Limited Play Impacts Behavior
March 18, 2010
While David Cameron criticizes the marketing industry for selling teens the concept that happiness lies through excessive consumerism, it is worth taking a closer look at what we are actually allowing to happen to our kids, which may be having a more serious effect on their development, which, in turn, has important repercussions for marketers and product developers.
Today's teens seem to be living in a golden age. In many cases, they have an exciting array of stimuli, are given numerous opportunities and have the world at their finger tips. Yet, we may be breeding a generation of people who lack discipline and imagination, have shortened attention spans and an inability to self-motivate. While it is obvious that the way they play has drastically changed, what is perhaps less apparent is how these changes are having a direct impact on teens' behavior.
This impacts the way in which they use products and, importantly, how they are attracted to them. The intensity of the need for immediate gratification increases -- and this needs to be delivered in the product, but also needs to be clearly seen in the communication. Yet, this approach may not be best for the longer term.
Historically, a teen's IQ has generally been thought to be a good indicator of how well he or she will perform at school, and probably misinterpreted to be a measure of the kid's intelligence. In fact, IQ measures the theoretical capacity to learn. It turns out, though, that recent studies are showing that self-regulation is a far more accurate way of gauging a teen's potential success rate at school: the way they take information and, with their own connections, turn information to knowledge.
This is an important insight for marketers to understand. If the move is away from measuring capacity to learn, the amount of stimuli becomes less important. The shift would be away from inundation with lots of "bells and whistles' and the focus on connection of information to generate knowledge.
Free play, which involves using imagination, is one of the key ways for teens to develop a critical cognitive skill which is central to their ability to engage with and connect stimuli to generate knowledge. It is this skill which enables them to control their emotions and behavior as well as exert self control and discipline -- it is vital for their healthy emotional development. This will help them in the long term, and products and services that enhance this behavior are likely to be bigger winners.
In this digital age, free-play for younger teens is less about going out and building a tree house and much more about sitting safely on a sofa, creating a fully operational city. Arguments are still raging whether one is better than the other, and marketers would, of course, be wrong not to make the most of technology and offer kids opportunities to unleash their imaginations in a way our generation never dreamed of. Managing expectations and balancing activities is really down to the parents; marketers are quite right to give us choices because that is what makes the world go around!
So what can be done in the near term -- especially if we don't want to continue down the path of "more is more"?
According to some recent research that looked at playschools in Los Angeles and New York, actual "play time" has shrunk or disappeared from the curriculum. In fact, playschool pupils appear to be spending some four to six times as long being taught and tested in core subjects such as literacy and math than enjoying free play. Although teachers do agree that play is important, they have such tight deadlines into which to fit their teaching that it is no longer prioritized. The same applies for many U.K. private schools and is now starting to emerge as a pattern across other parts of Europe.
Free play has been replaced with preparing for tests -- even at a very young age -- and the results could be quite dramatic. Perhaps this highlights an opportunity to provide kids with a needed downtime, and play -- to get out of the grind of constant pressure on tests and results. Marketers are not at fault; as a society we all need to take responsibility for the next generation, and that includes parents, teachers and governments, who dictate the curricula.