Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Kids, Materialism and Well-Being

Yesterday, the UK Children's Society released the most recent installment of their 6-part review of the current state of childhood in the UK, The Good Childhood Inquiry. Focusing on Lifestyle, the report examines various issues relating to "lifestyle," such as consumerism and materialism. Previous installments have examined Friends (which I posted about last summer), Family, and Learning. As reported by AFP (as well as by the BBC News, children "feel under pressure to own the latest designer clothes and computer games," while adults believe that the commercialisation of childhood is damaging the kids' well-being. From the AFP coverage:
Professor of child psychology Philip Graham -- who is leading the inquiry's lifestyle theme -- believes that commercial pressures may have "worrying psychological effects" on children.

"One factor that may be leading to rising mental health problems is the increasing degree to which children and young people are preoccupied with possessions; the latest in fashionable clothes and electronic equipment.

"Evidence both from the United States and from the UK suggests that those most influenced by commercial pressures also show higher rates of mental health problems," he said.

Commenting on the results of the poll, chief executive of the Childrens Society Bob Reitemeier said: "As adults we have to take responsibility for the current level of marketing to children. To accuse children of being materialistic in such a culture is a cop out.

"Unless we question our own behaviour as a society we risk creating a generation who are left unfulfilled through chasing unattainable lifestyles."

Key findings from the report itself include:

* That approx. 60% of adults aged 16 years and over agree with the statement:"children and young people’s self esteem is damaged by the negative portrayal of their age group in the media" (25% disagreed)

* Approx. 90% agree that: "children nowadays are more materialistic than past generations."

* Very few adults (only 3%) think that children should not spend any time at all ion computers or watching television. The majority think that between 1-3 hours a day is an appropraite amount of time for kids to spend with the media (and as the report specifies, "Younger respondents (aged 16-17) were more liberal, and were more likely to think longer hours were acceptable").

* Approx. 80% disagree with the statement that: "children aged 12 should be free to spend their money on whatever they want." (Although again, younger respondent were more inclined to agree).

* Approx. 70% agree that: "violent video games make children more aggressive" (only abour 20% disagree).

* An "overwhelming majority" of around 90% agree that "advertising to children at Christmas put pressure on parents to spend more than they can afford." (Interestingly, parents were less inclined to agree with this statement).

For more info, you can also read an article written by Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, in today's Telegraph, or check out the full report here. The inquiry will continue over the coming year, examining the two remaining themes of Health and Values. A full report is expected sometime in 2009.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Disney Fairies, On and Offline Play

So this year's American International Toy Fair has now come and gone, with plenty of noteworthy announcements to keep kids' media researchers busy for the next few months (at least!)...Including a number of new developments within the emerging virtual-to-real (or real-to-virtual) toy market, and some interesting news from Disney regarding its Disney Fairies franchise. As covered by Business Wire, Disney has partnered up with Techno Source to produce a line of "Clickables" toys that will tie-in to the Fairies website...soon to become a full-fledged "virtual world". As with other initiatives of this kind (BarbieGirls, Webkinz, be-bratz, etc.), the (stated) goal is "to extend" kids online play into offline playtime, and vice-versa. As Chris Heatherly, VP of Technology and Innovation at Disney Consumer Products, states (as quoted in the Business Wire article):
"The future of toys is about connecting online and offline play. Kids and tweens are quickly embracing virtual worlds and, while there are several Internet-related toys in the market today, the play ends when the computer gets shut down. With our new line of Disney Fairies toys featuring Clickables technology, we're bringing the fun of social networking, collecting, and trading into the real world so that girls can extend the fun of the enchanting online world of Pixie Hollow to school, the park, or wherever they may be."

And how do they plan to achieve this most holy of the holy grails of the children's industries (i.e. branded play)? By embedding, or "naturally aligning," the property within children's "existing play patterns"...and of course by offering "exclusive content" within the virtual world that kids won't be able to access without purchasing one (or all) of the associated products. According to the article, Disney also "hopes that by offering these Internet-connected toys that it will teach girls to share their Fairies and create friendships" - which we can also read as a hope that the "friendship bracelet" theme promoted by the toys will enhance viral marketing within peer groups. Thus, like BarbieGirls, Disney appears to be creating games and toys that more or less depend upon (or one could say exploit) real-life relationships by encouraging word-of-mouth marketing (by requiring that kids find a real-life friend to sign up if they want to access all the site's features, communicate more freely, etc.).

Here's a full list of the tie-in products released to date, courtesy of Gearlog (which you should definitely check out if you want to see some pics of the products themselves):
* Pixie Dust eJewelry Collection: a jewelry box, charm necklace, and three exclusive Disney Fairies charms powered by Clickables technology. When a girl touches a charm to the Clickables center of her jewelry box, it unlocks a unique fairy gift at, including exclusive clothing and décor.

* Tink Friendship eBracelets: a Fairy Friendship Kit where a girl can select her fairy avatar, a special message, and a gift on the virtual world, and then save it onto her eBracelet to be shared offline with friends. When a girl touches her band to her friend's and presses a button, her band will glow to confirm that a Fairy Friendship has been made!

* Tink's eCharm Bracelet: a customizable charm bracelet and three themed charms. Each charm unlocks a unique, exclusive fairy gift at

* Fairy eCharms accessory packs: Each pack contains three themed Disney Fairies eCharms powered with Clickables technology.

* Tink and Friends Fly with Me eLCD: an electronic handheld with five games, letting girls play as their favorite Disney Fairies characters Tinker Bell, Fawn, Iridessa, Silvermist, or Rosetta no matter where they are. Best of all, points earned during gameplay are turned into exclusive Tink Points in the virtual world to use toward clothes or décor.

The toys will be launched to coincide with the release of the upcoming direct-to-DVD animated film based on the franchise, Tinker Bell (so...summer 2008?) and probably with the planned MMO expansion of the site (which will see Disney Fairies transform into Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow). With all this news, we've also been given some new stats on the Disney Fairies franchise, which is by all accounts mushrooming in popularity. According to corporate communication:

* The Disney Fairies site contains just under 5 million unique fairy avatars;

* It attracts 1 million unique visitors every month;

* In 2007 alone, the franchise generated more than $800 million in global retail sales from an array of "merchandise and lifestyle" products, including apparel, toys, electronics, home décor and stationery;

* The over 385 Disney Fairies books that have been published worldwide (in 51 countries) have sold nearly 9.5 million copies;

* Disney Fairies magazines have sold 6 million copies in 40 countries.

