Online, Children Are Our Future

While the Whitney Houston song “Greatest Love of All” is likely to cause a cringe-inducing reaction, the sentiment that “children are our future” is accurate…if beyond cliché at this point. Nowhere is this more true than on the Internet, especially when you look at what kids are doing as an indicator of where the Net is going. Most of today’s big trends — social networking, online gaming, and the like — were first embraced by youth before the rest of us old fogies got on the bandwagon.

That’s why studies like the new “Teens and Social Media” from the Pew Internet & American Life Project are so fascinating — and so useful for leading-edge marketers who want to see what will happen in the next couple of years. If you’re interested in looking into a crystal ball to see where the Web’s headed, checking out teen behavior is the way to go. Even if the trend vectors can’t be traced in a straight line — I seriously doubt the twentysomethings of the next decade will still be playing Webkinz online — the overall usage patterns won’t go away. If they’re growing up with this stuff, you can bet it’ll form attitudes and opinions that will last into their adult years. Just as today’s millennials can’t imagine life without video on demand, cell phones, and IM, tomorrow’s adults won’t be able to imagine life without being constantly connected, constantly exposed, and constantly able to tap into the Net’s hive mind, like they do today from their bedrooms.

Where are things going? There are good indicators in some of the report’s top-level findings:

  • 93 percent of teens use the Internet. At this point it’s safe to say that “all” teens use the Internet, in one form or another. As this study shows, the desire to use the Internet is even driving teens to…gulp!…the library!

  • Nearly 40 percent of teens share their own artistic work online.
  • 28 percent maintain their own blogs.
  • 27 percent maintain their own personal Web pages.
  • 26 percent remix content found online into their own work.
  • Teen girls seem to be leading the blogging revolution: 35 percent of girls blog, as opposed to 20 percent of boys.
  • 55 percent of teens keep profiles on social networking sites.
  • 57 percent watch videos on video-sharing sites.
  • Nearly 90 percent of teens who post content say people comment on it.
  • 79 percent of teens restrict access to their content in some way.
  • E-mail is on the way out. Only 14 percent of teens send e-mail to friends every day.

What does this all mean for the Internet’s future? First, it’s well beyond critical mass. If 93 percent of teens use the Net now, you can bet they’ll use it as adults. In fact, we’re looking at a society where in 5 to10 years, it will be unthinkable not to turn to the Net first for the vast majority of people. And not just for communications. If you look at the stats in terms of social networking and video, that’s where people will be.

Another surprising trend: the huge number of teens who create their own artwork and post it for public (or semi-public) consumption. When people grow up with this kind of outlet and when creating content becomes just fact of life (look at the 26 percent who remix content!), then the trend of more user-created content becoming integrated into everything we do becomes a done deal. Many of us who are over 30 have no experience with this. For the survey’s teens, it’s just the way things are.

Social networks will increasingly become more about the connections you make online than about where you physically share space with people. Where you went to school and where you worked will mean less (in terms of networking connections) than the people you’ve been in contact with since you were 12. Location won’t matter as much as connection.

The decline in e-mail usage is interesting as well. Where this is headed remains a bit hazy, but the fact is teens and millennials are used to anytime, anywhere, instantaneous connections to people. They expect access, and they expect to be able to talk to someone via IM or mobile devices no matter where (and when) they are. Customer service, telemarketing, and communications in general will have to change a lot to deal with the expectations of these people as they grow older.

Communication is now conversation. These kids expect to be able to post comments when they see content, and they expect others will comment on what they did. One-way, broadcast communications with the hierarchies that we’re all used to now will seem as anachronistic to these folks as the telegraph is to us. They consider all spaces public spaces for conversation. Being shut out of the conversation will be seen as slamming the door in their face.

Like it or not, the findings of studies like this one are the best indicators of future consumer behavior that we have. Check out this study if you want to see what’s in store for the decade ahead.

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