Bye-Bye Barbie?

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The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the Web's transformation of girlhood:

Jeff Holtzman, third-generation head of dollmaker Goldberger Co., based in Manhattan, said his business used to make dolls for children from birth to 12. Nowadays, Goldberger focuses on children under 3.

"By the time they hit 4 or 5, they want a cell phone," Holtzman said. "We're replacing dolls sooner."

One reason is that older children have more options, said Frazier. "With more choice comes time fragmentation," she said.

But ditching doll play says just as much about the erosion of childhood -- as well as imagination and attention spans, argue some -- as it does about the multitude of gadgets and activities that vie for children's spare time.

What's new is not the trend that began over ten years ago but the growing compression of childhood, as described by the sociologist Juliet Schor and others. We are staying younger older but getting older younger. There are also at least a few Childhood 2.0 enthusiasts among social scientists. These dissenters have at least one major point going for them: experts have been dead wrong about the harm of new media in the past. Thus the twentieth-century increase of IQ scores with the spread of television.

On the other side, new technology's promised benefits for children may also be a mirage. Witness the continuing storm over Baby Einstein. I'd go with the prosecution, citing my friend Frank Wilson, M.D., author of The Hand, as interviewed earlier by David Gergen:

[Y]ou can't really separate what's in the mind from what's in the body. Knowledge really is the whole behavior of the whole organism. And the mistake that we've made -- I think -- isn't focusing on education. It's thinking that you can educate the mind by itself.

The question isn't confined to girls and dolls. Generations of children have been initiated into science by the joy of dealing with three-dimensional objects and organisms, not avatars or so-called virtual goods. Think of Newton and the apple (a true story!), Einstein and his compass (a bit more complicated), or to cite a contemporary, the geneticist Craig Venter:

My favorite toys were hammers, nails, saws, and scavenged lumber that I used for building forts, airplanes, and boats-although you had to use your imagination to what they were on completion.

Another great biologist, Ruth Patrick,

would accompany her father and sister on collecting excursions into nearby woods. "I collected everything: worms and mushrooms and plants and rocks," Dr. Patrick told an interviewer in 2004. At the age of 7, she was given her first microscope. She was hooked.

Cyberdolls seem even less suitable than the conventional kind for guiding girls into physical or biological science. Yet parental decrees against juvenile Web networking may have even worse consequences, interfering with vital friendships. More than ever, life seems to be a long series of unauthorized experiments on human subjects. 

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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