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‘Connected Generation’

by Paul Hudson
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Children and teens embrace internet as a constant companion and virtual global playground  
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Youngsters outsmart adults as consummate digital communicators

Children aged 8-18 display radical differences in the way they interact with technology compared to their parents, belonging to a new generation of consummate multi-channel communicators for whom the internet is an ever-present virtual playground.

Our new Digital Futures study, which surveyed 1,000 young people between the ages of eight and 18, found that children growing up in the Digital Age possess a distinctly different communication style and approach to learning than older people. These critical differences, which we observed in children as young as eight, present a challenge to organisations seeking to influence this highly technology literate generation as consumers of tomorrow.

Unlike their parents, who see the world in terms of distinct online and offline environments, tasks and communication, for ‘Digital Natives’ there are no such distinctions - the internet is ubiquitous and woven into the fabric of their lives. For children and teenagers, the internet is a mobile, constant and fascinating companion which grants them 24/7 access to a connected world where communication is instant and takes place across an array of devices, unconstrained by physical barriers.

The research, which also included in-depth interviews with families with children as young as two, revealed a highly sophisticated use of technology even among the youngest children, many of whom are more skillful in using some digital devices such as tablets than their parents.

Tablet computers are more widely used by children than adults, with 11% of under-18s using them compared to just 6% of over-18s. Generally, however, children regard the device as not versatile enough to replace a PC.

In fact, two year olds emerged as habitual users of family iPads as an entertainment device within the home and on car journeys, displaying intuitive understanding of touch-screen technology. While our study focused on older children, interviews with parents indicate that today’s toddlers are at the forefront of a ‘touch generation’ whose interaction with technology may be different even from their older siblings in future.

Our study also revealed that 8 year olds are smart users of an array of digital devices from PCs to laptops, games consoles and smartphones, acquiring an understanding of how to use them through direct experimental learning and motivated by a search for fun, entertainment and contact with their peers.

In fact under-12s engage in a surprisingly large number of activities besides playing games, including browsing news online, watching films and looking for things to buy and sell. They also confidently carry out relatively complex tasks such as backing up personal data to hard drives and uploading content to websites.

Some 65% also regularly use the internet for help with homework tasks and while their approach to accessing information may seem random, in fact they work at ‘hyper speed’, assimilating information in a non-linear way.

Online gaming holds a huge attraction for under-12s and is by far their favourite online activity, giving them early exposure to navigating content-rich, multi-dimensional interactive websites.

Popular sites such as Club Penguin and Moshi Monsters give children experience of handling ‘virtual money’ and incentive and reward schemes, all of which influence their views of what they regard as a fulfilling web experience. In fact, one 12 year old was disappointed when he looked at his mum’s Facebook page, regarding a site which focuses on purely socialising as unexciting compared to the rich web experience he was used to when gaming.

Older children from 12-17 are generally heavier users of mobile devices such as smartphones and laptops than fixed devices and by age 15 smartphones generally assume more importance. Across the full age range from 8-17 we detected declining importance of the PC in favour of mobile devices which offer 24/7 internet connectivity.

The key differences between under-18s and adults are that for Digital Natives the three words that most sum up what the internet means to them are: mobile, entertainment and social, with socialising one of the most important aspects of their online world.

For adults, the approach to the internet is precise and definite and associated with a task, situation or place. The internet is primarily viewed as a source of information and the three words which sum up what it means to them are: transactional, fixed and resource.

Fears that children in the Digital Age will lose the art of conversation as a result of being immersed in online chat appear unfounded. The richness, diversity and sheer amount of communication the under-18s take part in, means they are consummate communicators, more adept and skilled than their parents.

Despite the fact that Facebook chat is part of their everyday lives (it is the second most common form of communication after phone calls), they still value face-to-face communication. Some 55% of under-18s said they like to talk to friends in person, compared to 35% who like to talk to friends online. Moreover, they only want to talk to people of their own age on social networks, resenting intrusion by adults either on a personal or business basis, preferring email contact with companies to keep ‘intruders’ out of their personal space.

Children are protective of their personal online space and identity, emerging from our study as remarkably astute about the upside and downside of disclosing personal data on websites. In general they are opposed to giving out their details but are willing to consider trading info for the right incentive or reward.

The study revealed an even stronger emotional attachment to the internet among children and teenagers than we detected among adults in our previous study Digital Selves, which found that 40% of grown-ups would be lonely without the internet and 52% would be sad. Older teens showed the strongest emotional response - almost half (48%) of 15 to 17 year olds said they would be lonely without the internet while 60% would be sad. But even under 12s feel strong emotional ties, with one in five saying they would be lonely without the internet and 49% saying they would be sad.

Digital Natives are often characterised as being universally tech-smart and gadget friendly. It is true that as a generation they are all ‘digitally enabled’ and share some common behaviour, however, perhaps one of the most surprising findings of the study is that they cannot be regarded as a totally homogenous group. There are significant variations in behaviour and preferences and it is not overwhelmingly decided by age or gender, although there is evidence that these have some influence.

Four distinct groups are identified within the under-18 age group:

- Gadget Geeks, the most confident internet users, with a slight bias towards boys who represent 56% of this group. They represent 25% of the total.

- Confident Entertainers - second most confident but lack the enthusiasm of the first group and social interaction is mainly within existing circles. They represent 31% of the total.

- Socialites - a bit overwhelmed by technology but most likely to engage socially and form new friendships, 57% of them are girls. Overall they represent 14% of the total.

- E-beginners - dominated by the youngest age group with social interaction focused on existing friends but strong enthusiasm for the internet. They represent 30% of the total.

Overall, our findings show a rich diversity in the ways that children and teenagers engage in internet activity and with digital devices today in the UK. The most important observations include the ubiquitous nature of the internet in their lives and the realisation that the social aspect of the internet is built into everything under-18s do.

The ‘Now Culture’ has firmly taken hold among under-18s who expect always-on connectivity and instant communication and it is also clear that the importance of mobile devices versus fixed devices is growing among under-18s, a trend that is likely to continue.

The findings have important ramifications for businesses in future who must ensure that their services and products are designed to meet the needs of Digital Natives who represent an important new generation of consumers.

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