From what I've seen and read so far, the site (and/or its planned expansion) reproduces many of the same issues as other branded kids' games, including privacy/safety/freedom of expression trade-offs, cross-media (and cross-product) promotion (fostered through problematic strategies such as collectibles and viral marketing), and potential IP issues as well (depending on the levels of UGC enabled within the upcoming MMOG). That said, the site is a total blast to play and I'm really hoping (with fingers crossed) that the MMOG will maintain the playability and limited commercialization of Disney's Toontown. I'm not too convinced that this is likely, however, as the cross-promotional machine is already in full swing with this one...and even follows a pretty eerily accurate industry prediction made a couple of years ago.

In trying to describe the Disney Fairies franchise to a colleague earlier today, I found myself somewhat trapped in the very intertextuality upon which the brand was launched...the books, the website, now the toys and film, all part of a carefully rolled-out strategy, with no real originating text other than the minimally-defined Tinker Bell character (from Peter Pan and subsequent Disney usage) and some good ideas about character differentiation...mixed in with a few tried-and-true 'fantasy genre' motifs (e.g. elemental magic, etc.) and drawing upon a number of popular digital play forms (virtual paper dolls, MMOGs, etc.). Yet, although the brand is obviously completely embedded in its own cross-promotional synergy, it is this very dynamic that makes it more difficult to analyze than other games/media that start off as one thing, and then become more overtly commercialized through the insertion of third-party advertising or other marketing schemes. Sites/brands like Disney Fairies are tricky because they are -- from the get-go -- primarily promoting themselves...the brand's characters and themes, and consumption of the brand through a myriad of interconnected products, media, and play forms.

As a bit of an aside, I'm really starting to feel that we need a shared term to describe games and toys that converge on and offline play in this way. Suggestions?

For more coverage, check out Izzy Neis' post here, and keep an eye on her excellent and ongoing list of upcoming virtual worlds for kids.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Family Surveillance: Mobile Locators

It seems that news about new mobile locator technologies designed to help parents track their kids -- either via cell phones or some other device -- are being launched almost every other week these days. In the UK especially, news coverage of the devices and their potential "safety" value is frequent and fairly prominent. In a country where one third of under 10s allegedly have their own mobile phone, tacking on surveillance features may appear to be the intuitive next step in "remote parenting"...rather than hassle your kids with a phone call, just look up their GPS coordinates to make sure they are where they said they'd be, etc. Here are a few recent examples of mobile locators in the news:

From SourceWire, a new study by found that:
Fears about child abduction have left British mums and dads desperate to keep tabs on their youngsters – and as a result, nearly two thirds have invested in a mobile phone for their offspring.

But many parents are taking security a stage further – by turning to the very latest satellite spy technology to ensure the safety of their kids “on a day-to-day basis”.
Hundreds of mums and dads have already registered their children’s mobile phone numbers with the website to pinpoint the user’s exact location. And of the 2,100 people polled – two thirds said they would be happy to invest in the new software, no matter how intrusive.

According to the article, however, another third say they don't want their kids to become paranoid about being under constant surveillance, and question the ethics of these types of devices. Although the company head says that "concern for security outweighs the worry about the Big Brother phenomenon,” the fact that the survey also found that about a fifth of respondents would also want to use the technology to track their significant others, I'm not so sure that privacy issues are so easily dismissed.

In terms of interesting usage/family dynamics stats, the study also found that most kids get their first mobile phone at age 11 (20% vs. 16% at age ten, 14% at age 12, and 2% at age 4). Among the 43% of parents who wouldn't allow their child to have a mobile, most based this decision on the belief that "the child was “not old enough” to have one." Other reasons given were the fear that having a mobile would attract bullying or theft, that it would lead to text messaging "addictions," or it could cause a brain tumour. In keeping with the industry's emerging party line when it comes to kids and mobiles, however, suggests that not allowing kids a phone creates a "“massive” extra workload for security-conscious parents" - who now more than ever (?assuming an increase - not so sure about that) drive their kids around everywhere (20%), don't let their kids out after dark (12%), and get involved in "vetting" their child's friends (defined as "some"). In relaying these stats, however, the article fails to mention any age differences (for example, it's pretty likely the parents of any 4-year-old will drive them everywhere, mobile phone or no), differences over time, or whether these behaviours apply solely to parents who don't give their kids mobiles, or to parents generally. Needless to say, I detect a bit of fear mongering. Keep an attentive eye on the use of the term "peace of mind" within industry discourses and ads.

Case in point, a recent article in The Inquirer on a "Madeleine McCann effect" apparently taking place in the UK, linking the MobileLocators study to the recent high-profile child disappearance/kidnapping of Madeleine McCann. According this article, parents are buying phones for their kids at an increasingly young age in direct response. As for those that don't allow their kids to have a mobile, the reporter blames "that government boffin, Sir William Stewart, specifically advised parents not to give the phones to children under the age of eight." Yikes! Nevermind that a number of well respected medical associations have advised the same thing, or that the debates around mobile phones and health, mobile locators and privacy/surveillance, and even mobiles and safety are still very much in full swing.

The safety issue comes up again within another recent innovation -- mobile monitors. As reported by Actual Technology News Blog, "a handful of companies are rolling out software that they say lets parents monitor communications their kids are having on the phone and hopefully protect them from unwanted advances." Just like Internet filters before them, these products are being sold (or at least promoted) as solutions to new forms of wireless stranger danger:
"All the problems of the Internet are on the cell phone," said Bob Lotter, founder of Newport Beach, Calif.-based eAgency Mobile Solutions, which offers a cell phone monitoring service on "Cyber-bullying, unsolicited sexual advances and child pornography" are all happening on the mobile phone, he said.

