Are American Girl dolls a better choice for my niece than Barbies or Bratz?

Michael RichMedia expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed why different kids respond to media violence differently.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I wondered if the Center has any research on the American Girls phenomenon. Unlike Barbies and Bratz, these dolls are not sexualized, and they also have connections to history and culture through each doll’s storybook.  I am guessing that they are probably a better alternative for playtime fantasies (at least for families who can afford them — the dolls cost $95 each). But they are also linked to all kinds of merchandising, encouraging families to buy accessories like furniture, clothes, and even pets to go along with them (also pricey). What do you think about the pros and cons? My niece is 8 years old and I am thinking ahead to the holiday season.
Talking about Toys in Somerville, MA

A: Dear Talking about Toys,

As you mention, these particular dolls and their accompanying books do have the advantage of focusing on history and on who the characters are, not on how sexy they look. The stories do not focus on romance, and the dolls and their story-book counterparts are proportioned fairly normally in comparison to many other dolls out there.

Though there is no research specifically about these dolls, research does show that the best toys for encouraging imagination are ones that allow the child to make up characters, stories, and situations.  However, American Girls dolls come with specific names, characters, and back stories, which reduces the demand for the child to create all of those things. Additionally, the child is likely to start to want additional dolls with predetermined names, characters, and back stories to populate her world of play. Some of the stories, like that of a relatively new doll whose character is homeless, have caused controversy for other reasons. In addition, as you point out, they are inherently classist because of a price that few can afford, and the clothes and accessories that are sold separately encourage consumerism. Worse, because of their high price, these dolls are often treated as too precious to actually play with.

I had a childhood friend who had a reputation for cutting the hands and feet off her Barbies and then trying to glue them back on. Her parents let her do it (probably because they were inexpensive), which horrified both kids and parents at the time, but years later I heard that she went on to become a very accomplished plastic surgeon. You never know…

In short, the less that a doll, or any toy, does on its own—the fewer pre-written stories they come with, and the fewer bells and whistles that determine how a child plays with it—the better the toy is for challenging, stretching, and energizing the growing brain. For that reason, if your niece enjoys dolls, I encourage you to find one that isn’t branded at all. Its lack of branding and back story will allow her imagination to go wherever it takes her.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician