Digital Kids Revisited.

Unencumbered by technological barriers, today's kids are growing up with a completely new set of user expectations.

Todd Lefelt
November 10, 2014

Recently, Huge conducted a series of focus groups with an ethnically and economically diverse group of ten-year-olds to hear in their own words what excites them online, how they discover new content, and how they share. What we found was that children are surprisingly sophisticated at navigating web sites and mobile experiences. They are savvy browsers and smart shoppers. 

But that research was just the beginning. In August 2014, Huge hosted several more focus groups with the same screening criteria, except participant age. This time, we spoke to seven- to eight-year-olds and eleven- to twelve-years-olds, to get a broader perspective on their motivations, interests, and media habits. The groups were separated by gender and were again ethnically and economically diverse. 

What we found is that this generation of digital natives are unencumbered by the kinds of structural and technological barriers that have impeded previous generations. They are incredibly resilient, and will find a way to access the content they want regardless of roadblocks. They’re also passionate about their media, seek endlessly engaging digital experiences, and are already self-curating these experiences. 

Our specific findings:

Kids’ digital behavior varies significantly by age, developmental phase and cognitive ability. 

While Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s developmental stage theory is not without its detractors, we found it to be a useful framework for understanding how children engage with digital content. 

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Younger participants’ content choices revolved around games and videos, specifically about animals and food. They didn’t look for complex visuals and the task they chose required only rudimentary skills. Kids closer to age ten had slightly more advanced skills, preferring character-driven stories as well as games that tested their math skills and motor skills like typing. These behaviors correspond strongly to Piaget’s concrete operational stage, marked by a child’s ability to think logically. 

The older children, on the other hand, were approaching Piaget’s formal operational stage, which is distinguished by abstract thought, and the ability to perform hypothetical and deductive reasoning. The types of entertainment these kids preferred reflected this more advanced cognitive development, with a focus on fantasy, strategy, and simulation. 

Another pattern that emerged was strong gender divisions. The kids were hyper-aware of “boy games” (e.g. shooting and racing games) and “girl games” (e.g. cooking and fashion games). The girls interviewed identified boy games as “inappropriate” for them, due to the often violent content, and the boys showed no interest in the girl games. The one exception was Minecraft, which was nearly universally cited and beloved by both genders and across all ages. 

Key takeaway: Pre-digital norms persist into our digital age. Despite the explosion in available content for children, developmental state and gender awareness still constrain their behavior. The perception of gendered games seems to be a self-perpetuating cycle that is difficult to break: Girls like cooking, so content creators produce more cooking games, which are in turn consumed by girls again. For media companies that publish games and content, however, understanding the cognitive development of the intended age group is crucial to creating engaging experiences. 

For designers, UX is a challenge as interfaces evolve rapidly. Today’s twelve-year-old may have grown up using a mouse to play a game, while a seven-year-old may have only experienced touch interfaces. These children are digital natives, so graphic conventions and visual metaphors that resonate with older children can be irrelevant to younger ones who have never encountered a camera, record player, landline phone, or an encyclopedia. The solution is rigorous testing. Best practices include partnering with experts in child cognitive development, encouraging children to talk aloud as they test games, and working with live prototypes.

Kids are born hackers and often oblivious to constraints when completing tasks online.

Over and over in the focus groups and individual sessions we observed how resilient the kids were in accomplishing tasks online--across all ages. Kids are not yet fully aware of their own limitations. The same impulse that allows them to abandon the Lego instruction manual to build their own structures, or create fantastical gulags with aquariums in Minecraft, liberates them from rules put into place by a system.

"In many ways, innovators of all ages should look to the natural resilience of children as inspiration for pushing through supposed constraints to get to the right place."

They don’t yet know what can and can’t be accomplished, so they soldier on when trying to find a favorite video, or figure out how to map a journey, or want to download an app without having to pay for it. Obstacles that would inhibit adults, such as poor design or UX, technological constraints, or fear of harmful consequences (e.g. will downloading this software give me a virus? Will I get sued for downloading this movie?), barely register with kids.

And this trend doesn’t seem to be limited to our focus groups, or even to children in the US. An experiment several years ago by non-profit organization One Laptop Per Child, in which the group dropped off tablets with pre-loaded content in remote Ethiopian villages where the children didn’t have access to teachers or education, showed very promising results. The children, in the absence of formal schooling, began to teach themselves how to use the tablets, read, and one child even figured out how to  hack Android.

Key takeaway: We believe that while children’s resilience and capacity for exploration will likely diminish as they get older and face more time constraints, this is a generation that is learning very early how to overcome technological hurdles. Organizations that depend on paywalls, gated content, and user authentication will find the battle to protect their content will only intensify. Providing experiences that are easier to use or have more expansive content options will win out over cobbled-together, lower fidelity experiences. 

The popularity of streaming music services such as Spotify and Pandora, which are finally beginning to win out over a pay-per-song model such as iTunes (or an unlicensed download via peer-to-peer networks) is one potential model. However, the organizational and legal structures for film, television, and even video games may be even more complex than the music industry, creating additional barriers to exploring new models.

Kids start with search.

Across all groups, the kids used search as their primary navigational tool. Almost every web experience begins with Google, even if the child already knew where to find what they were looking for. Other navigational cues were ignored, and search terms were highly specific, such as “Nike kids sneakers by price.” The kids in our research were already conditioned to search using natural language queries. 

Not only was Google the default starting point for every browsing session, it was often also the destination. Most of the kids switched tabs on search results to search by image or on Google Shopping. Not only was search critical to their user experience, having visual search options was key to satisfying their needs. 