While much of the attention is centered on predators using the Internet to stalk children, Lotter and other experts say cell phones are an ideal means for predators because parents often don’t check what’s going on with a child’s cell phone. It's also a device that is commonly used by children out of their parent’s watchful eye.

The article also includes the following quote, which I found particularly interesting:
According to Teri Schroeder, chief executive of, parents need to be aware of any two-way communications whether it's via the Internet or a cell phone. "They have to understand it's high-tech high-touch," she said, noting that text messaging is a "huge" means of communications and with things like global positioning systems built into the phone it's increasingly dangerous for children. "We now have a medium that's intimidating to the parent and challenging parenting skills," she said.

Schroeder's comments point to a pretty important and largely unspoken aspect of these mobile locators -- the lack of regulation and transparency about how the collected data is used, by whom, and what safety measures are applied to ensure that no one but the parent is able to track the kid's phone.

This leads me to another article, one which delves a little more deeply effectiveness issues of and begins to explore the impact they may have on family dynamics and "traditional" values such as honesty, responsibility and trust. It's from a story that was covered on Channel 9 WSYR news (in Syracuse) about the use of GPS locator technologies in the workplace. Perhaps because the topic is introduced in terms of adult employers tracking their adult employees, issues around privacy and the potential detrimental effects of being constantly surveilled are introduced immediately. Near the bottom of the article, the focus shifts onto parents using GPS to track their kids -- listing a number of such services, their cost and more "peace of mind" rhetoric, this time from Jack Pflanz of Sprint/Nextel. After introducing the state of the market, however, the story shifts again, this time placing the focus on one family that tried the technology and have since decided against it. Although definitely of the "human interest story" variety, this part of the article also functions quite effectively in reconnecting the parents/kids dimension of mobile locators back to the employer/employee tracking examined at the start of the article. Here's an excerpt:
Carl Loerzel gave his daughter what every teen wants: a cell phone; but then Carl told Brittany the cell phone plan would allow him to track her movements through GPS technology. "I thought about the mall trips, what if something happens, where is she."

Brittany didn’t think the technology was going to work, and would be able to do what ever she wanted. "That's not how it turned out." Brittany got caught in a lie at one point, caught being where she wasn’t supposed to be. "[My dad] knew exactly where I was; he picked me up, and brought me home. That didn't get me nowhere but grounded."

"I think she understood that, once we talked to her about it, once we got passed the yelling part of it," Carl said. Dad and daughter did a lot more talking following the incident. In fact, they've come to terms and have decided to give relying on talking and tender loving care, instead of GPS.

Brittany says she learned to be honest, and not lie. "If you lie, you're going to get in more trouble." Her dad says he now trusts his daughter a lot more.

Ok, so the way the story plays out, it does appear that having the GPS unit initiated better family communication, and so on, but I think that the important thing is that the family decided to go with honesty over tracking. I wish that the story had examined this change in opinion a little more in depth, but I suspect that it links up to some of the academic studies on parental monitoring, which argue that child disclosure is still the best way to keep track of your kids...Best in terms of the parent-child relationship, the likelihood that the child will engage in "delinquent" behaviour, and in terms of the amount and quality of information that the parent obtains about the kid when she/he is away from home.

In particular, I'm referring to two articles by Stattin and Kerr:
Stattin, Håkan and Margaret Kerr (2000). Parental Monitoring: A Reinterpretation. Child Development, Vol. 71, No. 4, pp. 1072-1085.


Kerr, Margaret and Hgakan Stattin (2000). What Parents Know, How They Know It, and Several Forms of Adolescent Adjustment: Further Support for a Reinterpretation of Monitoring. Developmental Psychology Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 366-380.

Their exploration of family surveillance and parental knowledge of children's activities outside the home, have found that much of the information parents obtain about their child's whereabouts and activities come from the children themselves...and that child disclosure, as opposed to parental monitoring and control, is correlated to a number of pro-social variables (as described above -- better parent-child relationships, lower rates of delinquency, better informed parents, etc.), and is much more in line with children's participatory rights and right to privacy. As Stattin and Kerr (2000) describe:
"[H]igh parental knowledge was linked to multiple measures of good adjustment. But children's spontaneous disclosure of information explained more of these relations than parents' tracking and surveillance efforts did. Parents' control efforts were related to good adjustment only after the child's feelings of being controlled, which were linked to poor adjustment, were partialed out.

This has led them to conclude that:
"[T]racking and surveillance is not the best prescription for parental behavior and that a new prescription must rest on an understanding of the factors that determine child disclosure."

More to come!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mobile Regulation: In the News

From the Times Online, some early coverage of an issue that appears to have come up quite a bit at the recent 2008 Mobile World Congress: how to protect kids from accessing innappropriate content on their mobiles. Of key concern at the congress and throughout industry discourses around this issue appears to be coming up with a "self-regulatory solution" before any form of new government regulation can be introduced. As seen last month in the UK, for example, where Ofcom and the Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS) announced their intention to review its industry's voluntary code of conduct for mobile content. According to the Times article:
A spokesman for Ofcom said: "To ensure that children continue to receive appropriate protection, Ofcom is working with the CHIS and the mobile operators to review the voluntary code of conduct for mobile content." A report is expected in the summer.

Mobile phone ownership among the young is common, with a million under-10s in the UK — one in three — now owning one, according to figures from mobileYouth, a research consultancy. Separate figures from Ofcom found that 32 per cent of children aged 8-11 regularly use a mobile.

The access that the latest phones provide to the internet — often away from parental supervision — was cited last year as an increasing concern in a report by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, a branch of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is dedicated to combating child abuse.

Flash forward a couple of weeks, to the Mobile Congress and the announcement that:
Europe's mobile phone operators are joining forces to obstruct access to child sexual abuse websites. Leading operators, including Vodafone, Orange and 3, will announce plans today to install technology in their networks that will bar access to thousands of blacklisted sites.

Efforts to ban access to these sites has focused on service providers such as BT, which offer internet services via personal computers, but with internet access increasingly becoming a standard feature on mobile phones, the phone operators are facing increased pressure to take action on their networks.

