Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fair warning - this column is going to be a rant. But bear with me because it’s possible you also saw Sunday’s USA Weekend featuring tween icon Miley Cyrus on the cover with the headline, “Why You Can’t Ignore This Face.”

The story wasn’t about Miley, per se.

No, the article inside was titled, “The Secret Power of Tweens.” It was a culture piece about the influence of today’s 8- to 13-year-olds.

According to the article by Michele Meyer, “Kids who aren’t old enough to be in middle school, let alone high school or college, are determining what cars, clothes, computers and music we buy, what movies and TV shows we watch, even how we talk and write.”

She connects the dots between the power of today’s youth and the marketing machine that feeds their appetite for consumption, quoting one Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University: “It has nothing to do with development, other than of early and loyal lifetime shoppers … If you can make an 8-year-old into a consumer, you potentially have her for 70 years.”

The bottom line in this cultural trend is simply follow the money. The article cites children’s marketing expert (yes, there is such a thing) James U. McNeal in estimating that tweens spend or influence their parents to spend $500 billion a year. That, says the story, is enough to buy both Microsoft and Google.

OK, stand back. Here I go.

There are three things seriously wrong with this article. First, no one quoted in the piece used the words “ridiculous,” “inappropriate” or “insane” to describe the tween power trip.

Second, the role of parents in perpetuating “tween power” was summed up only in a quote from college professor Elayne Rapping, who blames our societal youth-obsession. “Children are cool, and the older you get, the less cool you are. … Kids have more influence over their parents than vice versa.”

Whew. I thought the problem might be something shallow.

Problem No. 3: Apparently Ms. Meyer didn’t think to find an expert on the trend among tweens to contribute to the income of their households to pay for the many cool things over which they have unprecedented influence to buy.

Can you believe that? She missed the part where kids today go out and get jobs so they can help pay for their cell phones and movie tickets and customized Nike shoes and personalized Xbox 360s.

Oh wait. This would be a generation of children that expects to have every gadget and gizmo long before they’re old enough to even flip a burger or bag your groceries. And besides, who would want to do a lame job like that when you can be a star like Miley Cyrus and make millions?

Which brings me to problem No. 4 with this article. (I know I said there were three problems, but I’m on a rant, remember.) Simply by landing on front porches across America, this article legitimizes a notion that most responsible adults believe is bunk.

Here’s the real story: There is a battle going on in American homes for the hearts and souls of a generation of children. On the one side are marketers, who don’t care whether it’s good for kids to become materialists from the tender age of 8. On the other side are parents, who are trying to instill nonmaterialistic values.

It’s an epic battle, folks, and one we all had better fight.

  • Marybeth Hicks is the author of “Bringing Up Geeks: How To Protect Your Kid’s Childhood In A Grow-Up-Too-Fast World.” Visit her at or
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