OK, you're hip enough to know that our cover girl, Miley
Cyrus, has a rocker alter ego named "Hannah Montana" and
elementary schoolers adore the 15-year-old. But did you
know that this Queen of Tween World reigns over your
Of course, she's only a symbolic head of state, Montana
or otherwise. Tween World's real rulers are her 8- to
12-year-old admirers: the kids be-"tween" infancy and
teendom who affect us all, even if you've never driven
soccer carpools or bought bling at Claire's Accessories.
Since Beatlemania unleashed Baby Boomers' power in the
'60s, youth-driven cultural upheavals have erupted --
but those young people driving the trends were usually
old enough to have a license. While protesting college
students spurred the Vietnam War's end, their preteen
siblings watched cartoons and awaited their day.
Not today's tweens. For the first time, kids who aren't
old enough to be in middle school, let alone high school
or college, are determining what cars, clothes,
computers and music we buy, what movies and TV shows we
watch, even how we talk and write.
"Our culture has become more youth-obsessed than ever,"
says Elayne Rapping, professor of American studies at
New York's University at Buffalo. "Children are cool,
and the older you get, the less cool you are. That's why
women are trying to look younger and even dress like
their children. Kids have more influence over their
parents than vice versa."
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the "Lord of the Rings"
trilogy, is believed to have coined the term "tween" --
but for 20- to 32-year-olds. Only as kids, especially
girls, were recognized for great purchasing power did
advertisers define "tweens" as 'tween childhood and
teenhood. "It has nothing to do with development, other
than of early and loyal lifetime shoppers," says Robert
Thompson, founding director of the Center for Television
and Popular Culture at New York's Syracuse University.
"If you can make an 8-year-old into a consumer, you
potentially have her for 70 years."
Tweens spend or influence their parents to spend $500
billion a year, estimates children's marketing expert
James U. McNeal -- enough to buy both Microsoft and
Google. Advertisers, TV and movie producers, fashion
designers and even car makers understand all too well
that preteens' power extends far beyond bestowing
superstar status on idols like Cyrus or Zac Efron. How?
The new entertainment
Turn on a TV and you may wonder, "Where have these young
girls come from?" Try the Disney Channel and
Nickelodeon. Their stars have erupted across the tube
into shows and movies you probably wouldn't associate
with the preteen set.
Courting such youth, the Country Music Television Awards
chose Cyrus as host, while No. 2-rated "Dancing With the
Stars" has showcased tween ballroom dancers, Disney teen
band the Jonas Brothers and "High School Musical"'s
"You ignore kids at your peril," says "Dancing"'s
executive producer Conrad Green. "They've got power over
the remote control. Any adult says, 'I want to watch
this' and appeals to reason. An 8-year-old girl says,
'I'm watching this, I'm watching this, I'm watching
this!' and you give in."
At cinemas, cartoons or fantasy characters dominate.
This summer's G-rated "Wall-E" hit $127 million by its
second weekend, and last year's PG-rated "Shrek the
Third" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" earned a combined
half a billion dollars, reports online movie publication
"Box Office Mojo."
"PG has become the cool rating as filmmakers realize it
can be a great way to bring in a big audience and earn a
lot of money," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of
box-office tracker Media by Numbers.
Fashion for big kids
When it comes to fashion, tween tastes are becoming
impossible to ignore.
While tween idols Amanda Bynes and Hilary Duff have
launched clothing lines for fans, other young stars are
targeting an older market that could include you. Cyrus
has said she wants to design Marc Jacobs-style duds for
adults, and Lindsay Lohan has dipped her toe into
selling footless tights. Stay tuned for more coverage.
Another fashion innovation with tween roots:
customization. Call it the new monogram. But rather than
stamping your initials on towels or wearing a
boyfriend's letter jacket, you can get anything altered
to your whims.
NikeID enables you to design your own shoe, Xbox 360
lets you create your own graffiti- and tattoo-adorned
faceplate for the game console, and Apple lets you
change out the case for your phone or laptop.
If you think top fashion designers are above it all, get
real. In a nod to tween lust for "techno-bling" -- at
any price -- Burberry, Gucci, Christian Dior and Chanel
design iPod accessories.
"We're acting like kids to be cool," says pop culture
expert Faith Popcorn.
The "My Decade"
Of course, for this generation of under-13s, doing
anything online may be more common than brushing their
teeth. MySpace, which started as a place for kids to
strut their social networking selves, has been co-opted
by adults, with 85% of users over age 18, according to a
MySpace spokesperson. You now can find websites for
MyCoke, My IBM and MySubaru. My Goodness!
"If the '70s were dubbed the Me Decade, this era could
well be the My Decade," says culture reporter David
Driving car trends
Automakers have followed preteens to the Web -- because
they're the ones who care about a car's look and
features. "Tweens have $50 billion of influence on their
parents' purchase of new and used vehicles, cars and
pickups," says marketing expert McNeal. Scion sponsors
Whyville.net, a popular tween website. "We want to reach
the youngest crowd and gain their interest at the
earliest age possible," says vice president Jack Hollis.
The new workplace
Now the bad news. Preteens may grow up to be your boss,
and you may join professor Rapping in her frustration
about being marginalized. "When I grew up, you were
supposed to respect your elders," she says. "Now kids
think they know everything -- and aren't about to
Even worse, grown tweens might not be "down" with
toiling. "In a push-button society, preteens are used to
getting things immediately," says child psychologist
Michael Osit, author of "Generation Text."
But the trade-off may be an invigorating youthful
spirit. When did you laugh most with friends and think
you could do anything? Your own tween years, no doubt.
And remember, from infancy to the grave, we're all " 'tween"