The secret life of Gen Z
Think you know everything about the up-and-coming consumer generations? We reveal the real behaviour of seven to 15 year old digital natives.
Half of all seven- to 15-year-olds in the UK now have their own tablet computer. This statistic will barely raise an eyebrow among marketers today, but what might might shock them is what Generation Z claims to get up to in the evening – reading books, watching TV and listening to music.
While the common perception of this age group as ‘digitally native’ is accurate, given they have never known life without the internet, they are also frequent consumers of traditional media, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. Assuming they can be reached only via digital marketing channels would therefore be a serious misconception.
The survey of 1,000 UK children aged between seven and 15 years old shows that despite being born into a world of technological possibilities, Gen Z still has a firm grip on the real world. The research delves into their lives and expectations, as well as the proliferation and impact of digital technology, preferred social media channels and attitudes towards TV, gaming, health and education.
Digital natives, traditional tastes
The group, born between 1999 and 2007, is a digitally mature generation with a natural ability to use new technology and a strong preference for tablets and mobile. The tablet ownership figure is a 41% increase on 2013. Gen Z youngsters can evolve rapidly and intuitively with the capabilities of new devices and systems such as wearable technology.
The penetration of technology is also evident in their choices and behaviours: 55% like to own the latest technology and 54% of 15-year-olds agree that they help their parents use technology. Digital skills are also very important in relation to education and career choices (see box above).
However, traditional behaviours are just as prevalent. For example, when asked about what activities they do at bedtime, reading a book is the most popular. Listening to music and watching TV follow, with mobile activities such as texting or gaming less frequent.
Only around a quarter (27%) of children agree that they prefer playing indoors to outdoors. Even among heavy internet users, this rises to just over a third.
“The picture we see is that although technology doesn’t seem alien to this generation, at the same time there are a lot of things parents continue to do with them because that mirrors what they did when they were growing up,” says Future Foundation research manager Parimal Makwana. “There is still the traditional aspect of children’s bedtime, such as being read stories or reading books themselves.”
Vloggers take over BBC Radio 1
YouTube is the preferred social media channel for Generation Z, as they subscribe to their young peers who have achieved celebrity status through creating videos on the platform. The trend is now being picked up by traditional media, with YouTube vloggers presenting a weekly show streamed live online for BBC Radio 1, which the broadcaster believes is the first of its kind.
It features fashion and beauty vlogger Zoella, who has 6.4 million YouTube subscribers; American YouTube personality Tyler Oakley, who has 5.7 million; and film, sketch and cartoon producer Tomska, who has 3.1 million.
“One of the features of Generation Z is that the people they consider famous have a new type of fame to a degree,” says Joe Harland, head of visualisation at Radio 1.
Harland believes the streamed show works because the vloggers share Radio 1’s audience, but warns that simply lifting ideas from YouTube isn’t a sound strategy for other producers of traditional media content. “There is a great opportunity for Radio 1 to be in the conversation with young people by working with vloggers, but it doesn’t mean that everything they do, we should do in conventional media.”
TV on top
TV advertising remains the key marketing channel for targeting young audiences, and although tablets are the favoured device for all other activities, 79% of children still prefer the television set for watching programmes. This, along with the fact that 85% of Gen Zs regularly watch TV with their family, implies that much of their viewing is likely to be linear broadcasts (as opposed to on-demand).
However the Children’s Media Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that looks after the interests of young people and their media choices, believes that quality of programming is an issue in the UK and calls for TV companies to make more content in this country. Director Greg Childs identifies “a hugely imbalanced diet of American content, most of which is great but it skews the consciousness of British kids”.
“A hugely imbalanced diet of American TV shows is skewing the consciousness of British kids”
Greg Childs, Children’s Media Foundation
“Young people are seeing less of themselves on television. If you don’t see the diversity you experience on the way to school or stories set in a school that resembles your school, with people that talk like you talk, it leads to disengagement,” he explains.
Childs believes this has a knock-on effect on other interests. “When you ask young people why they are not politically engaged, why they don’t care about communities or why it’s all about individualism, [it’s because] the cultural agenda has been set by places thousands of miles away,” he says.
Gaming’s popularity also seems to be cooling off among children, as the research shows an overall decline in ownership of games consoles and handheld devices. In 2014, 59% of seven- to 11-year-olds and 55% aged 12 to 15 own these devices respectively, compared to around 75% for the overall group in 2011.
