The New Demographics: Kids

When advertisers venture forth into the digital realm, they enter the territory of the tweenager. Technologically advanced and easily bored, they are difficult to please, Alex Benady says.

Spare a thought for poor tweenagers. All 3.818 million of them. There they slouch in living rooms and bedrooms up and down the land, surrounded by gadgets and accessories worth far more than the average per capita income of most of the planet.

The computing power at their disposal is greater than that of the US Air Force in the 60s, their communications systems give them access to anyone on earth and they are materially better off than any generation in the history of Homo sapiens.

Yet this extreme affluence and hyper-connectedness comes at a price. The reason they are cocooned in their living rooms and bedrooms in the first place is partly because adults view the world outside as too dangerous a place for them to engage with.

They most likely play alone because they are only children. And even if they live with two parents, both are at work. They are pressured at school and live in a world of fluid hierarchies where the lines of authority are unclear and traditional boundaries are blurred.

Forced inside, they use their technology to recreate the society we have denied them. In so doing, they are subjected to a relentless deluge of electronic information, fleeting contacts, ill-defined morality and information of dubious provenance.

To older eyes, they are growing up like weird, freakish hothouse flowers, some aspects of their personalities withered and stunted, while others are ludicrously overdeveloped.

To them, it is absolutely normal. The US futurist Marc Prensky said that "children are natives in the digital landscape and we, the adults, are immigrants". So bugger the existential malaise, these "digital natives" love their techie kit, and the more they have, the more they like it.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey, aka the children's marketing consultant Captain Crikey, says that the distinguishing characteristic of this generation, separating them from tweenagers five years ago, is their ability to use technology to create and sustain personal networks, the "key driver in 'growing up digital', where online social networking really is part and parcel of their lives".

The strange thing is, although pre-teens aged eight to 12 have an estimated £770 million of their own money to spend and influence further billions of pounds of family spending every year, this is a very poorly charted and segmented market. "First, it is a hard group to access and, second, the rate of developmental and behavioural change is so fluid that it is a difficult group to pin down. As elusive as this group is for brands to segment through quantifiable research, qualitative and ethnographic methodologies can be useful for identifying new attitudes, behaviours and trends," Russell Place, the chief strategy officer at Universal McCann, says.

The good news is that the children's market is one of the most dynamic with which to be involved. At this age, kids are at their most creative, sociable and interactive. Place says there are three key things to bear in mind when attempting to communicate with them: "First, they want to get most from their fun-time. Second, we need to continually refresh communications as they get bored or distracted very easily, and are quick to move on to the next good thing. Finally, what excites them most are unique experiences they can share with their friends. In summary, to have a dialogue with pre-teen kids, brands need to excite and entertain, not just push messages."

One of the reasons it is so hard to get a handle on this age group is that its composition and tastes change so fast. According to Youth TGI, three years ago, 77 per cent of seven- to ten-year-olds claimed to ever use the internet. By 2006, this climbed to 85 per cent and is now at 93 per cent. According to Childwise Monitor 2006/2007, 64 per cent of children under 16 now have broadband access at home.

It is surprising, however, just how infrequently the younger segment of the tweenager group goes online. In 2004, 5 per cent of the seven- to ten-year-old group claimed they accessed the internet every day, but this rose to 10 per cent in 2006 and today stands at 14 per cent. These kids are also diversifying how they go online. The proportion using the internet through something other than a computer has risen from 3 per cent in 2004 to 5 per cent today.

Of course, the internet isn't the only technology in pre-teens' lives. Fifty-seven per cent own an MP3 player. More than two-thirds have their own mobile phone and 71 per cent use their phone to play games.

Back in 2004, 48 per cent of seven- to ten-year-olds spent an hour or more a day playing computer games and this has now risen to 52 per cent. Andy Goodkind, the vice-president of planning and presentation at the children's channel Nickelodeon, says: "For this age group, media has become a surrogate parent."

With so much more on offer, the big losers when it comes to pre-teen attention are print and TV. Evidence that TV viewing is suffering as a direct result of the internet comes with the statement "I'd rather surf the net than watch TV", which 8 per cent of the seven- to ten-year-old group agreed with in 2004. This figure has now risen to 15 per cent.

They may be digital natives, but they don't rate all digital devices equally, Goodkind says. "TV and the internet are tops. Games consoles and mobiles have similar levels of usage, but mobiles are considered the least important of their many devices. MP3 players are at the bottom. Despite 57 per cent of kids owning one, they are clearly not deemed essential.'

