The prepubescent children of days gone by have given way to a cooler kid — the tween — who aspires to teenhood but is not quite there yet.
Tweens are in-between — generally the 8-to-12 set. The U.S. Census estimates that in 2009, tweens are approximately 20 million strong and projected to hit almost 23 million by 2020.
Among them now are Malia Obama, at 10 already a tween, and sister Sasha, who turns 8 this year. With the Obama daughters in the White House, the nation’s attention will focus even more on this emerging group — and the new First Tweens will likely be high-profile representatives of their generation.
“My daughter is really excited that there’s a girl in the White House the same age she is,” says Courtney Pineau, 31, of Bellingham, Wash., mom of fifth-grader Sophia, age 10.
Retailers know tweens are a hot market for clothes, music and entertainment. But now psychologists and behavioral researchers are beginning to study tweens, too. They say tweens are a complicated lot, still forming their personalities, and are torn between family and BFFs (best friends forever), between fitting in and learning how to be an individual.
Tweens have “their own sense of fashion in a way we didn’t have before and their own parts of the popular culture targeted toward them,” says child and adolescent psychologist Dave Verhaagen of Charlotte. How will this shape their personalities? “Time will tell, we don’t know.”
Research has shown that middle school is where some troubles, particularly academic, first appear. Also, a 2007 review of surveys in the journal Prevention Science found that the percentage of children who use alcohol doubles between grades four and six, with the largest jump between fifth and sixth grades.
“They’re kids for a shorter period of time,” adds psychologist Frank Gaskill, who also works with tweens in Charlotte. “More is expected of them academically, responsibility-wise.”
Many parents, including Beth Harpaz, 48, of Brooklyn, are well aware of this short-lived time. Her older son is 16 and a high school junior; her younger son is 11 and in fifth grade.
“I’m trying really hard to save his childhood. I want him to enjoy little-boy things and don’t want him to feel that he has to put on that big hoodie and wear the $100 sneakers and have that iPod in his ear listening to what somebody has told him is cool music,” says Harpaz, author of “13 is the New 18.”
Boys haven’t been the main target of marketers hawking all things tween, from clothes and makeup to TV shows and music. But Disney wants to change that with its Feb. 13 launch of Disney XD, a “boy-focused” cable brand that includes TV and a Web site with themes of adventure, accomplishment, gaming, music and sports.
Until now, Disney has been “a tween girl machine,” Verhaagen says. “It may be that teen idols and celebrities are more inherently appealing to girls because it’s all about personality and music and relational things that girls are more interested in. Boys at that age are more interested in sports and adventure and are not as easily marketed to by personalities and pop stars.”
Both the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon are favorites, according to an online survey conducted this summer for the 2008-09 GfK Roper Youth Report. The data, released to USA TODAY, found that of 500 tweens ages 8-12 asked about activities within the past week, 82 percent had watched Nickelodeon and 69 percent had watched Disney; 92 percent said they had played outside.
Verhaagen, father of two daughters, 11 and 13, says tweens are “immersed in consumer culture” and seek out connections and identity through social networking and shared entertainment experiences, but are still “aligned with their parents.”
New data from in-person interviews in December by Youth Trends, a marketing services company based in Ramsey, N.J., found 85 percent of the 1,223 respondents ages 8-12 agreed that “my family is the most important part of my life” and 70 percent said “I consider my Mom and/or Dad to be one of my best friends.”
Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, a parenting expert in London and author of “Talking to Tweens,” says the tween years are when young people begin to realize the wider world, and to see themselves as separate from their families. That’s why the peer group is so crucial, she says.
Jade Jacobs, 12, of North Potomac, Md., is active in soccer, basketball, gymnastics and two cheerleading teams. “The main reason I do most of my sports is to hang out with my friends and to get exercise,” she says.
She also loves to shop with friends. “It’s not always about buy, buy, buy,” she says. But, “if we have a little money, we’ll find a cute accessory.”
Her mother, Christina Jacobs, 43, says the idea of “mean girls” is part of the tween years, which is one reason girls worry about clothes. “Girls are looking at each other and seeing who is wearing what. They’re harder on each other,” she says. “Girls are looking at each other at 9 and 10 and boys are in La-La land.”
Music is cool
Eleven-year-old Campbell Shelhoss, a fifth grader in Towson, Md., says he’s not in a hurry to be a teenager, even though he says he has outgrown some childhood pastimes.
“I feel like Pokemon is a little young,” he says, and he puts cartoon toys and handheld video games in the same category.
He plays baseball and golf. He wanted a cell phone “for a few weeks” and then decided it wasn’t that important to him.
Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of those ages 8-12 do not have a cell phone, finds the Youth Trends study. It also finds that tweens spend 12.1 hours a week watching TV and 7.3 hours online.
The Roper report also asked tweens to rate 17 items as “cool or not cool.” Music was at the top of the cool list, followed by going to the movies. “Being smart” ranked third — tied with video games — followed by electronics, sports, fashion and protecting the environment.
“Right now, their friends and their status is everything to them,” says Marissa Aranki, 41, of Fullerton, Calif. She is a fifth-grade teacher and has two daughters, 18 and 12.
“It’s universal for the age, but they show it in different ways. For boys, the whole friendship thing is through technology and through sports,” she says. “Girls like to talk, either about other girls or about boys. A lot of the girls are really boy-crazy. And some of the boys are not really girl-crazy yet. They’re really out of the loop in that case. They’ve got their little guy friends and they’re trying to be athletic and that’s what they care about.”
Tweens are part of the larger generational group sometimes called millennials or Generation Y. Those in their late teens through mid-20s are “first-wave” millennials because they’re the ones who set the trends that this later wave (born between the early 1990s and about 2003 or 2004) continues to follow, suggests historian and demographer Neil Howe, co-author of several books on the generations.
Verhaagen, author of “Parenting the Millennial Generation,” says older and younger millennials share certain traits, such as comfort with technology and diversity, and being family-oriented.
He believes these economic hard times will also leave an imprint on both groups of millennials, with the younger ones possibly becoming less materialistic and consumer-driven.”
“Howe says tweens are even more interested in being protected and sheltered than their older millennial siblings; he says this stems from the fact that the parents of older millennials tend to be Baby Boomers while parents of the younger group are often part of Generation X, in their 30s to mid-40s.
“These Xers are concerned about such things as safety and protection,” he says. “They’re not as worried as Boomers were about making their children paragons of perfection. Xers care less about that and try to do less. They’re more pragmatic.”
Howe counts Barack and Michelle Obama as Gen Xers, born 1961-1981. But many view the president and first lady as post-Boomers who are part of Generation Jones, a term coined by cultural historian Jonathan Pontell for those born between 1954 and 1965.
Either way, it may be tough for the Obama girls to stay out of the spotlight, suggests Denise Restauri, founder of a research and consulting firm called AK Tweens and the tween social networking site AllyKatzz.com.
“They’re in nirvana,” she says. “Right now, (Malia and Sasha) are the most popular girls in school. It doesn’t get much better than that when you’re a tween.”