Why you should care
A new generation of child-friendly speakers is allowing parents to keep their kids entertained — away from the TV.
Louise Derrosiers first discovered the Yoto box while shopping at a market in Walthamstow in northeast London last year. The colorful speaker, designed by two pioneers of the music streaming business, caught her eye and looked like an ideal alternative to handing over her smartphone every few minutes to entertain her three children, ages 7, 5 and 1.
“The older children will do anything for a screen. They plead, ‘Just five minutes,’ and when you’re busy you give in. But then they have some sort of nervous breakdown when you try to turn it off,” Derrosiers says. “If you give them the phone to listen to stories on Spotify, they are straight on to YouTube. I’m not massively anti–screen time, but you do feel a small part of their brain has dried up when they watch TV like that.”
The British Yoto box, which retails for 129 pounds, is one of a new generation of child-friendly audio speakers, including the German Toniebox and France’s Lunii player, to have emerged in Europe aimed at cutting down screen time. The low-tech products have proved successful with frustrated parents concerned about using smart speakers with embedded microphones in their children’s bedrooms or handing over their phones or tablets for them to listen to stories or watch videos.
There is latent demand from parents crying out for audio content without a screen.
Ben Drury, Yoto
Screen time for children has become an increasing concern for many parents. Ofcom, the media regulator, said in January that 96 percent of children ages 3 to 4 watch traditional TV for an average of 14 hours a week, with 30 percent also watching video on a tablet or smartphone. Forty-five percent use YouTube, and this figure rises to 70 percent for children ages 5 to 7.
Boxine, a German company founded five years ago, has sold 900,000 Toniebox speakers. The box plays stories and songs when a child places a figurine on top of the small speaker to activate a corresponding recording in the cloud. Sales of the “Tonies” figurines, which include the popular Julia Donaldson characters Gruffalo, Stick Man and Zog, and Raymond Briggs’ Snowman, have reached 9 million. Marcus Stahl co-founded the business after finding that his kids scratched up audiobook CDs and struggled to use the players.
“Kids have an emotional connection to the story and its characters, so we came up with a figurine system where children control the device using the figurine as a key, whether it is a Gruffalo, Snowman or the Little Prince,” says Stahl. “Listening is very important for a child’s education, but so is playing. These are fundamental things in our system.”
Boxine had sales of $19 million in 2017, according to Stahl, rising to $67 million last year. He expects $110 million of revenue this year as a push into the U.K. and Ireland starts to pay off.
Yoto was founded in 2015 by two veterans of the 7digital music streaming platform, which was sold to HMV in 2009. Ben Drury and his business partner Filip Denker both had children around the same time. Drury remembers seeing prams with iPad docks and becoming concerned about technology’s influence on young children. “These kids are guinea pigs,” he says.
He and Denker raised the funds for the Yoto player on Kickstarter and via the Emerge Education technology fund. The players are based on the Raspberry Pi computing system and made in Sheffield by Pimoroni. The Yoto works when children insert cards into the speaker that correspond to stories, music, lullabies, radio stations, sound effects or the family’s own recordings. Pixelated graphics related to the audio appear on the speaker.
“There is latent demand from parents crying out for audio content without a screen,” says Drury, who adds that the initial batch of players has sold out. Children with access to the device are spending, on average, eight hours a week using it, he says, with radio proving much more popular than expected.
Derrosiers says that her children have started reading Enid Blyton books after becoming obsessed with the audiobook version of The Magic Faraway Tree, read by actress Kate Winslet. Derrosiers has even started using the Yoto speaker herself after programming a card so that it plays her favorite radio stations.
The emergence of the new format also appeals to publishers looking to reignite revenue from children’s audiobooks. Luke Kelly, CEO of the Roald Dahl Company, has joined the board of Yoto after a licensing deal to put Dahl books, including The BFG, on to the platform was struck last year.
“Audio is an expanding market. [The] adult [market] is leading the way with huge growth and investment in podcasting and streaming, but there is a gap in the market around kids’ audio innovation. The family and kids’ space has huge potential. The appeal of imagination-rich audio time over pure screen time is especially clear with kids,” says Kelly, who is Roald Dahl’s grandson and an author of children’s books.
The speakers look little more than toys at first glance, but both Boxine and Yoto have eyes on expanding further into the audio market. Stahl says it is “not black and white” in describing his business as a technology, media or toy company. He says he will eventually look for partners to expand the Tonie concept into new markets, including products for geriatric users.
Drury says that his vision for Yoto is to create a platform for children’s content in the way that Spotify has achieved for music, which would allow parents to use the app to stream to a car or to a conventional smart speaker.
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