Under the scheme, which is being spearheaded by the GSMA, the mobile industry's global trade body, customers who, inadvertently or otherwise, try to access illegal sites will be directed to a police warning notice or will be presented with a message saying that the site is not available.

The participating companies will also provide hotlines for customers to report any child sexual abuse content discovered via their mobile phones.

The scheme is backed by Vivian Reding, the European Telecoms Commissioner.

An obvious preemptive move -- but what democratic process produced the "blacklisted" sites, I wonder, and how will the "technology" function...can it be customized, what are the defaults, and how (and by whom) were these decisions made?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Barbie as Island Princess Rakes in the Awards at the 2007 Elans

Friday, February 15, marked the second annual Canadian Awards for the Electronic and Animated Arts, or Elans for short. This year's ceremony was hosted by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (who also won for “Best International Animated Television Production"...for Family Guy), and -- according to the press release -- attracted studio reps and producers around the world. Like last year's inaugural ceremony (hosted by William Shatner), the event was held in Vancouver, my current home town as well as that of a large number of videogame production and design studios. You can read more about the awards, event, winners, on the Elans website. And here is the full list of winners in the Animation categories:
Barbie as the Island Princess, Rainmaker Animation: Jennifer Twiner Mccarron

Edgar & Ellen, Bardel Entertainment: Delna Bhesania, Barry Ward, Trish Lindsay, Barbara Ferro

Yellow Sticky Notes, Jeff Chiba Stearns

Barbie as the Island Princess, Rainmaker Animation: Greg Richardson

Ruby Gloom: Venus de Gloomsville, Nelvana LTD: Robin Budd

Lee Tockar, George of the Jungle, Studio B

Marÿke Hendrikse, Johnny Test, Cookie Jar Entertainment

Bruno and the Banana Bunch, Cuppa Coffee Studios: Adam Goddard

George of the Jungle: Naked Ape Man, Studio B: Dennis Crawford and Lyn Hart

Edgar & Ellen: Crushed, Bardel Entertainment: Greg Huculak and Zoe Evamy

Storm Hawks, Nerd Corps Entertainment: Rob Hoegee

Family Guy, Fuzzy Door Productions: Seth MacFarlane, David A. Goodman, Chris Sheridan, Danny Smith

Bee Movie, Dreamworks Animation SKG

Kai Pindal

Not a Persepolis or a Peter and the Wolf in sight! Shocking! Instead, big awards for Barbie as the Island Princess! Also Shocking! As far as feature films go, it seems that the winners in these categories were picked more for revenue generation than quality of animation..that, said, however, I've only ever seen clips of the Barbie film in question, so I shouldn't really judge it prematurely I suppose. Still...

However, I am really happy to see Edgar & Ellen and Ruby Gloom get some recognition, as both shows are pretty awesome and deserve some props for their (respective) original styles, themes and content.

The winners in the electronic game categories are much more predictable:
Mass Effect, Bioware/Microsoft Games BioWare

Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft Assassin's Creed Development Team

Company of Heroes, Relic Entertainment: Ian Thomson

Tie between Blue Castle Games/Rob Barrett for The Bigs
Slant Six Games/Brian Thalken for Socom U.S. Navy Seals: Tactical Strike

Skate Electronic Arts, Audio Director: Lance Brown; Sound Designers: Francois Lafleur, Bryan Rennie, Sean Webster, Terry Fairfield

Assasins Creed Ubisoft Jesper Kyd

Commander Shepard (Mass Effect), BioWare/Microsoft Games: Drew Karpyshyn

Mass Effect, BioWare/Microsoft Games: Derek Watts

9. BEST HANDHELD GAME OF THE YEAR (psp, ds, etc...)
Socom U.S. Navy Seals: Tactical Strike, Slant Six Games: Brian Thalken

Mass Effect, BioWare/Microsoft Games: Preston Watamaniuk

Skate, Electronic Arts: David Manriquez

Mass Effect, BioWare/ Microsoft Games: Drew Karpyshyn

Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, Relic Entertainment: Josh Mosqueira

Crysis Crytek/Electronic Arts USA Cevat Yerli CEO, Crytek

Don Mattrick

Very war-themed line-up...I was pretty surprised that Bioshock didn't get a single nod, or any of the Mario games, but I suspect that this event is slanted towards a very specific crowd and purpose within these overlapping industries. Puzzling indeed. And now I'm going to have to go out and rent Barbie as the Island Princess to see what all the fuss is about - *sigh*.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sports in Canada on the Decline

Statistics Canada has just released its latest report on findings drawn from the General Social Survey (GSS) -- historical data which the governmental body is using to track Canadian trends in a variety of areas...including sports participation! The last report on sport participation in Canada was released in 1998, i.e. before obesity rates had reached crisis mode and before the term "sedentary lifestyle" became a buzz word, so this latest review is particularly important for identifying major problem areas in terms of obesity (and other health related) risk factors. The report focuses primarily on adults, comparing provincial rates and differences among different groups, including gender, age, and socio-economics. It does have a section on kids aged 5-15, however, which I'll summarize below. You can access the full report here. In the meantime, here are some highlights:
- Overall, Canadian participation in sports has declined from 45% in 1992 to 28% in 2005. In 1998, more than a third (34%) of the Canadian population aged 15 and over participated in sports on a regular years later, this figure is down to about one quarter.

- Teens aged 15 to 18 have the highest sport participation rate. But even among teens, sports participation is declining, from 77% in 1992 to 59% in 2005. Conversely, Canadians aged 55+ had the lowest participation rate: 17%, down from 25% in 1992. Overall, the study found that as Canadian adults get older, their rate of participation in sport decreases.

- There's still a gender gap in sport participation - men participate more than women. While this gap is closing, it's not because more women are participating in sports, but rather that fewer men are. Whereas in 1998, 43% of men and 26% of women participated in sports, by 2005 the rates had declined to 36% of men and 21% of women.

- Participation in sport has declined in every province except PEI. The biggest drops were in Quebec (which used to led the nation with a rate of 38%) and British Columbia. Quebec has now dropped to 27, and Nova Scotia is now in the lead with over 32%, followed by Alberta with 30%. Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest participation rate of 24%.

