The notion that technology and progress go hand-in-hand is under fire. Health visitors used to lecture stressed new parents on the dangers of too much TV time, but now the iPad and smartphone are fast becoming public enemy number one. Parents, faced with a growing range of devices to feel guilty about, are being urged to limit the time their children interact with technology.
Generation Z, five- to 19-year-olds who have grown up to view technology as an extension of themselves, may consider it to be a virtual playground. Their parents, however, are increasingly concerned over its omnipresence and are asking whether technology is giving their children the necessary space for creativity and imagination.
So, as parents’ unease at the encroachment of technology into their children’s lives grows, should brands brace themselves for the inevitable backlash?
Research conducted for Marketing by online parenting resource BabyCentre revealed that 78% of parents believe their children are being exposed to too much technology, with 89% of respondents limiting the time their children interact with tech devices such as iPads. The latter has replaced the television as the focus of paternal guilt in the household, with 60% of parents more concerned about their children being on a tablet for too long.
Mike Fogarty, senior vice-president and global group publisher at BabyCentre, says: "Ultimately, the responsibility lies with parents to set a good example to their children that technology can be a helpful tool when used well. You should control how you use it, not the other way round."
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any electronic "screen time" for children below the age of two. It cites research that found videos for infants might delay language development, and warns that no studies have documented any benefits to early viewing.
Hayley Ard, senior editor of the consumer lifestyle division at trends consultancy Stylus.com, argues that there is a heightened sense of anxiety among parents, which is being fuelled by the internet. However, this anxiety is not felt by Generation Z. "As they grow up in today’s digital world, younger members of Generation Z see virtual networks as a playground, and they can’t comprehend a world without an iPad," says Ard.
Double standards: do as I say, not as I do
While parents may voice concerns about their children’s interaction with technology, this is not backed up by a genuine effort to change either their own, or their children’s, behaviour. Rebecca Ironside, senior director at Playground Research, which specialises in family research, claims that this is true of most of the parents she has interviewed.
"They don’t like the idea of screens, and of their kids being engrossed in gaming or obsessed with technology, but at the same time they say it is important that their children are tech-savvy. They like their kids to have the latest thing, and justify this by pointing out the large number of educational apps that are available," she says.
As long as parents are enamoured with the technology, they will be tolerant of their children being so as well.
"Many parents acknowledge the tablet’s role as a babysitter, too. And as long as parents are enamoured with the technology, they will be tolerant of their children being so as well."
Research shows that parents are giving their children access to technological devices at an earlier age. According to a study by family advocacy group Common Sense Media, 38% of children under the age of two have already used a mobile device. In 2011 only 10% had. And research from BabyCentre reveals that nearly one in three mums has downloaded a children’s app onto their smartphone.
Gerry Whiteside, co-director of P2 Games, which publishes interactive apps for children, contends that there will always be parents who feel children are at risk from over-exposure to technology, but there are also many positives to be gained from mobile and tablet devices, and brands need to embrace this. "The growth of our apps business is perhaps the best reflection of parents’ general attitude to new technology, and as pre-school kids don’t have credit cards, parents are purchasing apps to educate and entertain their little ones," he says.
Beware of the backlash
As history teaches us, each social and economic revolution has brought with it an almost inevitable backlash and subsequent social panic. The digital revolution is no exception. Alasdair Lennox, creative director for EMEA at Fitch, points out that every generation of parents has had concerns with the new technology of their era.
"In the early 1970s, the introduction of central heating changed the dynamic of the family unit, with the fireplace no longer the focus of activity and conversation," he says. "The warmth led to family members occupying separate rooms throughout the evening. The introduction of radiators actually had a much bigger impact than the introduction of television into the living room."
In this vein, Generation Z views 24/7 connectivity in much the same way as Generation Y views electricity: it is simply another ever-present utility.
Following on from Ironside’s observation that if parents don’t permit technology’s use, they fear their offspring will be out of step with their peers, so this fear provides an opportunity for brands to act as facilitators.
Julian Smith, head of strategy and innovation at mobile-marketing agency Fetch, who has a daughter aged seven (currently enjoying games such as Candy Crush and Toca Doctor), says technology is enhancing the younger generation’s lives, not spoiling them.
"I certainly will not be stopping my daughter from using all the technology that she wants to. I believe that if I were to deny her access to it, I would be denying her the ability to compete later in life," he adds.
Meet Generation Z
- Who they are
Aged five to 19, members of Generation Z were born between 1995 and 2009. They are the successors of Generation Y (millennials).
