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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2001

Are children growing up too fast today?

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - When Barbie was born 42 years ago, she was designed to appeal to girls ages 8 to 12.

Today, however, Barbie is the doll of choice for little girls - some as young as 2 years old. By the time most girls are 8, Barbie has lost her allure. Instead, today's young girls focus on the traditional teen interests of clothes, music, and computerized games.

It's a similar story with boys, who lose much of their interest in traditional toys such as vehicles and construction sets by the time they're 9 or so, in favor of electronic hand-held devices and computer and video games.

In the toy industry, this headlong rush toward teenage pre-occupations is called "age compression." It's a phenomenon that has toy companies scrambling to keep up with children's fast-changing tastes, while child-development experts worry that youngsters are growing up much too fast.

Now the Consumer Product Safety Commission has picked up the issue. The federal government's safety watchdog agency recently decided to revamp 15-year-old toy guidelines so it could offer better guidance to both toy manufacturers and parents on the age-appropriateness of various toys.

"There has been a lot of change in the toy industry," said Celestine Kiss, an engineering psychologist with the commission's division of human factors. "We recognize that more and more children are going into daycare centers and are exposed to different types of toys at earlier ages.

"We also know there's the whole issue of computer games and electronic toys that the current guidelines don't even address. Now, because of technology, we're able to put a small computer chip into any small toy, and that has really changed how children play."

The product safety commission crafted the first toy guidelines in 1985, mainly to provide safety guidance to manufacturers. Under the commission's guidance, manufacturers began labeling toys on whether they were appropriate - from a safety standpoint - for babies and toddlers.

The guidelines, however, also offer recommendations about the age-appropriateness of toys from a developmental standpoint for children up through age 12. For example, the current guidelines suggest that children ages 6 to 8 enjoy playing with baby dolls, and also indicate that fashion dolls like Barbie aren't appropriate for girls under 6 because "most children of this age are not yet interested in fashion and/or careers."

Because of age compression, these and many other current Consumer Product Safety Commission toy guidelines are obviously out of whack with reality, Ms. Kiss said.

"Kids really are growing up faster because technology is letting them," she added.

As the product safety commission begins the year-long process of revamping the toy guidelines, child-development experts are expressing increasing alarm about the frantic rush of children into an ever-earlier adolescence.

"There is concern about the disappearance of childhood, as 4 and 5-year-old girls groove to Britney Spears, go to makeup parties, and enter headlong into consumer culture," said Sharna Olfman, an associate psychology professor at Point Park College in Pittsburgh. "It concerns me that, especially for girls, so many of their entertainments, including toys, videos, and computer games, direct them to adolescent preoccupations."

Joan Almon, U.S. coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood, said it's true that children, especially girls, seem to be entering puberty earlier.

"But the research is very uncertain as to why this is," Ms. Almon said.

"Meanwhile, as a culture, we are doing everything we can - from early academics to teaching babies to read - to bring what used to be healthy development stages for children down to earlier and earlier ages, as if that would be a long-term gain for children. But what we are seeing in the Alliance is a tremendous amount of stress being put on children."

Toy manufacturers say they are merely responding to children's faster development and changing interests. They note that many children are no longer interested in traditional toys after age 8or so and instead get hooked on electronics.

Unwilling to lose a key facet of their market, toy manufacturers have created a new category of electronic games and toys. In addition, toy makers have hastened to capitalize on the intense interest in "smart toys" - such as computerized playthings - by many parents of babies and toddlers.

Patrick Feely, chairman of the Toy Manufacturers of America, the main toy industry association, noted that sales of technology-laced toys increased by 98 percent last year, and are rapidly approaching $1 billion annually.

In addition to new tech toys, toy makers are trying to appeal to "tweens" (children ages 8-12) by adding computer chips to traditional board games, creating more exciting (and often more violent) remote control vehicles, and adding new lines of high fashion dolls. Mattel plans to sell a new Barbie, for example, that ties in N'SYNC, a top "tween" music group.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission hopes to gather all these changes into a new set of guidelines that better spell out the age-appropriateness of toys. The agency expects to complete the process of developing new guidelines by the end of the year.

At that point, the agency plans to publish a new pamphlet for parents giving a brief overview of the new guidelines and suggesting how parents might use them to choose the right toys for their children, Ms. Kiss said.

Parents may write to the Consumer Product Safety Commission for a copy of a pamphlet, "Which Toy for Which Child," which gives basic information about the current toy guidelines. The pamphlet can also be downloaded from the CPSC's Web site: www.cpsc.gov. Go to the site, click on "Library/FOIA," then click on "CPSC Publications."



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