Spielwarenmesse: How Children have changed in twenty years

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How Children have changed in twenty years

from Steve Reece

I first encountered the toy industry via market research. I was running focus groups with children about a toy promotion. During my twenty years in the toy business a lot has changed – both within the toy industry and outside the toy industry.

Interviewing Children about toys

Since then I have conducted more than 1,200 focus groups with children about toys and seen many brands come and go, and some last the distance. Technology when I entered the toy industry was very ‘clunky’ i.e. slow and temperamental! I still have an interactive Yoda toy from this time, and it is astounding how loud the movements of the toy are versus today’s slick high-tech toys!

Some of the first children I interviewed back from 1998 onwards are now becoming parents themselves, and this thought encourages reflections on how different is the new generation of today versus those kids of the late 1990’s.

Key changes affecting children

Biologically speaking, I doubt there is much difference between children today and 20 years ago. But toys are a cultural indicator, they reflect the times to a degree. And the human world has changed quite significantly in the last 20 years.

The Internet Revolution

Atlas with tablet

The children of the late 1990s were not that likely (yet) to be highly active on the internet, although it was in the early stages of meteoric rise. Fast forward to today and children (like adults) take the internet completely for granted. They have instant access to nearly any information, this has had the effect of creating a hugely impatient modern day generation of children. They are far less likely to take the time to concentrate on highly detailed instructions or frustrating activities. Playthings need to work quickly, instructions need to be very intuitive and flawed products will be almost instantly rejected.

Screen time addiction

Screen time addiction reduces time spent playing off screens. The Playstation generation of the late ‘90s were no strangers to screens, however, the screens were not so portable, not so addictive and the software (remember when apps were called software!) was expensive, so there were usually far fewer games available versus the practically unlimited number of apps available on tablets & phones today. Today’s generation of children are addicted to screen time on a vast scale, and therefore we have a whole generation of addicts who need to put down their ‘fix’ to play with toys. Therefore, there is a challenge for toys to remain relevant to kids.

From a parental perspective though, the screen time addiction has created more impetus for playing with toys, as parents use toys as an antidote to excessive screen time. Due to inflation over 20 years, toys today are now usually a throwaway purchase as often as they are a really considered purchase, and so economically they are far more accessible. So, this has led to children having vast collections of toys that they play with far less versus previous generations.

Social Media

Mass adoption of social media has significant impact on children today versus the 1990s. The biggest single impact we can point to is unboxing videos, which have both changed the toy launch marketing model but also lead to a new type of product as ‘surprise’ driven products have become the hottest sellers for the last few years. From a content perspective, children’s content viewing has increased, but with a tendency to watch more ‘informal’ content, more driven by self-made personalities. This is an ongoing challenge to the classic toy business model of ‘massive movie = massive toy sales’.

Changes in gender perceptions

Man, girl and boy are playing with a Playmobil foosball

Social norms have changed significantly since the late 1990s. The biggest change affecting children in many major Western markets is the shift in gender stereotypes. The classic stereotypes of boys should be tough and rough and therefore have tough and rough toys, and girls should be gentle & have softer toys have softened significantly. It isn’t necessarily that children have changed innately, but more that the gender roles they are assigned by society have loosened up, at least partly driven by the power of social media to name and shame those companies and institutions which maintained the status quo in this area. There are two harsh commercial realities though that toy companies should consider:

  1. Today’s parents were kids primarily in the 1980s and 1990s, so many still carry the old gender roles as their default perspective
  2. Reflecting the classic psychology debate of ‘nature versus nurture’ in child development, to the degree that nurture defines gender roles and behaviours, this has clearly changed and will probably continue along this path.

However, to the degree that nature is important, the traditional play patterns while no longer likely to be labelled as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ are still likely to prevail to a degree.

Different character matrixes

Following the social changes of the past two decades, one definite observation is that the character matrix for hit movie, TV and entertainment properties are likely to be quite different in make up versus twenty years ago. For instance, Black Panther’s predominantly Afro-American characters would have been far less likely twenty years ago. This can surely only be a change for the good, but it does perhaps make it harder for toy companies to predict what will work and what won’t.

Kids are still kids

In summary then, children are fundamentally still children. They may live in a different media landscape, but they still have the same fundamental needs – to develop their sense of the world and themselves, to develop their physical skills, their brains and their relationships with others. For this reason alone, toys are as relevant and as necessary as they have always been, but if the next twenty years sees changes as dynamic as the last twenty years things could get very interesting!


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.

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