April 19, 2010 in Features

Imaginary world of dolls has given way to high-tech gadgets

Lini S. Kadaba Philadelphia Inquirer
 
McClatchy Tribune photo

Kelsey Mauger, 8, plays in a virtual world on her computer. She does not play with dolls anymore, but likes to keep them around her bedroom. McClatchy Tribune
(Full-size photo)

By the numbers

20: The percentage by which doll sales have dropped since 2005.

18: Percentage of dolls sold in 2009 that went to girls age 9 and older.

37: Percentage of dolls sold in 2009 that went to 3- to 5-year-olds.

31/2 to 5: Ages of girls today who are ditching dolls for video games.

0 to 12: Ages of girls that used to play with dolls.

Paige Gabriele loved her dolls – once.

At age 8, however, the Swarthmore, Pa., girl has largely abandoned them. Even Barbie gets slim face time, and the single American Girl doll, a gift from her grandmother, sits pretty on her bureau, untouched.

Playing with dolls “gets boring after a while,” said Paige as she passed by the well-stocked aisles full of Barbie, Moxie Girlz, Liv and other fashion dolls at a nearby Target store.

She was more interested in a basketball, and gushed about social Web sites such as moshimonsters.com, where she nurtures pet monsters.

It used to be that dolls held girls’ interest at least through elementary school. But these days, girls are dropping such playthings at ever younger ages, largely replacing the childhood mainstay with technology-driven activities.

According to the NPD Group, U.S. doll sales have declined by nearly 20 percent since 2005 – and older girls are the least likely to have such toys.

In 2009, 18 percent of dolls sold went to girls 9 and older, but 37 percent landed in the hands of 3- to 5-year-olds, the “sweet spot” ages, says Anita Frazier, NPD toys and video games industry analyst.

Jeff Holtzman, third-generation head of dollmaker Goldberger Co., based in Manhattan, says his business used to make dolls for children from birth to 12. Nowadays, Goldberger focuses on children younger than 3.

“By the time they hit 4 or 5, they want a cell phone,” Holtzman says. “We’re replacing dolls sooner.”

But ditching doll play says just as much about the erosion of childhood – as well as imagination and attention spans, some argue – as it does about the multitude of gadgets and activities that vie for children’s spare time.

Lindsey Peppel, 12, of Phoenixville, Pa., hasn’t played with the fashionable figures for a while. Instead she favors websites including Barbie.com, and Barbie video games (when she’s not reading books).

“I don’t think I’m good at making up imaginary things,” Lindsey says. “I didn’t know what to do with dolls.”

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, who chairs the psychology department at Golden Gate University and wrote the book “Gen BuY,” agrees that children nowadays need lots of stimulation to keep their interest.

But she says that’s not necessarily a negative.

“Maybe,” Yarrow argues, “this is preparation for exactly what they need when they grow up. The world these kids are going to be adults in is more souped up.”

Growing up faster

Others say loss of doll play is a sign of the Microsoft speed at which children mature.

“Girls don’t play with dolls as much or for as long anymore because they are being socialized by media culture to grow up faster,” says Patricia Leavy, an associate professor of sociology at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., who has witnessed a lack of interest in dolls in her own 9-year-old daughter.

Often, preteen girls – called “tweens” by marketers – are pushed to act and look like teens, whether that message comes from the latest “Hannah Montana” TV shows, outfits at the Limited Too, or virtual playlands. Playing with dollies has little place in this world.

Tween culture “is transforming the lives of girls,” Leavy says – and often to the detriment of self-esteem, she argues, with its emphasis on idealized images of beauty.

To understand why this matters, consider the role of traditional doll play in socialization.

“When little girls play with dolls, they’re practicing being a mommy, practicing tending and nurturing,” says psychologist Yarrow.

Although some say a virtual avatar fills the role just fine, Leavy disagrees, calling online diversions “a different level of intimacy and connection. It doesn’t have to be dolls, but I don’t think it’s going to come from a website.”

Dollhood grew to play a large part in girls’ lives ever since the end of the Civil War, when toy companies proliferated.

Traditionally, even after baby dolls were outgrown, play continued with so-called fashion dolls, with different outfits, different personalities and, in the case of Barbie, 125 different careers.

Now, the timeline is compressed. Many girls are done with fashion dolls at 6, having given up baby dolls at 3.

American Girl dolls are popular with tweens, but as more than one mother has observed, once they’re brought home, they often sit in rooms collecting dust.

Caught in the Web

What’s next? Online doll play, where Stardoll.com and Barbie’s EverythingGirl.com rank among the Top 10 Web sites for girls 8 to 12 years old, according to Youth Trends, based in Ramsey, N.J.

The toy industry wants to tap into that world to keep girls excited, and even lure them back.

The American International Toy Fair in New York last month showed off plenty of dolls aimed at older girls, including Adorable Originals soft dolls that promote values; realistic-featured Karito Kids that encourage charitable donations; and Bandai’s Harumika faceless doll forms used to design fashions from fabric swatches. All come with companion websites.

Those virtual worlds are all the rage – along with the secret codes that accompany dolls such as Moxie Girlz and Liv that unlock online portals.

And the must-have accessory these days isn’t little pink heels, but a USB cable (made in pink) that connects the doll to the computer and further merges real and virtual play.

This summer, Mattel will come out with Barbie Video Girl, essentially a doll that’s a video camera.

She has an LCD screen in her back and a camera lens in her locket, and a USB cable enables girls to edit and share video clips taken from Barbie’s point of view.

Last fall, Fisher-Price/Mattel introduced Dora Links, a grown-up Dora the Explorer that connects through its USB cable to the computer, enabling a girl to make online changes to her Dora avatar that result – like magic – in actual changes to the physical doll’s hair length and color of her eyes, lips, earrings, and more.

The product was expressly intended to keep older girls interested in Dora.

“We were losing girls,” says Gina Sirard, vice president of marketing at Mattel. “By 3 1/2 , maybe 4, they were out of the door.”

According to Sirard, the doll with the long hair and stylish clothes – that tween look – has succeeded. NPD data, she says, shows the Dora franchise now extends from age 2 to 6 plus.

“We even get 7-year-olds,” Sirard says with delight. “They are very connected to that Internet. It would behoove manufacturers to tap into that.”

Danielle Mauger’s youngest daughter is already well-entrenched in online play.

Although Mauger’s 14-year-old still played with dolls when she was 8, her youngest, Kelsey, is that age now and “has zero interest in dolls” anymore, said the North Wales, Pa., woman.

Instead, the child likes her iTouch (acquired from her sister) and Club Penguin, where penguin avatars travel a virtual world and friends meet to chat online.

“She will call up her girlfriend,” Mauger says, “and the two of them end up on the phone giggling while they’re … on the computer.”

Psychologist Robert Epstein thinks the migration online can be just as good as, or even better than, reality. The virtual world, he argues, is “highly interactive and allows for infinite possibilities.”

That includes doll play.

“It’s still girly stuff,” says the author of the forthcoming book “Teen 2.0” and a visiting scholar at the University of California at San Diego.

“They’re dressing (avatars) up, they’re buying things for them, they’re feeding them. In effect, they still have dolls, except there’s no physical doll anymore.”

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