Commentary

Children Hold Digital Future In Their Hands

I was lucky enough to attend the Unbound Digital event in London a couple of weeks ago. It was held in the "unconference’" style pioneered by Tim O’Reilly. It was a fascinating event and covered so many subjects that traditional events wouldn’t attempt to cover. Putting aside that I really shouldn’t put my vertigo through events held on the 39th floor of any building, let alone one with ceiling-to-floor glass, it was one of the most refreshing events I’ve been to in a long time.

One of the topics that got a lot of coverage was how we are shaping the digital world for our children and the generations to come. There was much hand-wringing over social media abuse, losing control of personal data and the lack of reading skills. Strangely, it was the younger twenty-somethings who were most concerned. Tellingly, most didn’t have children.

Those of a slightly more mature vintage took a different view. My children have grown up throughout the Internet era. Google has always been there, ready to provide answers when Dad couldn’t (sadly, a more frequent occurrence these days), and taking photos without sharing them is almost pointless.

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I take the view that those born after 2000 are the most digitally savvy people on the planet these days. They are taught from an early age about use of social, cyberbullying and the basic techniques to search for information. Last night I sat and watched as my 12-year-old daughter sat with my 70-year-old father and helped him install an ad blocker, unsubscribe from emails, and uninstall free games with ads. Later she showed my mother how to upgrade her privacy settings on Facebook.

It was a fascinating scene, and it got me thinking about how the digital media industry will need to up its game to reach this coming generation. I just don’t see how traditional banners and mails will work with this demographic. They flick effortlessly across devices and platforms, they demand instant connectivity and the means to communicate at all times. Many times I’ve watched my daughter switch attention to her mobile whilst waiting for the ads on a catch-up service to play out.

And yet they are willing to engage. Great content will always be rewarded whether it be video or pictures. I’m amazed at the time kids spend on YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram or Spotify. Increasingly, and encouragingly, we are seeing an increase in the growth of book buying on digital platforms for the under-10s as well.

As I was writing up this column, I noticed that the BBC has launched CBeebies Storytime, a free app designed to help young readers develop their skills and learn alongside their favourite characters. It's designed to engage children in reading and storytelling, improving their reading and listening skills and encouraging family learning. As is often the case, it takes the not-for-profit BBC to show the digital world what it should be doing to engage with an audience.

I know there is a massive taboo about children and advertising, and rightly so. Of course, we must protect our children from overtly commercial messages and sneaky in-app purchasing. But what we can do is observe how children are engaging with the digital world, how they treat the various platforms, what they interact with and what they are blind to. One thing you can be sure of is that when these kids get to the age of 16, they won’t be clicking on your banner. Publishers and agencies need to be undertaking research programs now to ensure that all our digital futures are prosperous ones.

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