As Google and others offer more contextual results based on their understanding of implicit signals in search, we expect that children’s dependence on search as the primary navigation tool will increase. Additionally, there has already been increased media attention on the way kids interact with voice search, such as Apple’s Siri. While there has been both hand-wringing and praise for the relationship children are able to form with Siri, it’s clear that this is the first generation that will grow up with constant interaction with these kinds of artificially intelligent services.

Key takeaway: The evolution of search, both from sites such as Google, computational knowledge engines such as Wolfram Alpha (the intelligence underlying Siri and others) and within branded sites themselves, will have a major impact on navigation, UI, and design. Will navigational hierarchies disappear as these children mature? Probably not. However, sites will need to make search bars more prominent on their sites, and improve search functionality. 

This generation will expect search results to understand context such as location, time of day, and even weather. Brands will also need to make search results more visually-driven in the future. Last, voice will continue to evolve, and we predict it will become the primary navigational interface.

“Regularly scheduled programming” has been reborn, but on YouTube. 

With the emergence of on-demand television, conventional wisdom has been that “must see TV” is a relic of the past, when Gen X memorized the TV schedule as kids, and TGIF meant something to viewers. The idea of audiences tuning in at the same time has been relegated to live events like sports or the Oscars. 

Yet we observed a re-birth of this notion of “tuning in” for digital kids, albeit on different channels and platforms than in the past. Many of the kids interviewed knew exactly when their favorite content creators release new material. For instance, one child mentioned checking video game commentator PewDiePie’s YouTube channel every day because it released two new videos each day and comedy duo Smosh’s channel every Friday for new comedy sketches, and on Saturday for the “Behind the scenes” video it releases. There is still excitement in knowing a favorite YouTube star releases a new video every Tuesday at noon. For these kids, there is a sense of not only anticipation, but social currency with their peers: a classic “water cooler” moment on the playground when they can talk about the latest video.

Key takeaway: While Netflix and other streaming services have changed programming and release schedules indelibly--encouraging viewers to binge watch, for example--there is still opportunity in staggered and scheduled programming online. For media companies, this opens up advertising sales opportunities akin to pre-Internet age television, such as exclusive sponsorship for programming on a release day. It also allows both the media company and advertisers to identify influencers and fans. The child that repeatedly seeks out their favorite videos on the scheduled day of release is likely to not only be a big fan, but also an evangelist to his or her peer group.

Endless stories, eternal characters (and Minecraft is everything).

Storytelling has evolved. While traditional narratives, with definitive beginnings, middles and ends still exist, media companies are increasingly focused on creating ongoing experiences. Content creators’ desire to create sustainable omni-channel franchises means there is often less emphasis on individual stories and more on characters themselves. 

While one of the complaints leveled against Hollywood is its lack of originality, media companies are finding enormous success reimagining, rebooting and recycling ideas and characters to keep them relevant to the next generation. The “original” debut of the character matters less and less. As a result, children in the focus group proclaim a love for Star Wars without ever having seen the movies, or a fondness for Sonic the Hedgehog without knowing the character was borne from video games.

The emphasis on character over plot extends from and is influenced by gaming.  Games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty offer players the opportunity to play outside of “story mode,” rejecting a goal-oriented narrative in favor of a free-roaming game exploration. Minecraft takes it even further, allowing each player to create a personalized open world environment with no specific goals. There is no “beginning” or “end” to Minecraft, no way to “win,” and no limits to the creative freedom it offers to players. 

The kids we spoke to mentioned they wanted the ability to have their digital experiences personalized; they truly owned their adventure. So not only can a child play for as long as she wants, she can modify her play so that the experience is never the same.

Key takeaway: Media companies have the opportunity to monetize dormant or underutilized intellectual property. However, rather than trying to resurrect fictional characters via remakes in the original media in which they appeared, media companies should look for ways for their characters to be reborn digitally and on new platforms. 

Additionally, offering children limitless creative freedom is one of the elements that creates an endlessly engaging--and expected--experience. Giving kids e a heightened level of control to manipulate their environment, encouraging “mods” to create new levels of gameplay, and constantly iterating on the digital experience aligns with kids’ expectations of engaging in limitless play.

Kids are true users and expect to interact. 

Digital media offers kids a platform for self-expression. Curation is not simply accepting, consuming, or liking a particular piece of content or product. Children are active agents in constructing and shaping their media experiences. In other words, they are not just consumers. They are also producers. And interestingly, they have already began to talk in the language of digital media producers, using terms such as “content,” “favorite” (as a verb), and “feed.” 

As mentioned above, children want endlessly engaging digital experiences. They are already social actors, meaning they are able to share their ideas and opinions as well as listen to others. They engage in negotiation with their peers as well as adults. And among the older children in particular, they are already aware of the image they project (or wish to project) to the outside world, with the caveat that their world is still relatively limited to friends and family.  

Key takeaway: Digital kids are immersed in what is essentially a configurable culture. They are already much more active participants in their media consumption than previous generations, even if the changes are subtle. For instance, they are making music playlists, cropping photos and adding filters, and looking up video game cheats. It is likely that this is the first generation comfortable with more advanced forms of content production, such as remixing videos, images, and music or modding video games. As the tools to create content become even easier, these types of behaviors will become more and more mainstream. 

Organizations that wish to engage with children need to provide the tools for them to self-curate. That may mean the ability to create a playlist, or share favorite pieces of content with a friend, or modify their game experience by allowing them to create entirely new characters.