- Participation increases with education - the higher the level of education, the higher the rate/likelihood of sporting activity. E.g., Among Canadians aged 15+, those with a high school diploma or less participated in sport at a rate of 25%, those with a postsecondary diploma participated at a rate of 30%, and those with a university degree participated at a rate of 33%.

- And, as would logically follow from the above stat, those with higher income are more likely to participate in sports. The study reveals that "Income has a profound influence on sport participation. Sport participation increases as household income grows." Families with a household income of $80,000+ were twice as likely to participate in sports as those with household incomes of less than $30,000.

- Related to the finding about teens, students are the most active group in Canada. There were also decreases here, however, as participation rates dropped from 64% in 1998 to 51% in 2005. The rate was higher for male students at 59% (down from 76% in 1998).

- "Relaxation" was ranked the most important benefit of sport participation by 73% of active Canadians. Physical health and fitness came second with 68%.

- The study also examined people's reasons for not participating in sports, which differed by sex and age. Among males "lack of time" was given as the primary reason (34%) for non participation in sport, followed by "lack of interest" (23%). Among females, 28% cited lack of interest as the main reason, followed by lack of time (26%).

- Overall, 30% of all non-active Canadians reported "lack of time" as the main reason for not participating in sports, although this rate was higher among 25-to-34 year olds (45%). For older non-active Canadians (aged 55+), 28% cited "age" as the biggest factor for not participating in sport, followed by "health conditions" (25%) and "lack of interest" (25%).

- And, according to the data, "lack of time" is not just an excuse...the study found that among non-participants who gave "lack of time" as their main reason for not participating in sport had: less free time; worked more hours (spending nearly twice as much time on paid work as other non-participants); and spent less time on sleep, meals and other personal care than those who gave other reasons. "They also watched less television, socialized less and spent less time reading books, magazines and newspapers than other non-participants."

In terms of these last items, I think that it's pretty obvious that this "lack of time" dimension is also tied into income. However, the study also found that Canadians overall have less leisure time than we did a decade ago, declining 5% from 6.1 hours per day in 1998 to 5.8 hours per day in 2005...18 minutes less leisure time, which is significant when you consider the "30 minutes of physical activity per day" watermark for good health.

The study also has some great info about Canadian kids aged 5 to 14, including:
- Soccer is the number one sport of choice for Canadian children, among both boys and girls -- who now tie at the same participation rate of 44%. (Followed by ice hockey, swimming and baseball).

- Overall, boys are more actively involved in sport than girls = 55% vs. 44%. However, while boys' participate rate has decreased (from 59%) since 1998, girls have maintained the same level of participation.

- Household income continues to be a major determinant of sport participation for children. Only 43% of children from households in the lower income range (under $40,000) participate in sports, compared to 63% among children from households with incomes of over $80,000.

- Parents' sports participation remains a very significant determinant of children's sports participation. Participation rates among children with neither parent involved in sports is only 35%, compared to 57% if at least one parent is an active participant. Furthermore, when at least one parent participates in sports as an administrator, their children’s participation rates jump to 80%.

- Living in a single-parent household has almost no impact on children's sports participation rates (despite lower income averages among single-parent households, which I assume the study has controlled for in its data analysis). As the study describes, "Regardless of family structure, children of sport participants participate more in sport. It is also possible that parents of active kids tend to participate themselves."

Of course, the cross-comparisons and correlations examined in the report don't include things like media consumption or quality/quantity of in-school phys ed programs, but it's a good starting point for reflection about changing trends within Canadian/Western culture. I must also point out, however, that although I'm completely convinced that sports participation is decreasing, I think that we also need to question the way in which "sports" is defined within this survey -- taking note of those activities that have been excluded. For example, the study excludes dance, aerobics, jogging and many other physical activities with large proportions of female participants, which have instead been labeled as "leisure activities"...whereas activities such as bowling and canoeing are included. The emphasis in this study is on competitive, and usually team, sporting activities, which means that competitive martial arts such as karate are counted, but non-competitive forms such as kung fu are not. While this may not seem to be that big a deal, I think that the exclusion of female-dominated activities (such as dance) are particularly problematic. I would also recommend comparing some of these stats with an article written by Leanne C. Findlay and Dafna E. Kohen appearing in last year's issue of Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health, which focuses specifically on sports participation among aboriginal children.

I'm sensing some rumblings on the Canadian policy front re: child obesity, and it will be interesting to see how this study factors in. In the meantime, here are links to some of the Canadian news coverage of the study:

Globe and Mail
Winnipeg Sun
CTV news
The Kingston Whig-Standard

You can also read the Stats Can press releasehere.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Vancouver Province Article on Virtual Worlds for Kids

Last week, I was interviewed by Lena Sin of the Vancouver Province about kids' online games, commercialization and market research. We had a nice long chat about the various issues that arise within children's gaming sites, a chunk of which is featured in Sin's article on virtual worlds for kids, which appears in today's issue. Here's an excerpt:
Sara Grimes, a PhD candidate at SFU whose research is centred on children's evolving relationship with new technology, said parents can easily be lulled into a sense of safety because media companies are careful not to raise red flags with violent or sexual content on children's sites.

"What they are doing is using this notion of a safe or fun area that's really kid-appropriate to advertise heavily and also conduct market research in almost every aspect of the sites," said Grimes.

Advertising and marketing techniques run the gamut of placing a simple ad on the screen -- which Webkinz did for the first time last October to much outcry -- to actually incorporating products into the game.

You can read the rest of the article here. Thanks to Lina for her clear and succint coverage of the topic, as well as her excellent summation of my comments...which I'm sure were actually much more rambling than they appear in the final text.

Friday, February 08, 2008

CARU Cracks Down

By way of KidAdLaw, news about a number of recent decisions made by the US-based Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), an industry self-regulatory board which monitors compliance to FCC and FTC regulation on children's advertising. The first involves potentially deceptive advertising aimed at children promoting the Nintendo Wii and Mario Party 8. As the KidAdLaw article decribes:
The Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) reviewed a website ad featuring the game system and the "Mario Party 8" game, advertised as part of a campaign titled, "Wii Would Like to Play." The ad in question featured groups of four people-a family, office mates and young girls at a slumber party-playing Mario Party 8, each with a separate remote control. However, each Wii game console only comes with one remote control.