- Hopeful realists
In the developed world, they are realistic about life and their futures, although aware of opportunities enabled by new technologies. By contrast, Generation Z in emerging economies, who have grown up with rising living standards, have a vigorously optimistic outlook on life.
- Tech natives
This generation is highly connected and has enjoyed lifelong use of the web, instant messaging and mobile phones. But its members are not star-struck by technology (like many in Generation X and Y): they accept it and judge its worth by what they can achieve with it.
- Super-social networkers
Social networks are part of everyday life for Generation Z and a major means by which these multi-tasking young people communicate with their peers. Social networks are their playground.
- Two-way brand relationship
Generation Z teens expect to communicate directly with brands. They also intensively research their purchases online, making careful price comparisons.
Digital attention deficit
One of the biggest fears among parents is that digital technology is robbing their children of the ability to concentrate; that our always-on, networked world is, in effect, creating a nation of digital goldfish, endlessly switching between one thing and the next. Research suggests that these fears are not entirely unfounded, providing a huge challenge to brands seeking to capture their attention.
An online survey (Wikia and Ispos MediaCT, March 2013) of 1200 Wiki users aged 13 to 18 reported that 25% connect and check emails and messages within five minutes of waking up, and 73% connect within an hour. According to the survey, 93% visit YouTube at least once a week, while 54% visit multiple times each day; 65% visit Facebook weekly and 38% visit it multiple times per day.
These are challenging times – this generation is switched off from traditional advertising.
Tamsin Kelly, editorial director of AOL UK and editor of parentdish.co.uk, says: "Like many parents, I worry that [children’s] world view is reduced to a blink, share, laugh mentality, and that the days of painstaking research and carefully conducted arguments are over."
Indeed, the assertion that Facebook is making Generation Z "stupid" has some basis in fact. According to "Facebook and texting made me do it", a 2013 research project about media-induced task-switching while studying, which observed middle-school, high-school and university students, the ubiquitous screen is diverting attention from academic studies. Participants averaged fewer than
six minutes on a task before switching, most often due to distractions such as social media and texting. Those who accessed Facebook while studying had lower grade-point averages.
This "digital attention deficit" is also taking its toll on brands. "These are challenging times for advertisers and marketers, primarily because this generation is literally switched off from traditional advertising," warns AOL’s Kelly. "Why would they sit through a TV ad when they can watch catch-up or Now TV, or a YouTube ad when they can switch to another screen and have their attention grabbed immediately?"
A growing number of brands is exploiting the disparity between how parents and children view technology. The Teens, Social Media and Privacy report (Pew Research, May 2013) revealed that teens shared considerably more about themselves in 2012 than in 2006, with 91% posting a photo of themselves, up from 79% in 2006. Twitter use is growing, too – 24% of online teens use it, up from 16% in 2011.
Parents’ wariness over the impact of this oversharing has already been exploited by Microsoft’s "Do Not Track" advertising. Now myriad other devices and programs to monitor their children’s digital footprint are coming to market. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the biggest buzz was caused by FiLIP, described by its maker as the world’s first smart locator and phone for kids. However, it will undoubtedly be only a matter of time before hacks are developed to enable the tech-savvy Generation Z to circumvent the proliferating ways in which their parents seek to track and control their digital behaviour.
Several brands are capitalising on parents’ worries by creating products and services that promote the idea of active exploration, which might be missing in digital devices. Hotel chain The Ritz-Carlton’s new kids programme, with its emphasis on supervised physical activity, exploration and creativity, is one example of this shift.
Stylus.com’s Ard says that many brands are trying to synthesise the role of digital creativity with the desire for discovery and independent, active play. "We need to draw a line between parents and kids because they have different issues when it comes to technology," he explains. "Surveillance technology is a big battleground for parents, but 10-year-olds have a very upbeat view of technology being empowering. It is second nature to them, they don’t have to filter it as much as adults do; they see it as a great asset."
Brands must therefore navigate a difficult path if they are to reassure parents without alienating their children.
Generation Z and the generation that follows them are cultivating a completely different relationship with technology compared with their parents, a shift that demands a sea change in how brands seek to connect with them. Inevitably, this change is bringing with it another friction to add to the traditional schisms between generations: the growing pains in households across the country are also playing out in businesses across the globe.
In many ways, concerns that technology is robbing children of the space to be imaginative are reactionary. For those of us whose imaginations were shaped through books with a beginning, middle and an end, the boundlessness of the web, and the opportunities it affords, are endless, but also frightening. The internet is good and bad, in complex, new configurations.
"There is a fabulous opportunity for children to be more creative as a result of technology," says Whiteside. "But I also have a feeling that whenever their device’s battery runs out, the next generation will only find time for daydreaming while waiting for it to recharge."