You may well know of at least one 10-year-old who writes fan fiction, mixing elements from more than one book or their favourite shows, and always from different genres. And we all know of millennials and members of Generation Z who are constantly checking their phones or downloading music, consumed by the notion of self-branding and hugely conscious of how to project their best or most creative self. Technology has made life messy, exciting and always in reach.
Young people show little anxiety resulting from overload; they worry more about the addictive nature of the need to stay on top of it all while managing other aspects of life. So says the latest "Truth About Youth" study* by McCann Truth Central, McCann Worldgroup’s global intelligence unit.
Who am I? A kaleidoscope kid
According to the study, the youth of today are no longer "digital natives" but "accessibility natives", wanting to reach people, places, ideas and brands anywhere, at any time. This is more noticeable in the UK than most other markets, with 64% of 16- to 30-year-olds saying that any loss of or disruption to their mobile service would have an adverse effect on their personal connections ("we will suffer a loss"), compared with a global average of 56%. But, as is often the case with research, it is a confused picture; a significant minority in their late teens and early 20s yearn for a world without technology.
For the "accessibility natives" there is also a strong sense of wanting to be an individual rather than part of a tribe. Laura Simpson, global director of McCann Truth Central, calls them "kaleidoscope kids" who are used to trying on many different things. The study explains that the "death of the tribe" is a process that’s been hastened by the internet, as the complex web of online connections has led to a proliferation of smaller, interest-led communities. Perhaps, in this context, it is no longer particularly relevant to talk about "youth culture" in any generalised way.
MediaCom’s global head of media partnerships, Hannah Mirza, adds: "The future of media is often presented as being the behaviours of the young, usually compared favourably to older generations. The argument is that what 16-year-olds do today, they will continue to do in their 20s, 30s and beyond. That may not entirely be true, and it’s worth looking at the choices they have made in driving platforms focusing on instant gratification up the charts. Snapchat, for example, is not about nostalgia, being overwhelmed by content [or] a public legacy that might come back to bite you in the future."
What is emerging is a picture of experimentation with social networks and sharing things digitally. For instance, youth in the UK are most prepared to have "payment technology embedded in their bodies", while their counterparts in India are most concerned with ways in which technology can connect them with their peers to build a community.
Alice Liveing (‘Clean Eating Alice’)
Author, blogger and fitness instructor, 23
Liveing has written two books; both reached The Sunday Times bestseller list. She has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram.
"I don’t watch TV (I can’t remember the last time I did) and I consume media on the go — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to a certain extent. I also read Daily Mail celebrity gossip on my phone. As an influential blogger I also have to invest time in expanding my knowledge and skills, so I do read books. I have written my own books and have already had two bestsellers on The Sunday Times list.
"There is a strange image that our generation has – that we [all shun wanting] to know more, read more or educate ourselves. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
"I find pop-up ads most annoying, especially on news websites. They offend me.
"I collaborate with brands, though nine times out of ten I turn down requests from brands. I only collaborate with brands I use already, or if I know they belong to a wholesome company and have an ethos I believe in. My followers — 18- to 35-year-olds, 82% women and 18% men — expect that level of honesty and authenticity from me."
What do I want? Honesty and authenticity
When it comes to finding people and expressing themselves through social media, older millennials see things differently from younger millennials and Generation Z. The former view social media as a space to express "the real me", while younger people understand it as a force that helps to form "the real me" – a kind of dress rehearsal for life. Where older millennials were more concerned with curating and editing their presence online, members of Generation Z are buying into a raw, unedited stream of consciousness to their audiences.
The youngest respondents (15-16) said they increasingly share their lives through social, and are paranoid about looking too "fake". They’re acutely aware of the tools and tricks that people can use online to make their lives look better and want to show up in a way that seems "real" to their friends. The research noted that the high value placed on honesty has driven a shift from posting perfectly composed, constructed shots to more "raw, unfiltered and utterly creative" content.
