Instant Answers: Tweens

Start at the Beginning:

Before 1987 we passed through two stages before becoming an adult: childhood and teenage years. Now there’s a third social group “in between” kids and teens: tweens.

Tell Me More:

J.R.R. Tolkien used the term tween in his 1954 novel The Fellowship of the Ring to signify the juvenile years. He meant “the irresponsible twenties” in the lives of long-lived hobbits. Today it describes (human) eight- to 12-year-olds, and sometimes even up to age 14. Why do they need their own demographic category? The answer to that is at the heart of a heated debate.

“You’ve got to speak to them as if they’re a little bit older because then they feel that you’re really respecting them and valuing them. The reality is, they’re still kids. ” Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer of tween marketing consultants, the Center for Generational Kinetics

What’s the Controversy?

An influential 1987 article argued the then unfamiliar term was necessary to delineate part of the population with “its own distinct characteristics and capabilities”. But the article wasn’t in a learned sociology journal, rather it was in Marketing and Media Decisions, a magazine for the advertising industry, and therein lies the nub of the conflict.

On the one side are those who insist tweens are a genuine phenomenon. As far back as 1998 the head of worldwide research for Nickelodeon, the kids’ cable TV channel, claimed, “The 12- to 14-year-olds of yesterday are the ten to 12s of today.”

The other side says it is simply a new way to exploit consumers, particularly girls and their parents. As Sharon Lamb, a US child psychologist and co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes, put it: “Tween is a word made up by marketers in order to sell teen items to younger and younger girls.”

Why Does it Matter? A broad spectrum of people feel uneasy about the tweens push for very different reasons. They include feminist commentators such as Ariel Levy, who notes the overlap between tween marketing and the mainstream acceptance of sexualised “raunch culture”. Psychologists like Ireland’s Sarah O’Doherty point out that tween girls’ “dolled up” presentation can lead parents to underestimate the emotional needs of these children, who are yet to develop the ability to deal with complex emotional issues. But perhaps the most uneasy of all are the parents beleaguered by the “pester power” of tweens with hugely expensive shopping wish-lists.


  • US$15 billion: Value of direct spending by tweens in the US alone in 2004
  • US$30 billion: Value of that spending today
  • US$150 billion: Value of all US family purchases influenced by tweens

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