Just on the day when the highly anticipated film that brings Barbie to the cinema with real actors arrives in cinemas, the British Medical Journal almost steals the show from the entertainment magazines by giving news that could alarm parents. The scientific magazine, in fact, publishes a survey that points the finger at Mattel for the donation of its dolls.
Operation 'Barbie School of Friendship'
Donating toys to schools is certainly a generous gesture, yet the Mattel company has come under criticism for carrying out what has been called a 'stealth marketing' operation by giving away Barbie and Ken dolls to UK schools with the declared aim of teaching children empathy. Investigative journalist Hristio Boytchev reports in an investigation published today in the BMJ that Mattell's 'Barbie School of Friendship' programme, in which children are given free dolls to role-play, has been expanded to 700 schools across the UK "with the potential to reach more than 150,000 pupils".
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Research and brain reactions
Mattel cites research (sponsored by the same company) that would show that playing with dolls offers "major benefits" for child development, including educational skills such as empathy. The research is part of a five-year collaboration between Mattel and Cardiff University. An article published in 2020 found greater brain activity in children when playing with Mattel dolls compared to electronic tablet games.
By monitoring the brain activity of 33 four- to eight-year-old children who played with a variety of Barbie dolls, the superior temporal sulcus, a region of the brain associated with processing social information such as empathy, was found to become activated when the children played alone. The benefits of individual play with dolls have been shown to be the same for both boys and girls. Second Sarah Gerson of Cardiff University, senior author of both studies and research grant recipient from Mattel, these data were a real eye-opener because this area of the brain gets activated when we think about other people especially how they feel. The dolls would, therefore, encourage children to create their own little imaginary worlds unlike problem solving games or building blocks.
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Neuroscience or marketing?
A new analysis by the same experimental group also sponsored by Mattel concluded in 2022 that children who play with dolls used more "emotional language" describing feelings and thoughts. Franziska Korb, a psychologist at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, told the BMJ that the idea of the study was good and the methodology appropriate, but stressed that the studies found significant differences between children who played with Barbie or Ken and those who only used the tablet when playing alone. When children played in the company of an adult, the differences disappeared instead. According to Korb, the research cannot be used to make claims about long-term effects on development or behavior.
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The risk of gender stereotypes
But experts have criticized the program, raising questions about Barbie dolls' potential negative effects on gender stereotypes, questioning the use of research to justify the program, and questioning whether companies are allowed to market their products freely through schools. "The project makes me suspect it could be exploitative," he said Philippa Perrypsychotherapist and author of books on parenting and education, adding: "I feel disgusted." And Mark Petticrewa lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, called Mattel's program "alarming."
The skepticism of the experts
Lisa Georgeson, a teacher at Lord Blyton Primary School in Tyne and Wear, who participated in the programme, said the company offered free resources 'which, given the current underfunding in schools, is always a good thing'. But Sarah Gerson, a recipient of Mattel's research funding, while declaring that she finds the program interesting, has expressed some reservations. She described Mattell's statement to parents—that research shows that playing with dolls like Barbie offers big benefits—as "a bit strong."
How does the company react to these criticisms? A Mattel spokesperson sent the BMJ anonymous testimonials from teachers praising the program for the positive response it has elicited from pupils by pointing out how dolls with different physical characteristics were provided in terms of body size, skin color or disability. Not only that: the spokesman also stated that, given the positive results, the company will consider expanding the program to other markets. For its part, England's Department of Education declined to confirm whether it had evaluated Mattel's programme, and told the BMJ that British schools have the autonomy to introduce any educational materials they deem appropriate.