Fast Company

Why Johnny Can't Play

What's the matter with kids today? Says market-research guru Ted Klauber: Their lives are so busy, so structured, and so infused with digital technology that they have no time for fun.

Ted Klauber is fiddling with a projector, trying to find just the right video clip to illustrate his point. Klauber, 42, a New York City-based senior executive at advertising giant FCB Worldwide, has spent the past year researching the relationship between kids and technology. He could talk for days about how kids today are different from those of previous generations and about how FCB's clients should respond to that change.

But he knows that the most articulate voices for his ideas belong to the kids themselves, as well as to their parents. So Klauber turns off the lights and shows his clip. First a group of young boys from London rattle off a seemingly endless list of after-school activities that the week has in store for them. Then the mother of a boy in Singapore describes the four classes that her son takes every Saturday. "It's incredible when you think about it," says Klauber, senior VP and worldwide director of Mind & Mood, a proprietary tool of FCB. "When I was a kid, I'd roam around on my blue Schwinn for hours. These kids have daily to-do lists. Some of them have only 20 minutes of free time a day."

When Klauber started this project, he had no initial hypothesis -- only a commitment to exploring an infrequently asked question: How is digital technology (and the lifestyle issues that go along with it) affecting young children's "sense of fun, play, and thinking"? After conducting 40 in-depth workshops with kids (ages 6 to 11) and their parents from several countries -- including Brazil, Germany, Mexico, and the United States -- Klauber arrived at answers that are both refreshing and alarming.

Among his seven primary findings: The obsession among parents with efficiency and productivity has trickled down to even the youngest of kids. Playtime has morphed into what Klauber calls a "digital wonderland" -- a fast-moving, goal-oriented zone that affords "little time for aimless fun." Kids today are focused on competition, on efficiency, and on results. One consequence of this development is that their imaginations are beginning to atrophy: Play is all about the destination, rather than the journey.

"When parents talked to us about their childhoods," Klauber says, "they had a sense of wonderment. They remembered building forts out of pillows and blankets. They remembered making up elaborate stories. But because kids today have so little free time, and because they're always surrounded by media, they don't explore what's off the beaten path. They want their fun to be quick and easy. The art of being bored is lost."

Of course, child-development experts have worried for years about the impact that television has on creativity. But Klauber's questions -- and conclusions -- go well beyond the standard fare. For one thing, his research focused on the impact of relatively new technologies, such as the Internet and video games. For another, he looked beyond technology to address the attitudes that are reshaping children's lives. Are "play dates" -- with all of their rules and structure -- the best way for kids to have fun with one another? Is it necessarily a good thing that virtual technology allows kids to overcome the physical barriers that are associated with childhood? Thanks to computers and video games, Klauber says, a seven-year-old can drive a car, fight a war, or hit a 90-mile-an-hour fastball. Does such freedom from physical limitations produce smarter, faster kids? Or does it create what he calls "adults of all ages"? Or both?

Klauber is the first to admit that he's not a lifelong expert on children's issues. In fact, he spends most of his time doing brand-oriented research for FCB's clients, which include AT&T, DaimlerChrysler, and Quaker Oats. But once a year, he undertakes a major research project on a topic of broad interest. "The idea is to get ahead of our customers by identifying trends before anyone else does," he says. "It's a lot like cultural anthropology -- trying to get at the emotions and motivations behind people's behavior."

Unlike many market researchers, Klauber never begins his work with a theory. ("When you do that," he says, "you tend to validate what you already know, and you miss a lot of learning opportunities.") Instead, Klauber and his team start by asking general, open-ended questions about people's lives. "We back our way into the subject matter," says Klauber. "That way, people don't just tell us what they think we want to hear. They tell us what matters to them."

Moreover, Klauber and his team never put a bunch of strangers together in a room, as most focus-group organizers do. Instead, they interview subjects in the company of members of an "affinity group." For this particular project, Klauber's team would invite one child to a workshop and then ask that child to bring along some friends. "Being with your peer group acts as an incredibly honest governor," says Klauber.

And interview sessions always take place "in context" -- whether the topic at hand is kids or cars. When Klauber is exploring how adults feel about cars, for example, he meets with them inside actual automobiles. For his research on children, he held workshops in playgrounds, in backyards, and even in kids' bedrooms. "If you hold a session where the activity that you're studying actually takes place," says Klauber, "the environment helps reveal your subject's feelings."

In fact, Klauber stumbled across one of his findings -- that kids look to video games, rather than to computer games, for most of their technology-enhanced fun -- by watching young children interact with computers. "A lot of them would talk as if they knew their way around the Internet," says Klauber. "But when we said, 'Okay, turn on the computer,' they wouldn't be able to -- because they didn't know the password. Or they would have trouble navigating the Net. It turned out that almost all of these kids needed their parents' permission to use the computer."

Klauber's conclusion: For this generation, PCs aren't about play -- they're about utility. "The Internet and the personal computer are for information, not for fun," he says. "Even with flashy computer games, kids can smell the educational aspect. They told us, 'I only play them when my parents won't let me use my Nintendo.' "

Indeed, Klauber is unyielding in his claim that most companies have vastly underestimated the popularity and the power of video games. "A lot of clients still think that video games are a fad," he says. "But, along with TV, this is the medium of choice for young kids -- over movies and computers."

Klauber is also adamant in his belief that there is a hopeful side to his research -- even though most parents are bound to find his conclusions troubling. "Kids want to be more creative, and their parents want them to be that way too," he says. "We're finally at a point where technology has become sophisticated enough to bring back a sense of imagination. Some of the newer video games challenge creativity just as much as a good book does."

There's no question that Klauber's findings are causing some of his clients and colleagues to rethink their ideas about kids and their needs. For instance, after listening to Klauber's presentation, an executive at Mattel took a leave of absence to devote more time to her children. One FCB executive was so moved by the findings that he left work early to talk to his wife about how they could make their kids' lives a little less structured.

For Klauber, who has no children and who has spent his entire career in advertising, the project is just another affirmation that good research can accomplish a lot. "Sometimes, we really can dig deeper and see things before anyone else does," he says.

Pamela Kruger (pkruger@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor. Contact Ted Klauber by email (tklauber@fcb.com).

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