Have children lost out on the joy of owning real objects – or is virtual a virtue?

The digital revolution means instant access to music, games and videos

While the trend today is to slap on a pair of 3D glasses and peer into the future, some people prefer to put on specs of the rose-tinted variety and look back with a fond smile. Every generation, as it ages, has a yearning to turn back the clock and return to simpler times. You may find it hard to let go. Or you may like to reminisce in a shared moment over a glass of wine. Perhaps you actively attempt to keep things exactly as they used to be in the belief that life was infinitely better back in the day. Nostalgia, it has to be said, comes in a variety of flavours.

But no matter how you view the past, if a shared element of a generation's childhood comes to an end, then it's bound to get the conversation started. Let's say The Beano – that constant in children's lives for 72 years – announced it was closing its fan club to new members. How would you feel? Angry? Sad? A sense of loss, maybe?

Well, many who have heard that publisher DC Thomson has, indeed, shut what was once known as the Dennis the Menace Fan Club have been whipping out their hankies and telling tales of how they saved for their postal orders and the joy they felt when receiving their gift in the mail up to 28 days later.

Set up in 1976, the club paid homage to The Beano's spiky-haired comic hero. For a one-off payment of 75p, members received a cute package stuffed into a black plastic wallet that consisted of a newsletter, membership card, a secret password, and two badges, most notably the hairy Gnasher one with the googly eyes.

Over time, it came to be known as the Beano Club and the price rocketed to £12.99 a year. But now, it has been replaced with a website, which means, in the future, there will be no more small packages being pushed through the letter box, and for many, it's an indication of just how far the virtual space is replacing physical objects.

Today, the majority of children experience their first purchase of a song as an online download rather than as a seven-inch vinyl or a boxed cassette from a grubby, dusty record shop or high street purveyor of pick'n'mix. Many play Lego Batman on their PlayStation 3 instead of trying to retrieve that much-needed brick from under the sofa. So likewise the badges and newsletters of the Beano Club will also be a memory.

Some adults fear that all this change means the children of the future will grow up missing out on a fundamental part of what it is to be young; that their childhood will somehow be tainted and be very different to the one they experienced and so love.

Others worry that more time spent in front of a screen can be damaging ("Being on the internet is a solitary way to enjoy yourself and children need interaction with other children in real life if they are going to learn the social skills they need in adult life," says Liz Carnell, director of Bullying UK).

And yet much of that is combined with the frightening realisation that times are changing, and what was once held dear is now seen as old news. Age, it seems, can be very cruel.

"I think since the pyramids were built, people have been saying children don't have a childhood any more," laughs Noreen Marshall, the senior curator of the V&A Museum of Childhood in London. "I remember in the 1950s that my grandparents' generation would say to us, 'You don't have a childhood any more, not like what we did'. And I remember thinking to myself that I am a child but it's just different. Childhood changes and evolves."

One of the hallmarks of post-war childhood has been a growing need among youngsters to collect items and keep them into adulthood, and there is a greater acceptance of keeping objects of personal value from the past. At the same time, childhood has become less haphazard and more focused on concepts and commercialisation, and it is this, by and large, which drives our memories.

It's an example of people clinging to their fast-fading youth and there is an argument that as more activities move online, there will be less to keep in the future and perhaps much less to become nostalgic about. Seeing wee Jimmy Krankie with the fandabidozi red hair and cap and boots and Dennis the Menace badge that you've suddenly acquired could never be possible if said accessory didn't exist. What's going to happen in the future – some strange television presenter logging on to a website and you sitting there watching some form of television thinking, 'I've typed my user name and password into that'? Will that form part of a child's future memory?

"I don't think anyone's really thinking about this," Marshall says. "I often go to see baby record books that somebody has collected and I wonder to what extent people still create them and whether they are doing it online. People are often producing things like scrapbooks as a computer-based activity, and in many ways it's because it's more convenient to do so. But I don't think people will keep those things – they will have to make a conscious decision to back their online activity up and keep it safe if need be."

It is a subject the people who look after The Beano appear to have considered. Michael Stirling, deputy head of children's entertainment (boys) at DC Thomson, insists the publisher has carried out a lot of research and engaged many focus groups ahead of its decision to close its club. He believes the benefits of a greater online presence will outweigh any hang-ups people have with regard to losing physical objects, be they furry badges or a birthday card.

"What we're trying to do with the Beano Club is open it up," he says. "We felt the annual fee to join the club was actually a barrier to people becoming involved. People could join and get some great products but there was no real clubby feel or communication between us and the members. What we're doing is creating something called Beano VIP and it will be a way for us to speak to the kids on a day-to-day basis and they will feel more involved."

Stirling says it is of vital importance to continue having something tangible for children – "there's definitely greater value in a physical product – that's where the weekly Beano comic comes in," he affirms – and he talks of research suggesting children and parents are returning to traditional play patterns. "Toy soldiers and water pistols sell very well," he says. "It's a physical aspect and children want that – in fact, they're the sort of things we give away with the comic, and we also find that whenever we include a free gift, sales go up."

The idea for The Beano is that the website and comic will work together. Items posted online by children will be used in print – "children like that sort of thing and it's similar to Tony Hart and his Gallery years ago," Stirling adds – and he also says the new website, Beano.com, will ensure the comic's history is kept alive too. There will be an extensive retro archive to allow children to see how characters appeared in the past and give adults a chance to wallow in nostalgia.

"It's of concern that as you move into a more virtual culture, you don't realise what you're losing, but the web does have its strengths," Marshall says. "Things are recoverable and there's so much stuff kept online. If your grandfather sang you a song when you were a child, then very often you could find the words or the original artist singing the song online."

It's clear that childhood changes and evolves. What modern parents often want in their child is a seemingly impossible conciliation of two opposites. They want the very latest for their child and what they had themselves. But a four-year-old child, unless they have contact with an older form of culture, will not realise what they're missing.

"Children will have different types of memories," Marshall says. "Websites normally change and grow and [will] be redesigned so it may be in 20 years, people look back and say, 'Remember that really cool website that was called XYZ'."

Children also have a very good track record of changing adults' minds (Marshall points to a successful mass campaign by her museum's kids' club to reintroduce a sandpit). Stirling says he is acutely aware of this and understands that if things go too far one way, the kids will be the first to let them know.

"Our readers are communicating via social media and we want to open that up and to incorporate that into our weekly product," he says. "We'll get instant feedback and we'll be able to react much more quickly. We want to move with the times and still respect our heritable."

A move from the physical to the virtual, however, could have positive benefits. Maybe people will not feel the need to carry so much from childhood to adulthood in the future. There is an argument that people can become too locked in to having the physical reality and it can cause anxiety and too great an attachment to items.

"I get people who come to me and say, 'I'm worrying about what will happen after I'm dead to my little chair my grandad made me,' and I say I don't think it's something you will worry about when you're dead," Marshall says. "But it's something that worries them here and now, and in some cases, it makes prisoners of people. There's more emotional attachment to an object and you keep it and keep it and keep it and you can't let go. So if a lot of virtual stuff means people won't have that hang-up on things, it may not be a bad thing."

The way we played

Then

All the rage: Mr Frosty

Listen up: Sony Walkman

Family fun: Monopoly

Handheld gaming: Mastermind

Best book: sticker book

Keep in touch: with your penpal

Now

All the rage: Club Penguin

Listen up: iPod Touch

Family fun: Monopoly on the Wii

Handheld gaming: Nintendo DSi

Best book: Facebook

Keep in touch: over IM

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