It is important, however, not to fall into the trap of supposing that media and devices are mutually exclusive for this group, Goodkind says: "Barb data confirms that TV viewing does not significantly decline as kids get older; you can see that internet catches up with TV in terms of importance by the time kids are 13 or 14. "This suggests that the internet is seen as an aspirational device and the place to explore as you get older. It is also an indicator of tweenagers' ability to multi-task.

For all their apparent sophistication, it is important to remember that tweenagers are still children, not adults. It profoundly affects the technology they use and the way they use it, Goodkind says: "Children this age are particularly fond of instant messaging and social networking because it allows them to translate friendship networks into the digital space."

But, he says, if you look at trends for children aged 14 and over, usage and importance of both instant messaging and social networking declines: "Older kids no longer have to rely as much on social networking and instant messaging to fulfil these needs, being more able to actually meet up with friends for real."

Because they are still children, our born digitals are also not terribly adventurous when they access the internet. "They tend to have a limited repertoire of sites they visit that is analogous to the limited number of places they will visit on their own in the real world," Goodkind says.

And just as in the real world, they will not go up a dark alley with a complete stranger, so on the internet and interactive TV, they tend not to click on unknown ads that will take them to unknown places. They are native in the digital world you see, and they understand many of its dangers.


The thing you must understand about Lysander is that he may be a pretty 11-year-old with blond hair and he may be about to leave his sweet state primary school with roses climbing round the school gate, but he is actually a gangsta.

He is therefore a very dangerous person and lives beyond the bounds of societal norms. So, whenever his little sister Boudicca tries to switch the TV from the wrestling, where he is watching John Cenar on Smackdown, to, say, CBeebies, he'll kiss his teeth and say in his finest Kingston patois "Don' touch, or I'll stab you up, bruv." To which she says tartly, "I'm your sister, actually," to which he ripostes darkly "shu' up bitch cos my man dem shank you." To which his nanny, Anna, says: "Go to your room and stay there."

But Lysander doesn't care because, like Ali Gs everywhere, he has options. He may not have a TV there (yet), but he does have his laptop, mobile, PS3, XBox, iPod, DS Lite and a new, but completely redundant, CD player. He is, of course, adept at using them all at once. Sometimes, he'll even do it while reading (well, looking at the pictures) in Match mag.

But if there is one device he favours above the others, the one that rules them all, "The Lord of the Things", it is the laptop. "It's bangin' man, it's got bare," Lysander says. Whatever that means.

The Simpsons (11 per cent)
Tracey Beaker (7 per cent)
EastEnders (6 per cent)

The Simpsons (7 per cent)
Match (6 per cent)
Girl Talk (6 per cent)

Girls Aloud (5 per cent)
Rihanna (4 per cent)
McFly (4 per cent)

Bebo (10 per cent)
CBBC (6 per cent)
MSN (4 per cent)
Source: Childwise


Children under 16 currently spend the best part of £13 million a week on sweets and snacks in the UK. While the confectionery and snack-food giants have huge budgets at their disposal, the British Heart Foundation has limited funds with which to counteract these messages.

Following in-depth research, the BHF realised last year that 11- to 12-year-olds are particularly susceptible to healthier eating messages. But with only £1 million at its disposal, it decided to bypass the clutter of TV and mount its first digital-only campaign.

The agency created an internet TV show, an evil version of Blue Peter called Deathalicious and promoted it with a campaign fronted by a yellow-headed villain called "Thick Rick".

But even though pre-teens are sophisticated multi-taskers, up to the age of 11 or 12, they are timorous and relatively unadventurous in their use of technology. This insight shaped the nature of the campaign, Rob Lawrence, the creative director at Avenue A-Razorfish, argues. "We found that 11- and 12-year-olds undergo a major shift in attitudes to technology from the safe playground ethos of primary school to the huge playing fields of secondary school, where they learn their attitudes and behaviour from older children," he says.

"At this stage, they tend not to click on what they don't understand. So they occupy small, safe sites, they ignore banners, fearing they'll download something or take them somewhere they don't want to be, and they tend not to get involved with virals."

So rather than asking the children to visit the BHF website, they brought content to them in a rich banner ad campaign which assumed they would go no further: an image of a hot dog which eventually turned into a stick of dynamite and exploded. "They didn't appear to be ads at all and that's why they worked," Lawrence says.