When asked which value they would most like to be associated with them, the most frequently used words were "optimism" and "positivity", alongside expressions associ-ated with openness and humanity. In terms of global causes, while older generations have tended to focus on crises, younger people focus more on movements for social equality such as feminism – inspired by "movements" they encounter on social media rather than "news" from traditional sources.
It will come as no surprise to learn that social media has overtaken television as young people’s main source of news. Last year Reuters conducted a study that revealed 51% of people with online access use social media as a news source. Of the 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed, 28% cited social media as their main news source, compared with 24% for TV. The implications are clear; there is a genuine worry that awareness of the world among the youth could be limited, and often incidental, creating a filter bubble in the "post-truth" world.
"But young people have never consumed news, in any generation," argues Giselle Okin, brand strategist and founder of Opinionated Thinking. The "fake news" issue now is more about knowledgeable people or those in power ignoring facts, she says. "Baby boomers went through changes in format when it came to media, from Super 8 film to, now, the internet. The change in the consumption of media taking place today is because of the change in the infra-structure. Take magazines. They had a simple role of telling me what is cool, what trends were right for me and [for me to] pass on to my social circle, and that has been taken over by digital. But if you look at TV or YouTube, both are consumed for the same reason – mindless escape. My worry is the ‘dark areas’. A print ad has never been able to have a conversation with me or ask for my phone number. With digital, the possibilities are endless."
YouTube star, 19
Kellam started creating video blogs, called EmansBlogs, in his kitchen. He is known for his popular "British Slang With" series, where he asks US actors to figure out the meaning of slang words used in the UK. Celebrity guests to have featured include actors Dave Franco and Tye Sheridan.
"I don’t really see much TV and if I watch TV, I watch it with my audience — like if something is on Skins that we are all talking about simultaneously.
"Advertising really used to annoy me and I would see the ads as an irritant, but I can’t complain now because I create content online and that is how a lot of us make our income. But I have never bought brands because of any ‘traditional’ advertising.
"What works for me and my friends and my followers is something like the Adidas campaign talking about Pogba’s move to Manchester United that launched through Twitter and Instagram.
"I consume news through Twitter – I see a tweet first about something that’s happened. FB is just slow. Twitter will be laughing about something and FB will discover it two weeks later."
The battle for the future
Moving forward, the core tension will be between the media that consumers control and the media that controls them. Algorithms such as the one that powers Facebook’s news feed, designed to give us more of what it thinks we want, or Google’s, which helps refine users’ results, mean people are fed predetermined, curated experiences and culture. When it comes to curation, sharing or "liking" a video on Facebook, reviewing products on Amazon or holidays on Airbnb have become accepted ways to influence consumer choices.
"The battle for the future will be between the media that immortalises everything we do and those that allow us to live in the moment,"Mirza predicts. "It’s about the type of feed we want. Do we want our media driven by nostalgia, not just in terms of reminders of what we did a year ago, but also algorithms that filter what we see based on our past rather than our present? It’s [the latter] that push us into bubbles and allow us to be shocked that there are people we disagree with."
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founding father of the web as a democratic space, recently warned of its failure to fulfil its true potential as tool for humanity. With the "accessibility natives" making unprecedented demands when it comes to content, anonymity and interactivity, the future is likely to be both compelling and explosive.
Bartlett is the founder of social influence agency Social Chain.
"Brands that will win on Snapchat are the ones that create a clear, consistent and compelling story. Don’t tell multiple stories, tell one that people can communicate to each other. But I’d say to brands: don’t use Snapchat. Its closed network will work against them – it’s easier to grow an audience on Facebook and Instagram. Snapchat is not dead, but the game has changed.
"Young people are busy building their personal brand. We’ve seen the rise of the influencer and inspiration being more of a motivator and stimulus, so they want to be the person inspiring all their friends. The pressure cooker of social media has made them dreamers and more ambitious. This is significant for marketers when speaking to that generation because, if they are seen to be an enabler on that journey, then a brand can win."
*The study surveyed more than 33,000 people of all ages in 18 countries, including the UK. It included 11,000 Generation Z and Millennial interviews with people between the ages of 16 and 30.