Nearly 16 years ago, when I was covering ad-tech for an advertising trade publication, I interviewed my 7-year-old niece, Micaela, for an article about the then-burgeoning category of online services aimed at children. These kid-friendly web channels included AOL’s Kids Only, Bonus.com, ePLAY, JuniorNet and Yahooligans!, to name just a few. While all of these first-mover, kiddie web services and edutainment sites have since gone the way of the original Pets.com, looking back at what I wrote in 1999 about digital marketing and media targeted at Millennials got me thinking about the similarities and differences between Gen Y and Gen Z.
A decade-and-a-half ago, parents of young Millennials voiced concerns about privacy and the increasing commercialization of online content aimed at children, and indicated that “surfing the Internet” on the family PC was quickly replacing couch surfing in front of the family TV as kids’ preferred media-consuming activity. Back then, I asked my precocious niece, if given the option between TV and computer time, which would she choose? Micaela said, “I’d go with the computer because it enables you to do a lot more things. You can use your hands to activate it, you can use your hands to control it. With the TV, you just use your eyes.”
Now that I’m a dad to a precocious, always-connected 8-year-old son, the notion of choosing only between computer time and TV time seems positively quaint. After all, while my Gen Y niece was born into and grew up during a time of two screens (TV and desktop computer), my Gen Z son expects to interact with no fewer than five screens (TV, laptop, smartphone, tablet, and other dedicated handheld media devices) every single day, often all at the same time. I can only imagine how many additional screens my 3-month-old daughter will be using in a few years.
If my son is pressed to make the “Sophie’s Choice” of selecting just one screen, he likely would choose his iPad, which more than any other device has served as the center of his media universe since he was old enough to hold a tablet in his hands. I suspect that my Millennial niece likely would choose her iPhone, but that’s just a hunch because she still hasn’t responded to my text. The Gen Xer in me would have a tough time choosing between my MacBook and my iPhone. And I’m pretty sure that my Boomer parents would choose their iPad, like my son. But I digress.
As a parent, I have many of the same concerns about online privacy and over-commercialization of kids’ web content that my sister and my brother-in-law had when their now-adult daughter was my son’s age. But my son has grown up at a time when his every move and every milestone were documented and shared across my social networks (as well as on those of his older cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents) and—for good or bad—my son also is being raised to understand that there is a value exchange when he waits through an in-app interstitial or a mobile ad in order to play a “free” game on his iPad. Honestly, I don’t recall the last time that my son watched live programming on TV that wasn’t time-shifted via DVR or on Netflix.
Millennials may have the distinction of being the most-researched, most-closely scrutinized generation of our time so far, but their younger siblings and cohorts in Gen Z are quickly coming into their own, and marketers have already started to shift their attention to the under-18 set. While there are similarities between the two youngest generations, some of their differences (such as Gen Y’s desire to share things versus Gen Z’s desire to make things) will have interesting implications on how marketers and media reach both generations moving forward.
There was a time when my parents would ask me to help program the family VCR. Then my older sister started asking her Millennial kids to help program the family DVR. Nowadays, I ask my Gen Z son to explain how coding in Blockly works because, apparently, 8-year-olds are better at coding than some of us adults. Bottom line: technology is either making each successive generation smarter and savvier or each successive generation is pushing the bounds of what technology can do. Whichever.