Consoles remain the top platform for playing games, although 47% of tablet owners prefer using this device and just over a quarter of girls favour their smartphone.
Yet this trend is not a cause for concern, claims Fred Prego, marketing director of retailer Game. It has a dedicated area online and in every store called Game Junior and it launched Game Wallet with a young audience in mind, as it allows them to combine gift cards and rewards to purchase items.
“Children become comfortable playing games on tablets before moving on to traditional consoles”
Fred Prego, Game
Prego says: “Games on tablets and mobiles have become increasingly sophisticated and as parents are increasingly giving their children tablets to play with, that is their entry point to gaming. Children become comfortable playing games on tablets before moving on to the more traditional gaming consoles.”
Gen Z’s comfort with technology from a young age is reflected in the success of the educational games sector. Hopster, for example, works with digital agency Dubit, which specialises in kids entertainment, technology and research, to build a curriculum of learning games around a selection of kids’ TV shows. It takes the essence of watching TV but makes it ad-free and provides an interactive learning experience.
Nick Walters, founder and CEO of Hopster, says: “We aim to make kids empowered users of the right digital products, as once the parents set the app up the kid can use it by themselves. This begins to equip children to be able to navigate complex services by themselves.”
Walters adds: “It’s important that kids get familiar with using digital products and start to safely navigate through their devices because it is such an important skill for the future.”
The social media battle
At the start of 2014 there were numerous reports of teenagers fleeing Facebook. GlobalWebIndex’s quarterly survey published in April, for example, found teenagers were turning away from more established social networks such as Facebook in favour of instant messaging and photo apps like Snapchat.
The trend seems to have infiltrated Gen Z as Future Foundation’s study shows that smaller social networks are increasing in appeal, with conversations spanning a range of platforms and formats. Gen Zs are highly visual communicators, the report finds, predicting that this will be how they prefer to learn, be entertained, shop and express their personalities in the future.
A large majority – 70% of seven- to 11-year-olds and 88% of 12 to 15s – have used YouTube in the past month, compared to 14% and 72% respectively who have used Facebook, which only allows users to set up a profile from the age of 13. Three out of five 14- to 15-year-olds access YouTube at least once a day and, according to Ofcom, one-fifth of those aged 12 to 15 who use the internet at home have made a short video and shared it online.
However, Facebook still reigns in frequency of use among teens: 67% of 15-year-olds use Facebook every day, 44% use Twitter, 40% Snapchat and 37% Instagram.
The popularity of YouTube and the celebrity status of its stars has recently garnered the interest of marketers seeking new and influential people with whom to associate their brands. Radio 1 is among those, launching a show in September that features YouTube ‘vloggers’ (see box).
Joe Harland, head of visualisation at Radio 1, says: “One of the great things these vloggers bring to Radio 1 is that they are so engaged with their audience because they treat YouTube as what it is; part social media platform, part video outlet.”
“One of the great things these vloggers bring to Radio 1 is that they’re so engaged with their audience”
Joe Harland, Radio 1
There is also a lesson for traditional media players in creating content. Harland believes that how vloggers converse with their followers is just as important as the content itself – they involve their audience in the conversation.
Harland says: “It’s one of the reasons why some conventional broadcasters who are used to batch creation of programmes can struggle to have influence on that platform, because if you make one programme and put it up online you need to be able to work off the feedback to change your second programme.”
Generation Z priorities
The maxim that kids don’t know what’s good for them rings hollow among Generation Z, many of whom are risk-aware, prioritise a good education and successful career, and disapprove of smoking and unhealthy eating.
Just under half of seven- to 15-year-olds agree that head teachers should prohibit sweets and carbonated drinks on school premises and a similar number say it is ‘cooler’ to eat healthy food than unhealthy food at school. One-third of children aged seven to 11 believe it is important not to eat unhealthy food in order to be a good person, according to the study.
This is not necessarily how they always eat in reality: 65% of Gen Z snack between meals when they get hungry and 59% of Gen Z agree they are often allowed to eat treats that they know aren’t good for them. Marketers are on shaky ground trying to exploit these habits, however, as politicians have threatened to tighten regulations around unhealthy foods if the industry seeks to target children.
