3 Essentials For An Online Diet

My teenage son’s summer reading assignment is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. He will put off reading it until the last minute; I happily re-read it as soon as it appeared in the house.

The novel is set in a future when books are burned for their ability to make people think. People are entertained in parlors whose walls are dimensional images playing nonsense, and personal interaction has all but disappeared.

It’s a commentary on politics, government, media consumption and censorship.

One of the most significant characters in the novel is a teenager named Clarisse. She doesn’t get many pages, but she’s a catalyst for the book’s action and stands in such sharp contrast to everyone else in the Fahrenheit world. Clarisse is awake, attuned, inquisitive, engaged. Nearly everyone else is addle-brained, numbed by media devised to ensure they don’t think, only “enjoy.”

Too often today, adults worry that the devices in their kids’ palms could turn them not into Clarisse but into everyone else in her world. Zoned out, disconnected, distant from real emotion. 

Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft (@zephoria), has an interesting perspective on teens’ behavior in the digital world. She thinks adults may worry too much and sees teens’ online behavior as nothing more than relocated behavior that teens exhibit naturally. In a time when the freedom to roam streets and neighborhoods unsupervised has been largely restricted by parents, teens do the normal stuff of hanging out – flirting, talking, joking, sharing – online. 

Whatever your perspective, I hope you would agree that brands have some responsibility to positively impact the time teens spend with them online.

Brands can choose to put out content that is nothing more than mind-numbing entertainment, or they can serve up some nourishment with that dessert. No doubt, entertainment is key to engaging teens, but that doesn’t mean teens want only dessert all the time. And, as a parent, I know I would prefer they have a more balanced diet. 

Here are some ways brands can ensure they are serving up the right mix:

  • Stimulate creativity. Invite creative participation in your brand by having teens assemble outfits, predict trends, weigh in with reactions to a new product or idea. An example is Coca-Cola’s “Ahh Effect” digital campaign. Spread across 61 separate URLs and designed for teens to consume on smartphones, the campaign encourages submissions that express happiness. A form invites teens to contribute website ideas in exchange for credit (and some merchandise) if the idea is executed as one of 25 user-generated sites. To encourage submissions, the brand networks with young people at design-centered colleges.
  • Help them make connections. World views are shaped by the people and ideas to which we have access. In the past, this input was constrained by geography and a limited swath of TV and radio programming. Today, brands can help teens cross boundaries, connecting them to people and ideas from different countries and cultures and with differing ideologies. This is empowering, as this teen comment posted to a discussion about teen internet use indicates, “Today the world is so intertwined we can go beyond those ideas (that we would normally be exposed to).” Brands can also facilitate connections with other teens and help build communities. Check out Secret’s MeanStinks campaign for great examples of how to make these connections matter.
  • Enable self-expression. Here I don’t mean simply letting them share selfies. Half of American teens (12-17) are online content creators, meaning they’ve created their own blog or web pages or shared content and 22 percent of teens maintain their own personal web page. With teens, blogging and creating content is almost always personal and an extension of their social lives, unlike adults who often do so with a business goal in mind. Brands can give teens the platforms for expressing their views on particular issues or subjects.

In the end, there’s no reason for brands not to initiate these kinds of engagements. Teens online are already creating, connecting and expressing themselves. By offering a balance of enrichment and enjoyment, brands can create a win/win/win – for the brand, for teens and for the parents who worry about their online diets. In so doing, brands enable a media experience that is far more positive than the one Bradbury imagined.

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