magazine offers an alternative to mainstream offerings such as Bop, YM, and Seventeen by featuring the work of young writers and focusing on social issues. Although tween girls can read the magazine, either in print or online, writers must be between the ages of thirteen and nineteen in order to submit their work. So, for the time being, tweens cannot fully benefit from this alternative forum.
A new website, however, does provide space for tweens to comment upon current events. Tween Tribune, launched in 2008, culls Associated Press news releases deemed interesting to young readers and encourages them to post feedback. It also allows them to submit news stories they have written and make suggestions about what news should be covered. Many teachers have begun to incorporate the website into their lessons, but any interested tween can visit. The website has had about a million visitors since its inception. Although Tween Tribune states that its primary focus is “to foster a daily news-reading habit at an early age,” it also has provided a popular new place for tweens to voice their opinions.
Parents, of course, can provide another outlet for expression by engaging their kids in conversation. Lisa McDevitt emphasizes the importance of asking her daughters what they think about inappropriate song lyrics, because talking about the issues raised invites consideration of how those messages affect the girls. “I think it’s important for us as parents to communicate to them that you have a choice in, you know, what you surround yourself with,” she says. “And it has an influence on you.”
Family involvement gives tweens a strong core, but when kids arrive at school, they often face many competing messages. If schools cultivate individuality and acceptance, however, they can offer tweens a sense of freedom from societal demands. This became clear to me when I visited Tameka Marsh. In her office, inflatable armchairs of transparent colored plastic stand in haphazard stacks alongside a pair of simple wooden chairs. The bright hues of these armchairs suggest strawberry, grape, and blue raspberry Sno-Cone syrup, and their vibrancy and pliability reflect qualities of the young students who use them. As I waited to meet Marsh, I watched a parade of diverse kids return to class after lunch. Some walked with an easy gait, while others scurried along; their clothes ran the gamut from fashionable jeans and boots to comfortable athletic pants and sneakers; and the height variation approached the absurd. Although nearly a decade has passed since I walked the halls of my own middle school as a timid sixth-grader, watching the students quickly brought back memories of my experiences navigating different classrooms, a cafeteria line, and an increasingly complicated social scene for the first time.
Although the ever-stronger pull of the adult world invites kids to become young adults in the space of a few years, Marsh’s experience at a school for bright youth has shown her that a particular environment can mold kids counter to the dominant culture. At Davidson IB Middle, the focus “is much more on academics,” and students “are very tolerant of each other.” Having a cell phone may win a student some bragging rights, but it doesn’t contribute to “social division.”
Regarding fashion, too, the school fosters acceptance. While Marsh noted the popularity of Abercrombie, Baby Phat, and Nike, she has not seen brand consciousness among her students cross over into judgment. “We have a lot of kids who just wear whatever – wear sweats everyday, and it’s okay, no one talks about it,” she explained, and elaborated that this lack of pressure and “competition” makes Davidson IB Middle stand out from other local public schools. Laughing, she reflected, “It’s just a weird school.” Even at Davidson IB Middle, students cannot avoid all pressure to conform to societal norms, but the school’s focused, positive culture minimizes that demand.
In today’s candy shop culture of consumption, glossy displays in mall windows and shiny gadget screens have replaced crinkly cellophane bags; the indulgences within have changed from the likes of Juicy Fruit chewing gum to Juicy Couture sweatpants. When I see the inflatable chairs brightening Marsh’s office, I think of the students who use them and hope they will continue to accept difference. If more adults – parents, teachers, and other mentors – help tweens realize that they do not need to focus solely on consumer culture, that habit of embracing other values can grow. Candy represents things desired, but perhaps today’s society can accommodate a wider perspective in which a park and a library flank the candy shop. While eliminating that place of indulgence is not feasible, the candy shop cannot stand alone.
From guest contributor Marissa O'Connell