Over half of children say ‘a good career’ is one of the three things they would most like in the future, higher than the number who want to ‘own lots of nice things’ (33%) and dwarfing the number who want ‘to be adventurous’ (15%).
Over a third (36%) of children prioritise having ‘a good education’, while just 14% want ‘to be famous’. Two-thirds of Gen Z agree that you need to work hard at school in order to be a good person.
Gen Z could be the first generation to see digital skills as a priority for gaining success in the workplace, and in September 2014 computer-programming skills were added to the standard curriculum for England’s primary schools.
This is translating into market opportunities for technology products such as Raspberry Pi, a low-cost miniature computer that can be used for computer programming projects. Designed with the aim of inspiring children to learn coding, over 3 million have now been sold.
The ‘big school’ shift
Children might differ from their parents in their expectations of media and content, but in one respect they are just like every generation that has gone before: their behaviour changes markedly once they reach secondary school age. They gain more independence, are more self-aware and brand-aware, and are less likely to play common sports regularly, according to Future Foundation.
Their independence means the older half of Generation Z is probably of more interest to marketers. For example, 65% of 12- to 15-year-olds are allowed to buy their own food, compared to 17% of seven to 11s; 87% can use the internet alone compared to 55%; 64% can go shopping compared to 12% and 58% can use public transport compared to 8%.
In their teens, young people’s need for recognition and peer validation significantly rises. Over half of 15-year-olds want other people to ‘recognise the brands I wear’, while 62% of girls and 43% of boys aged 12 to 15 like to follow the latest fashion trends. Products, brands and marketing that appeal to these desires are likely to resonate, therefore.
As anyone under 16 is deemed a child by advertising regulations, caution is necessary, however. Existing restrictions on targeting children through marketing are compiled at the check.uk.com website, indicating that brands are likely to fall foul of the Code of Advertising Practice if, for example, they make a direct appeal to children to buy something or undermine parents’ authority.
Specific regulations limit advertising for certain sectors – such as foods high in fat, salt and sugar – which cannot be marketed directly to children at all through broadcast media. Politicians have threatened to tighten these further if the current voluntary regime is not adhered to. Using celebrities or licensed characters to market any foods to under-12s through non-broadcast advertising is banned, for example, which is pertinent to brands partnering with vloggers.
The regulatory minefield is likely to become even more hazardous to marketers, as pre-teens are gaining independence too. Most seven to 11s (55%) are allowed to use the internet without an adult, up from 43% in 2013, while 54% of this age group feel they mostly or always choose what they spend their money on.
A notable difference is that more seven- to 11-year-olds than older children play sports – swimming, football and running are most popular. This means more opportunities can arise for sports and health brands for younger audiences than the older half of Gen Z.
Reaching out to this generation is not just about launching the latest in technology and inundating these potential consumers with even more product choice, it’s about understanding what they hold sacred, where they are communicating and what they enjoy.
Very interesting article. But please, include the research methodology.
Very interesting article! It is fascinating to see how growing up with access to technology and the Internet has effected kids today. One thing in particular that I found interesting was that despite being such a digitally mature generation, that Generation Z still frequently consumes a significant portion of traditional media. Additionally, I feel that because this generation places such a high premium on technology and their ability to feel empowered evolving and rapidly adapting to new technology, that they are more receptive to advertising through traditional media because it is less disruptive. Another unique characteristic of this generation that will be a challenge to marketers is that Generation Z is not naïve, and because of their increased independence, marketers will need to adapt their marketing strategies in order to address this highly intelligent and receptive audience that is prone to stereotypical advertising techniques. This is a generation that is focused on authentic engagement and interaction. Thus, I think it will be increasingly important for marketers to think creatively about different ways to maximize customer interaction. This breaks down the barrier between company and consumer, and shows the consumer that their intelligence is respected, and their individual needs and wants are valued. Overall, I believe that this new generation of consumers will create a trend toward more interactive advertising techniques in addition to understanding the needs and wants of the consumer on a deeper level. This greater customer understanding will come from creating a two-way conversation and interacting with customers in order to find out their preferences.
Hi! We at The Future Foundation ran the research. The methodology: Future Foundation’s research was conducted online to a sample of 1,000 GB respondents aged 7-15.
The questionnaire was in field in July 2014.