"CARU was concerned that children watching the advertising at issue could be confused by what is included in the initial purchase of the Wii game system," CARU stated in a summary of its review.

Nintendo said the ad had run its course, and would be pulled from the website. The company also agreed to consider CARU's guidelines.

Interestingly, in the review press release, CARU describes that Nintendo also used industry norms as a justification for the ad in its response:
"Nintendo noted that the advertising at issue was consistent with longstanding industry disclosure practices for marketing of video game systems, games and accessories. However, the company said, it has reviewed its TV advertising guidelines in consideration of CARU’s comments.

This last part is particularly interesting when one considers how industry standards can slowly morph into regulatory standards...which seems to be the underlying argument within Nitendo's mention of this fact in its defense. The fact that deceptive advertising practices are a "longstanding industry disclosure practice" is hardly something to brag about.

The second decision was aimed at kids' sport-themed site called JunkBall, which got a warning about its privacy policy. According to KidAdLaw:
The website, which features promotions and articles on sports products, contained a sign-up feature for "Junk Ball E-News." The sign-up page included the statement that "I am at least 13 years of age," and provided "yes" and "no" options for users to select. A child who clicked "no" was unable to proceed, but he or she could re-select "yes" to register.

COPPA requires site operators to obtain parental consent before gathering personally identifiable information from children who are under 13.

According to the CARU press release:
CARU, in its initial inquiry, questioned whether the Website was properly age screening to determine if parental consent was necessary and whether the site potentially collected personally identifiable information from children without first receiving verifiable parental consent. CARU also questioned whether the operator was collecting more information than was necessary for the e-newsletter.

As a result of its inquiry, CARU recommended that the site tighten privacy controls and better ensure parental consent. It also suggested that the site operator:
...request all previous recipients of the E-newsletter either re-register or be unsubscribed. CARU recommended the Website delete all information for users who fail to re-register.

In response, the site's operators, Little Kids Inc., pulled the e-newsletter feature. However, it sounds like they disagree with the idea of deleting information already collected from users:
The company, in its advertiser's statement, said it disagrees with CARU’s findings, but "appreciates CARU’s observation and suggestions concerning the Junk Ball Website and shares CARU’s goals of protecting children’s privacy."

The third review involved a book published by Discovery Girls magazine, called the Girl's Survival Guide 2007. CARU has asked the magazine to review an ad it had run promoting the book which "urged readers to "order now ... before it's too late" and described the price with qualifiers such as "only" and "just"," asking them to "tone down" their marketing. As described in the CARU press release:
At the outset of its inquiry, CARU questioned whether the advertisement created a sense of urgency for children to purchase the product by employing such language as "order now" and "before it's too late," in violation of CARU's guidelines on sales pressure. Further, CARU questioned the use of the words "only" and "just" to describe the price of the item.

In response, Discovery Girls Inc. has stated that it would accept the CARU's decision and modify their advertising in accordance with CARU guidelines. Of course, as with the Wii decision, it seems that this review may have come a little late...seeing as the book in question is a 2007 "survival guide", which may or may not even be for sale anymore (or at the very least probably isn't being actively promoted at this point).

Is it just me, or does it sound like the children's industries don't really take the CARU's reviews all that seriously? I find that accountability is particularly lacking - it would be impossible for the CARU to review all the relevant ads in its jurisdiction and make decisions about them WHILE the ads are running, so the fact that some ads may have already had their run by the time the review occurs shouldn't mean that the offending party gets away scot free. There really should be some sort of repercussion besides a mere request to "pull" the offending ad(s). Not to mention the ambiguity surrounding what happens if a company disagrees with a CARU finding (as is the case with Junk Ball, and maybe Nintendo, depending on how you read their "industry norm" defense).

If you go to the CARU site, you can also read recent reviews of (whose privacy practices were questioned, esp. in relation to their "Princes of the Month" feature), (which was also questioned for its loose privacy protection practices), and Hanna Montana site (which needs to make it clear that becoming a member of the site will NOT guarantee tickets to Hanna Montana concerts). Lots of privacy infractions going on, making it pretty clear that even though advertising and market research methods are indeed becoming more invasive and subtle, traditional methods are still quite pervasive and need to be monitored diligently.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Gaming's "Sea Change"

There's an article of interest by Seth Schiesel in last week's New York Times, which attempts to analyze last year's videogame sales stats (released in December by NPD Group). Although Schiesel's claim that the videogame market experienced a "sea change" this past year is a tad hyperbolic (and as Kotaku points out much of these arguments in this article have been made before), I completely agree that the figures point to some much larger changes within gaming that may be indicative of an important social shift around digital game usage and popular perceptions of the medium. Yes, that's right, I'm talking about the Wii...the domestic integration of physical and virtual play is exciting and fascinating, and I'm looking forward to reading some good theoretical explorations of this as scholarship in the area becomes available. But I'm also talking about Schiesel's identification of the spread of collaborative play...expanding beyond the realm of MMOGs and other multiplayer computer games, incorporating players of all kinds, frequencies and experience levels. The diffusion of mutliplayer gaming technologies, continued developments within portable play technologies such as the DS (which combines multiplayer gaming with portability), are opening up social conceptualizations of digital play...and making digital gaming much more inclusive.

