Monday December 18, 2017

Can gender-specific toys affect a child's development? Researchers weigh in

'The data is showing clearly that marketers are still segmenting children into highly-stereotypical categories by gender,' said Rebecca Hains, advertising and media studies professor at Salem State University.

'The data is showing clearly that marketers are still segmenting children into highly-stereotypical categories by gender,' said Rebecca Hains, advertising and media studies professor at Salem State University. (pixabay.com)

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When it comes to gender and toys, the pink-and-blue divide is as pronounced as ever, suggests a new study released earlier this month at the height of toy buying season.

"The data is showing clearly that marketers are still segmenting children into highly-stereotypical categories by gender," Rebecca Hains, advertising and media studies professor at Salem State University, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The study, by the British group Let Toys Be Toys, looked at toy catalogues and found that boys were four times as likely to be shown playing with cars, and girls were nearly twice as likely to be shown with kitchens or other "domestic" play.

6-year-old Lucia Embree

Six-year-old Lucia Embree with her favourite toy. (Mary-Catherine Macintosh/CBC)

'Gender-segregated'

'Kids notice the subtle cues that are part of the toys that leads them to decide that a toy is a girl toy or a boy toy' - Lisa Dinella

"The marketing strategies that are being used to label kids toys as being for girls or for boys is actually fairly effective," said Lisa Dinella, an associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University and principal investigator at The Gender Development Laboratory.

"Kids notice the subtle cues that are part of the toys that leads them to decide that a toy is a girl toy or a boy toy, and whether it's for them or not for them. And it actually changes their interest in the toy and so that is guiding kids' play activities."

Hains called out Lego and Disney as two major brands that "have had histories of marketing products to all children" and "over the years especially through the '80s and '90s, became increasingly gender- segregated."

She cited the popular Zack the Lego Maniac tv campaign in the 1980s, saying it was a "deviation" from the 1970s where "Lego was for everyone."

'They had found a lucrative line'

Disney, which had a long history of producing animated movies considered family entertainment, saw how girls reacted to Princess Ariel in 1989's Little Mermaid, according to Hains.

"They realized that they had found a lucrative line," said Hains, who also authored The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, "and they began really heavily segmenting their child market in a way that they hadn't really, previously — creating the Disney princess brand which frankly then influenced the rest of the children's product and media market."

'There's this cue — even if it doesn't say girls on it — there's this cue that all the pink things are for girls and everything else is for boys.' - Rebecca Hains

Children are looking around the surrounding world and thinking where do they fit, according to Hains.

Hains also pointed to the colour-coding of toys.

"There's this cue — even if it doesn't say girls on it — there's this cue that all the pink things are for girls and everything else is for boys."

"And what that means is that for families who have kids of both genders, they often feel compelled to buy two of everything so they're [toy companies] selling twice the toys that they would have if everything was just primary colors," said Hains.

Toys

Ten-year-old Nico Embree, his sister 6-year-old Lucia Embree and their brother 8-year-old Pablo Embree at home in Halifax showing their favourite toys. (Mary-Catherine Mcintosh/CBC)

What kids learn from playing with toys

Kids start to learn about their gender as early as the age of two, according to  Dinella.

"From two to about age five, we see them really understanding the concept of their gender and what is associated with their gender."

'We know that every toy teaches a child a different lesson' - Lisa Dinella

As kids grow up, they're changing their play activities based on what  society around them, their parents, and the media say are connected with their gender grouping, according to Dinella.

"We actually have done some studies that allow kids to be able to play with toys with some of those gender cues removed — such as the colour, and whether they know anyone is watching them."

"And we actually see that kids really do cross those boundaries when we remove the social costs to them … which is good news because we know that every toy teaches a child a different lesson," said Dinella.

Kids build skill sets as they're playing with their toys and these skill sets build on one another, according to Dinella.

"We want them to be able to learn as much as they can in these early ages so that they have options for the future."


Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin, Susanna Ferreira and Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.