The future belongs to the kids

Children are much more comfortable with evolving technology than older generations. How they use it can teach us several lessons, says Marie Oldham.

Today’s school children have been labelled "the connected generation". They have grown up in an online, digital environment: a world in which they will always be more comfortable than their parents. According to educational guru Mark Prensky, "children are the natives in the digital landscape and we, the adults, are immigrants." A sentiment that is no doubt shared by any parent reliant on their child to download an album from iTunes or pause a live programme on Sky Plus.

Observations of children’s media behaviour reveal two common traits – active consumption and multi-tasking – both of which will have significant implications for the media industry. Years of immersion in computer games and the latest websites has given our children a thirst for interactivity.

Today’s children are consummate multi-taskers. They watch television, play a handheld computer game and read a comic, all at the same time. According to the Keiser Family Foundation – a US-based health information and research charity – over a quarter of eight to 18-year-olds consume two or more forms of media simultaneously at any given time. Multi-tasking is, in part, a product of the sheer abundance of child-oriented media. Until 15 years ago, most children had access to only four terrestrial channels that showed children’s programmes at specific times. Today, according to Ofcom, 63% of family homes have digital TV, giving children a choice of over 20 dedicated channels, many of which broadcast throughout the day. And, in these homes, 66% of children’s viewing is of non-terrestrial channels, compared to 47% of adult viewing.

The growth in the number of TV channels has been mirrored by dramatic expansion in access to online content, powered by broadband. In 2005, 49% of sevento 16-year-olds had access to broadband at home, compared to 24% in 2003. It is hardly surprising that children’s bedrooms have been turned into multi-media pods, full of the latest entertainment technology. More than three-quarters of 11to 14-year-olds have televisions in their bedrooms, most of which are linked to a gaming console.

Children are also at the head of the curve when it comes to embracing mobility. One in four sevento ten-year-olds own a mobile phone and much mobile behaviour, from text messaging to the unpleasant trend of "happy slapping", originated with the school-age audience. Media owners, such as Nickelodeon, already supply content to 3G mobiles to satisfy the mobile entertainment desire among viewers.

Does our media behaviour as children follow us into adulthood? If the answer is yes, the best way to predict the future media environment may be to ignore media forecasters and instead observe how children consume media. However, some commentators argue that media behaviour adapts with life stage.

If we accept the idea that many of these childhood behaviours will be retained into adulthood, the implications are profound. Despite the inexorable rise of digital channels, there will still be a place for traditional media: watching TV remains children’s favourite pastime, and book reading is on the increase, thanks, in part, to the JK Rowling effect. The delivery mechanism might change though – it’s now possible to download the latest Harry Potter from iTunes.

In order to retain young audiences’ attention, media owners have had to provide ever more immersive and involving experiences. TV programmes are louder, faster-paced and interactive: even some pre-school channels now offer red-button interactivity. Meanwhile DVD producers and computer games manufacturers are caught in an "arms race" of technology, competing to deliver the most exciting and exhilarating experiences. This pressure on media owners is unlikely to abate as children enter adulthood: their commercial survival will depend on the ability to deliver high levels of interactivity and involvement, both in the home and on the move.

All of which begs the question; is the time and energy spent by Ofcom and ISBA debating what "time of day" you can communicate with children missing the point? Surely, smart brands know that communicating with this audience is less about coverage and frequency, and more about building direct relationships, interactivity and added value through games, content and experiential contacts.

Marie Oldham is head of strategy at the Media Planning Group

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