Although the NPD doesn't seem to have a report of its findings available on its website, an issue of Wired blog from December reprinted a number of its sales stats. Most of you have probably already seen these, but I figured I'd reprint them as well for easy reference. These sales stats are for the US only:

Top-Selling Hardware/Consoles 2007
1. Nintendo DS - Sold $8.5 million in 2007 ($17.65 million to date)

2. Nintendo Wii - Sold $6.29 million in 2007 ($7.38 million to date)

3. Xbox 360 - Sold $4.62 million ($9.15 million to date)

4. PlayStation 2 - $3.97 million ($41.12 million to date)

5. PSP - $3.82 million ($10.47 million to date)

6. PlayStation 3 - $2.56 million ($3.25 million to date)

Top-Selling Console Games 2007
1. HALO 3 (360) - by Microsoft, Released Sep. 2007, Rated M: $4.82 million

2. Wii Play (Wii) - by Nintendo, Released Feb. 2007, Rated E: $4.12 million

3. Call fo Duty 4: Modern Warfare (360) - by Activision, Released Nov. 2007, Rated M: $3.04 million

4. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PS2) - by Activision, Released Oct. 2007, Rated T: $2.72 million

5. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) - by Nintendo, Released Nov. 2007, Rated E: $2.52 million

6. Pokemon Diamond (NDS) - by Nintendo, Released Apr.2007, Rated E: $2.48 million

7. Madden NFL 08 (PS2) - by EA, Released Aug.2007, Rated E: $1.90 million

8. Guitar Hero 2 (PS2) - by Activision, Released Nov.2006, Rated T: $1.89 million

9. Assassin's Creed (360) - by Ubisoft, Released Nov.2007, Rated M: $1.87 million

10. Mario Party 8 (Wii) - by Nintendo, Released May 2007, Rated E: $1.82 million

Monday, February 04, 2008

Janet Wasko on Virtual Worlds for Kids

FlowTV -- an experimental, critical online forum written primarily by academics but aimed at a general audience -- has just published a short piece by political economist Janet Wasko, exploring commodificaiton in Webkinz and Neopets. Wasko's previous work on the film industry and Disney is enormously respected (and widely referenced) within communications and media studies, and it's great to see her expanding further into kids' new media forms. In the article, Wasko provides a comprehensive overview of the market mechanisms at work within these sites, linking them to larger trends within kids' consumer culture. She concludes:
It might be argued that these sites contribute to the commercialization of childhood and youth. Indeed, the process of targeting youth for consumption through media and advertising has become increasingly more developed and sophisticated, as documented by many scholars and some policy people. It seems obvious that these new websites have become a part of that process.

Even before Neopets and other sites were created, child development specialist, David Elkind, poignantly observed that "Children’s play – their inborn disposition for curiosity, imagination and fantasy – is being silenced in the high-tech, commercialized world we have created." (Elkind, 1982)

While this development may not be surprising to many, maybe that is the point. The popularity of Neopets, Webkinz, and many other sites aimed at kids feed into the naturalizaton of the commodification and commercialization processes that are at the core of advanced capitalism. And, again, another new technology has been harnessed for commercial purposes, as well as promoting and teaching consumption to young people.

Nicely said. The past couple of months have seen a lot of media/academic/critic coverage of kids' virtual worlds, and there are almost too many interesting articles and commentaries to list. I'd recommend checking out Bonnie Ruberg's brief, but insightful, look at the new Build-a-Bear VW over at Terra Nova, and Izzy Neis' recent post on why FAO Schwartz won't be launching its own VW any time soon.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Kids and Mobile Play: David Buckingham's Camcorder Culture

On January 30th, I attended a seminar at the London Knowledge Lab, featuring David Buckingham, who talked about the latest component of a study his Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media is doing on "Camcorder Cultures". His talk focused on the use of video/film within youth skate (board) culture: the film conventions found within this subcultural genre, how knowledge (both in terms of the sport and surrounding media production) is exchanged among skaters, and the complex relationship with commercial culture (including sponsors, commercialization, appropriation, etc.). A very interesting and well put-together presentation, with lots of openings for analysis and future questions about technology, performance, play, celebrity culture, digital culture and DIY media. He showed a number of clips of typical skate videos and provided a brief content analysis of a skate-video website called Skate Perception.

I was struck by both the continuities and the evolution of these videos since my earlier exposure to them in the early to mid-1990s (when they suddenly became a feature of my own peer culture), through to the late-90s (when they would often materialize in the later hours of university house parties). In many respects, a number of the predominant conventions present in the skate videos of a decade ago remain -- often filmed with a fish-eye lens, frequent use of black and white, grainy "documentary" style footage (esp. during complex tricks, which are as unedited as possible) from low perspectives, and the inevitably trendy indie soundtrack. They still follow the same format of introducing a skater (whose name appears on the bottom of the screen), followed by a montage of them performing a series of tricks (set to a particular song/band/genre), switch to the next skater, a series of their tricks, with their own song/band/genre, etc. Buckingham pointed out that the use lettering and the ways in which names appear on the screen during these intros is an important part of the production value, as is the accentuation (perhaps added in) of the sounds the skateboard makes, as it grinds, rolls, hits the pavement, etc.

There were also quite a few noticeable differences between "then" and "now" - the videos we watched were much more polished than previous, more serious in a way (although Buckingham argues that they aim to "not be too serious), without the short shots of pranks, gross-out scenes and general silliness that were often sprinkled into the videos we watched as teens (and that Anil's friends made themselves, as he described during Q&A). There's even a trend of explicit "sponsor me" videos -- made and promoted to find the skater a corporate sponsor.

The relationship between extreme sports (skating) and commercial leisure was of particular interest to me. Although he didn't delve too far into it, Buckingham pointed out that from the outset the sport has had tight links to corporate sponsorship and branding, although he presents this as a complex, back and forth (or bottom-up and top-down) exchange. I, of course, was a little more suspicious of how the videos appear to conform to previous versions, including the commercial versions we watched back in the day. I suppose the argument would be that those videos were probably already trying to appropriate and replicate what kids were doing on their own anyway. It's hard to say, and even harder to say if it matters, but I suppose I'm nonetheless troubled at the way in which the political economic relations are so overt and yet so subtle within skate culture, which appears to have internalized an attitude of ironic acceptance towards its own commodification.

