Why Google and Mattel are getting kids (and parents) wrong

Photograph by Mark Lennihan — AP

In February, Google launched a new video service called YouTube Kids. It was, the company wrote on its official blog, “just our first step – we’ll keep tinkering and hope to have more great products for your family soon.” Last week, in the hours before Google’s I/O conference, we got a glimpse at the second step, a patent for an Internet-connected teddy bear. The bear features a computer, camera, and range of sensors to interact with and monitor children.

Whether the teddy bear will eventually reach shelves isn’t clear. The company often takes out patents for ideas that never make it to market. But as a way into Google’s approach and thinking around kids, and families, the teddy bear is telling. CNN called it “the creepy teddy bear,” which it is. It also ignores the fundamental aspects of play and imagination.

Google, enamored with technology, has felled into a technology trap surrounding kids and play. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Others have, too.

The toy industry is undergoing rapid change, much of which involves more connected, creepier products. Mattel launched Hello Barbie during the annual Toy Fair in New York City in February. Hello Barbie is an interactive doll that can communicate with kids (she has a microphone in her belt buckle) and draw upon the information on the Internet when replying to the questions from its owner. With the launch of “smart” Barbie in the Fall, Mattel hopes to make Barbie popular again, after years of plummeting sales.

Reactions from the press and consumer groups to Hello Barbie were swift, and mostly negative. After all, the doll can record and submit—to parents, and presumably to Mattel—what happens in kids’ rooms. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood started a petition demanding that Mattel abandon the project. Susan Linn, the groups executive director, told USA Today that Mattel was “eavesdropping on a child’s heart and soul.”

It’s startling to see this shift toward interactive, surveillance technology in kids’ toys and away from creative play, particularly from giants such as Google (GOOG) and Mattel (MAT), and particularly when—more than ever before—parents and kids seem to be aligned in their demand for products that allow space to create.

Being creative, constructing and displaying funny and clever creations, is what kids really want to spend their free time on. This is one of the key reasons why Microsoft (MSFT) acquired online video game Minecraft for $2.5 billion.

Google should know: its new YouTube channel features kid-produced Minecraft videos, with kids (and adults) showing off their creations in the sandbox-building-block game world. When we take a look at Hello Barbie, it does not exactly fit into the smart and creative category. The prototype that Mattel showed at Toy Fair was more like a multiple-choice machine, asking children specific questions: “What is your favorite part about the city — the food, the fashion or the sights?” A key problem is that it is the doll, not the child, that drives the conversation. The technology gets in the way of imagination.

We know that children love to use their imagination. But it’s also a practical learning tool. Our ability to imagine that objects can be something different than what they really are is essential—it’s one of the things that makes us human, our capacity to see tools and solutions in places and objects that aren’t obvious. Imagination, and imaginative play, is crucial to learning. It’s also simply a lot more fun.
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How many other multi-billion-dollar companies will fall into the technology trap surrounding kids and play? It’s impossible to answer, but the root of the problem is simple: don’t underestimate a child’s creative imagination. Once these companies realize it’s not about answering questions or programming stilted conversation but creating the space for kids to create, it will seem silly, all the time and effort wasted on monitoring a child. It’s possible the people behind these technologies just haven’t realized that kids can dream up questions, and, indeed, whole worlds, far beyond the limits of the Internet.

Filip Lau is sociologist and partner in the strategy and innovation consultancy, ReD Associates, and Camilla Mehlsen is the editor of Denmark’s magazine on educational research, Asterisk.

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