Human history has seen incredible advancement and unspeakable decay. We have waged war, discovered gravity, and redefined ourselves as a society countless times. Yet regardless of how hard we try to distinguish ourselves from the past, we remain, in essence, human. And all of us human beings were once children, discovering the world around us step by step. While we may have learned to walk and talk in a wide variety of ways, we all, at one time or another, have engaged with a permanent mainstay of childhood and adolescence: toys.
Playthings have been integral to growing up since the very dawn of humanity. According to the International Business Times, Neanderthal children may have played with toy axes in their developmental years. This concept has only expanded through the centuries, from porcelain babies to model trains to hobby horses. Then, in the 1950s, girlhood was revolutionized by the release of the Barbie doll. Just a few decades later, Rubik’s cubes and Star Wars action figures made it onto Christmas lists worldwide. All of these historic trends share their roots in the universal instinct of discovery through play. Children have always craved the entertainment of toys, and they always will, right?
However, this immutable fact seems to have encountered a new reality in the modern day, at least for preteen girls. A worrying rise in demand for skincare products among young children has left countless parents scratching their heads this past holiday season. In an NBC news spotlight last month, a gaggle of girls were asked by an interviewer if they had skincare products on their Christmas lists; all of them said yes. One of them, who appeared no older than 12 or 13, listed the various items in her beauty routine, including “...a lot of cleansers, toners, moisturizers, like a million face masks…”. When asked what their parents thought of their holiday requests, one of the girls explained, “...they’re like, um… do you need it?”
Hearing girls so young talk shop about the latest skincare fads is, at the very least, a little disconcerting. It’s absolutely normal, of course, to be curious about the world of beauty. We’ve all been there- from playing with our mom’s lipstick to running amok through Claire’s or the drugstore makeup aisle. Prior to the age of social media, girls were introduced to cosmetics through playthings and dollar-store products, haphazardly applying sticky lip gloss and bright pink blush en route to an imaginary soiree in the basement. Cheap, glittery substances were almost a rite of passage in the march towards womanhood. Girls back then didn’t care about skincare advertisements or boring anti-aging products. Why would they? Makeup was about having fun with colors and feeling pretty.
But now that the 2023 Christmas season has come and gone, it seems that this mindset has fundamentally changed. And parents, in many cases, aren’t sure how to process it. In the aforementioned news piece, a mother commented on the craze, “It feels incredibly young and shocking, and yet super pervasive”. Indeed, it is “incredibly young”- most skincare products, such as anti-aging retinol or pore tighteners, aren’t generally recommended for use until your 20s or 30s. But somehow, inexplicably, girls just entering middle school are demanding them. Instead of Vera Bradley bags and Baby Lips chapstick, befuddled parents found themselves reading this year’s wish lists and thinking, “...now what is this Drunk Elephant thing?”
One source of this cultural shift seems to be the advent of social media, which has redirected young eyes from the Disney channel or TeenNick to the endless universe of online content. While television geared towards children presents commercials for toys and breakfast cereals, apps like TikTok are a wild west of materialism. Now, preteens traipse through a digital platform that algorithmically conforms to its users, dispensing advertisements in the form of short-form influencer content. This might explain how the growing girls of Gen Alpha have discovered high-end brands like Drunk Elephant and Rare Beauty. These products, shown to viewers through the rave reviews of their peers, have convinced a bevy of preteens that they just have to have a $50 skin serum. What 13-year-old has ever wanted a retinol cream or a hyaluronic acid moisturizer? Apparently, lots of them do, and while neon rubber bands or hot pink purses were once the zenith of prepubescent status symbols, the girls of today want to wear their blue blood on their faces.
In one particular case, a woman posted her 13 year old niece’s incomprehensible Christmas list to X, leaving internet users in shock. Of the many luxury items, the girl’s list included “Dior lip oil”, “facial ice globes”, and “Drunk Elephant bronzing drops”. An outpouring of responses from perplexed adults, most of which ran along the lines of “when I was 13, I wanted a Wii…” show that no one seems to understand how children have changed so quickly. And as Sephora’s flood with preteens begging their mothers for a Laneige lip mask, this divorce from adolescent interests becomes ever more apparent.
While this universal discovery of cosmetics is as common as it was 50 years ago, it feels markedly different this time around. At its heart, this craze isn’t centered around the experience of growing up. Which, back in the day, consisted of embarrassing acne cream, drugstore mascara, and sparkly lip gloss. This time, it’s nearly about the act of the purchase itself, not the joy of getting dolled up in the mirror. Instead of exploring an aspect of womanhood, young girls are buying into the “anti-aging” industry, coveting luxury products that no one under 20 should even know about. It’s about acquiring goods that have flashed by your eyes every five minutes on TikTok- having the most exclusive lip gloss and the most aesthetically-pleasing skincare bottle. Instead of the typical haphazard journey through their preteen years, girls are being profoundly affected by this new, slick marketing tactic, which wasn’t even directed at their age group in the first place. Girls are acquiring a new vocabulary comparable to that of a trained esthetician, all due to consistent social media exposure.
So, what happened to good old “toys”? Why aren’t they cool anymore? With this bizarre phenomenon only cropping up in the past few years, no one has a definitive answer quite yet. Still, most adults would agree that the advent of social media has fundamentally altered the process of growing up. Children are suddenly conscious of the material world in a new way, and it could be harming their psyches to unknown ends.
When children are raised with physical engagement, such as toys, stuffed animals, books, time outdoors, and involved activities, they are much more likely to appreciate age-appropriate presents. Active children might covet a basketball or a skateboard; creative kids might beg Santa for a watercolor set or an instrument; children with theatrical imaginations might ask for a Barbie playhouse and dolls to act out their dramas. All of these are quite normal and healthy for developing minds. Conversely, children who are parented exclusively through an iPad might seek out online commodities. Their Christmas lists could be unintelligible to parents, consisting of things that have been passively marketed to them in the digital space. That’s how a 10 year old is introduced to Laneige lip masks and Drunk Elephant skin serums—not because their mother leaves her retinol cream on the bathroom counter, but because their favorite influencer told them how much they need it.
Now that the world’s first fully-fledged “tech” generation is aging into adolescence, the hidden impacts of their immersion are beginning to crystallize. It isn’t just about “iPad kids” anymore (although they’re still a frequent sight); children are bound to grow up, and we’re finally seeing the results of this collective, unconscious science experiment. Is social media rewiring an entire iteration of human beings? With Gen Alpha just beginning to enter middle and high school, it’s still too soon to tell. But the concerning trend of expensive skin care among preteens is not particularly promising. Hopefully, maturation and reflection will run their course as these teens find their place in the world. But in the meantime, parents should guide them to understand that they don’t need a $100 skincare routine to explore the world of beauty. Makeup can be a source of harmless fun for growing girls, as it was in the good old days of neon nail polish and glittery eyeshadow. Perhaps future parents are watching this epidemic and planning to raise their children differently- away from constant advertising and influencing. Guiding them to do what kids do best: to discover the world for themselves.
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