Anyway, here are more links to some of the things Buckingham talked about:
Ale Ciattoni's "Sponsor Me" Video
Dogtown and Z-Boys
A recent Vans ad

The UK Kids' Media Disconnect

One of the reasons I came to London this semester was because the UK is currently such a hotbed of academic and public debate about kids and media. From child obesity and videogame controversies, to the numerous nation- and EU-wide studies being conducted here, to special government task forces and initiatives, to the large amount of media coverage UK newspapers and bloggers provide of these developments, London just seems like the 'place to be' for a children's media scholar. As a hotbed of debate, it is necessarily populated by conflicting opinions and interpretations -- which is both hugely exciting and a little overwhelming. As in the US and Canada, however, the debates here are also characterized (possibly hindered) by an underlying disconnect between everyday use (kids' media usage, parental concerns, family dynamics, school life) and popular discourse (governmental response, media representations, industry agendas). An example of this can be found in two articles that appeared in the BBC News online in the past couple of months. In December, the BBC published an article on a Microsoft commissioned review of 4000 parents in various countries around the EU. Among other things, the study found that:

- "More than 75% of parents are concerned about the content of video games played by their children."
- "Almost half of the 4,000 parents surveyed in the UK, France, Italy and Germany said that one hour of gaming each day should be the limit."
- "43% of the surveyed parents said they were not aware of ratings systems for games to determine suitability."

Without digging up previous reports/surveys, I'd risk making the claim that these findings pretty much support prior work in this area, which consistently finds that the "problem" lies in the parents' lack of awareness about ratings...a convenient argument that puts the blame and responsibility back in the home and well away from the industry (i.e. any need for government regulation).

The story is positioned in relation to an ongoing study being conducted by Tanya Byron on kids' new media culture (you can check out her study's Bebo page here), which was commissioned by the PM and launched in September 2007 to the immediate outcry of the UK videogames industry and self-regulatory board. Although the findings of the "Byron Review" won't be released until March, the BBC story appears to be laying some important groundwork for its reception, making preemptive links to industry-commissioned studies, and setting up the debate within the age-old industry-vs-parents binary. The article notes that according to the Microsoft study, parents "saw themselves as the key decision makers for which games should be played by their children, rather than regulators or the video games industry", making it seem like an "either or" scenario, rather than a system that can (and often does) work in concert. A big chunk of the remainder of the article is dedicated to providing the industry's perspective -- its defense of the educational and social aspects of games,reproducing the same tired dichotomies we've been seeing for years - violent vs. educational, wasted time vs. productive leisure.

The last third of the article gives some of the study's findings on kids' media use, again based on parental reporting/perception:

- "[M]ore than half of children played games on consoles, 32% on PCs, 9% played games online and 4% played on a mobile phone."
- The majority (64%) of kids play digital games alone, while less than 10% played with family members, and 12% played with friends. (although it doesn't specify whether this includes playing with friends online, I would assume that it probably doesn't)
- Only 5% of kids played "mainly online" - again, not sure what that signifies exactly, or how and whether parents keep track of this.

A few weeks later, the BBC published an opinion piece (though not so clearly labeled as such) by the Chief executive of Becta, Stephen Crowne, under the headline: "Parents urged to embrace new tech: The head of the government agency which promotes technology in schools urges parents to see it positively". The article takes aim at recent ChildWise report, under the introduction of: "It seems that every week a new report is published revealing the negative impact technology such as the internet, computer games and television is having on young people." The report found that UK kids spend about 5 hours and 20 minutes "staring at a screen each day", which reading continues to decline. Crowne suggests that before parents throw away their television sets and computers, they should consider some usage stats published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (that 41% of children 8-11 yrs regularly use the internet; 75% of 11-year-olds have their own TV, games console and mobile phone; 56% of children aged 8-11 play computer games; and 7% of 10-year-olds have their own web cam), stats which he says describe the "real world of children." The gist of the argument is that because technology is to kids what honey is to bees, parents shouldn't fight their children's technology use, but channel it towards positive outcomes. etc., etc., etc.

Again here we see a tidy reduction of the issues, a championing of productive play and educational value as the right and only response to parental concerns, a vilification of children's current technological/media use as "non-effective" (i.e. wasted time) that can be "repurposed" (by parents and teachers, of course) as developmentally and economically beneficial activities, if only parents and teachers will "get on board". A perfect example of the kind of thing Ellen Seiter talks about in The Internet Playground, and that Anil Narine and I discuss in our paper Playtime is Over! (forthcoming). Crowne concludes with the following advice to parents who are worried about their kids' uses of technologies:
Rather than trying to exclude technology from their lives because we feel uncomfortable with it or have a vague idea that it is "not a good thing", we need to do what parents and educators have always done - harness their children's passions and interests and use technology to engage them in learning.

Sound familiar?

My G-Life: Game Design with a Mission

Cool site alert! An article was published in the BBC news online a few weeks ago (but I only just now had the chance to research it) about a new "social networking site" aimed at enabling teens around the world (aged 13+) to learn game design/development skills and then share their final products...all under the Creative Commons license. The site is called My, and is currently in beta-mode, operating with only a bare bones structure and no teen-designed games as of yet. Some media and marketing (?) companies have donated simple flash games as examples, though, to give visitors and potential developers a sense of what they're looking for. Here's an excerpt from the official description of the site:
Through an open architecture of websites and related wikis and blogs, MyGLife participants learn to analyze, design and build web-based games and simulations that address globally relevant and social issues of their choice and passion. Topics include climate change, ecology, water, community services, technology skills, peace and more.

[...] is comprised of an open architecture of educational, programmable websites and related wikis that offer more than 100 educational activities, simulations and tutorials to play, learn, explore and contribute new ideas online.

* PLAY to Learn invites participants to play with an arcade of games, puzzles, creative tools and scientific simulations and to think about them critically as game developers. Donated and open source customized tutorials allow participants to tinker with the underlying game code and learn programming skills.

* LEARN to Build features an extensive library of hand-picked, custom written and open source tutorials for learning Flash, HTML, Graphic Design, Wiki, Blogging and Project Development skills.

* EXPLORE Web 2.0 Resources features links to recommended online resources and lists of suggested readings that will help participants.

* CONTRIBUTE Knowledge and Support encourages participants to follow-up their learning by contributing works back to the site. Professional developers and organizations worldwide can also donate work and learn how to start MyGLife programs locally.

The project is run by an organization called World Wide Workshop, which I hadn't heard of before now, but appears to have a pretty awesome goal of spreading global participation in digital cultural production to groups that are most often excluded, in this case young people from disadvantaged communities in developing countries worldwide.