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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Testing times for youngsters
By BBC News Online's Jorn Madslien
The testing of consumer products on children has become an essential part of the development process of anything from toys and fast food, to electronic equipment and cars.
But the ethical implications of such research are potentially enormous.
And there is much confusion about what is acceptable.
At the Norland College for nursery teachers and nannies in West Berkshire, its 'olde world' manor house and 150 acres of parkland create an atmosphere of aloof detachment.
Although Norland is not involved in commercial research, the ethics lectures prepare students for academic research involving child observations.
And it readies them for a future when, as managers of nurseries, they are approached by companies wanting to draft in children for their product research, explained college principal Kay Crosse.
How to do it
Companies need to know what their customers think about their products, and those selling to children are no different.
But testing products on children is a potential mine field.
"With very young children, you can't actually seek their agreement," Ms Crosse pointed out, insisting that no child should ever be forced to take part.
Companies like Lego have tested their products on very young children for years.
Rather than asking questions, Lego will take its products to nurseries in Denmark to observe the children while they play.
"When we talk about children, it's the intuitive play that is interesting," said Jens Maibom, vice president of the toy maker Lego's educational department.
Such observations, as well as focus groups involving teachers, parents and children, help Lego understand its customers.
Children as consumers
From the age of four, a child begins to influence consumer decisions, and by the age of six "the parents are only providing the money", according to Mr Maibom.
Web-savvy 'tweenagers' - marketing slang for eight-to-13-year-olds - are even asked by their parents to download information on holidays and cars, or do their family's weekly grocery shopping on the internet, said Barbie Clarke of NOP Family, a company that speaks to children about literature, websites and technology.
Though "obviously, mum will say what she wants and give them the credit card at the end".
The young's growing influence, or 'pester power' has led to a sharp, parallel increase in child market research budgets.
Logistix Kids - one of many firms researching the markets for toys, fast food, drinks and snacks - says it spends more than £500,000 each year to investigate trends in the child marketplace.
And when the food giant Kellogg's prepared its recent £6m launch of the disc-shaped 'ChewChat' stamps and 'Fruit Winder' snack, Logistix's qualitative research manager Emma Roe arranged focus groups to "determine kids' reactions to the idea of using the discs to stamp secret symbols onto the Fruit Winder rolls, then pass the message to their friends".
With ever more products being launched, such tests involving children have become commonplace, despite much disagreement about what forms of research are acceptable.
"I would certainly not like it if a child in childcare try new foods," said Mr Maibom, while Ms Clark insisted she would "feel very uncomfortable about going into a school and talk to children about chocolate or something".
To clear up the confusion, the Market Research Society (MRS) has drawn up guidelines to protect children's rights and to ensure they are not exploited.
Food tested on children must be safe to consume, and toys must be safe to handle.
And getting parents' permission to approach a child does not remove the need to ask the child as well about whether it wants to take part.
To pay or not to pay
Payment to children, parents or schools is another contentious issue. Opponents say this could encourage parents or schools to earn money by renting out their children.
Those in favour say children are exploited by companies if they fail to pay for valuable information.
NOP Family, which often asks children to prepare before attending a focus group - for example by keeping a scrap book or by taking pictures of products they like - will pay small sums to the children.
"I think we'd feel awful if we didn't because we've taken up a lot of their time," said Ms Clarke.
Lego, on the other hand, does not pay, though it will donate toys to thank the nurseries that have facilitated its research, Mr Maibom said.
Other researchers will donate computers, books or CDs to schools after interviewing their pupils.
But most researchers agree that the children are not in it for the money.
They simply like to have their say since "they are not often asked their opinion on things", said Ms Clark.
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