Teens, Mobile and Proximity

A ton has been said and written about what and how teens share in the digital realm. Trillions of electrons (conservatively) have been dedicated to teens, privacy and intimacy but there are other ways to think about these issues, and an interesting alternative came my way the other day. 

A colleague was recounting a scene she’d seen at a family gathering that included a number of teenage friends and relatives were on hand. At some point, she saw this pack of teens all engaged with their devices and each other - and that’s where the idea of proximity comes into play.

In some cases, the kids were watching their own devices by themselves. In others, they were watching the same content on different devices but standing shoulder to shoulder with a friend. Others were sharing a screen and content. Finally, a few were watching different videos on separate separate devices but physically in contact with a friend.



It’s the final one that speaks to a new insulated intimacy. The connection wasn’t around the content but around the shared proximity. A connection as content consumers existed between the two but not through the content. The message of their shared space was, “I want to be with you but I want to be doing my own thing - and my thing is going to absorb me.”

In some respects this kind of independent intimacy has always existed, primarily through the shared experience of readers who may be physically together but each focused on their own books. Books, newspapers and magazines were all personal media that could be used in a shared space, as is portable music. Mobile devices take things to a whole new level.

Why? Because they’re more immersive, more personal and more present than anything we’ve seen before. It just makes sense, as a result, that they would have an impact on the way people relate to each other in physical space. Here are four variations of how mobile is changing the ways teens interact with each other and their devices:

  • Tandem/Team Viewing - sharing a single screen - particularly a small one - means teens, in pairs or groups, cluster together to view content. This forces and fosters physical closeness and contact.
  • Staying In Touch - sharing a close space but watching individual screens - this is the digital equivalent of curling up on the couch with someone to read a book or the paper. The intimacy is there but the content experience is independent.
  • Space Sharing - using individual screens in the same space - Pokemon Go is a prime example of this in action. It’s wild to see groups - often teens - in their dozens around a landmark, sharing the space and the experience but not their screens. One interesting note about Pokemon Go is that it’s becoming less about augmented reality as players realize it’s easier with AR turned off. Instead it has become about exploration, collecting and the shared experience.
  • Alone Together - the least connected shared experience is also the most common - people entirely engrossed in what they are doing/experiencing but doing/experiencing it completely on their own.

Each of these configurations are easily observed by anyone looking out for them. Teens depend on their mobile devices as their primary connections to the world and each other so understanding how these devices mediate relationships is important. 

Niantic - whether intentionally or not - created an awesome app for encouraging or taking advantage of space sharing. Lessons can be learned not only from Pokemon Go but from other wildly popular platforms too. People need to look beyond the content that’s being consumed to how it’s being accessed - in a pile on a couch with friends, snuggled up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or as a pack roaming around. It’s a next level of consideration and sophistication and it’s important to tune content to the consumption needs and expectation of teens.

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