To advertisers and marketers it’s important to realize that kids and young teens are extremely media/computer savvy and the best way to engage them is to be authentic and to always converse with them on their terms. What may be surprising for parents and teachers is what were once thought to be effective and efficient methods for teaching and providing guidance may now no longer be as relevant or meaningful for todays kids. 

Just a few years ago the folks at Common Sense Media wrote, “we may think of our kids’ online, mobile, and technological activities as “digital life,” but to them, it’s just life. Their world is as much about creating media as it is about consuming it.” And that in essence is what matters most – much of how kids view their world is through technology.

Generation Z

For kids born after 1998, “known as “Generation Z”,  they know of no life without Internet, ubiquitous cell phones, iPods, iPads, social media or 24/7 entertainment.” They’re also much more brand and fashion conscious at these younger ages.

This axiom holds true when considering how kids are learning and how they are choosing to get involved in activities both online and off.

The Power of Agency

What shouldn’t be surprising are the things kids can do  – and are doing – when empowered to do so. As Melissa Clark-Reynolds, CEO of Minimonos, stated at the Sustainable Brands ’11 conference, “kids need to be given agency”, that is “they need to be given the capacity to make powerful choices and affect the world.”

Minimonos (Spanish for little monkeys) is an online game that challenges kids to think in sustainable terms by rewarding them for doing the right thing. The purpose of Minimonos is “to have a place that embodies core values like sustainability and generosity, without turning those values into a boring lecture.”  What’s more, these kids are looking for authenticity and something that will inspire them – but it has to be on their terms and level of interest.

More than most parents may be willing to admit, a large percentage of today’s kids are extremely media savvy (they totally get it!) and they can detect the insincerity of a website, a social media platform, or any game or program that may be purportedly “designed for kids” but clearly doesn’t understand what motivates and engages them. If any of the content feels like it’s being imposed or is just irrelevant, then it’s summarily rejected. However, if the content has real value where the kids feel empowered to make decisions, are able to connect with other like-minded kids and can realize social status through rewards (gamification) – and it’s fun – then there is a good chance the website/game or social media platform may be a success.

What’s also important is when kids are given this “agency” it is not to diminish or negate the need for providing safety, structure and supervision while they’re spending time online. “The very nature of their constantly connected culture means kids must understand the concept of privacy so that what they post and create won’t hurt them or embarrass them at some point down the line.” However, as Emily Bazelon writes the The New York Times, “parents and lawmakers are [at times] so worried about protecting our children that they can fail to distinguish between real threats and phantom ones.” The point is to strike a balance between protecting and monitoring kids while also allowing them to find their space online where they can flourish.

A Different Way of Learning

For older kids a shining example of turning a subject that’s often perceived to be boring into something that is engaging are the YouTube learning videos created by Salman Khan. (Now collectively known as The Khan Academy.)  

In part by using gaming and rewards systems as motivation, students can learn from a variety of topics at their own pace and often find that the system works – especially when so many are achieving positive results. What started as pre-college mathematics video tutorials for Khan’s niece and nephews is now, as Khan states, “the world’s first free, world-class virtual school where anyone can learn anything.” He adds that the system isn’t a replacement for the traditional classroom; rather it’s an adjunct for learning where students are encouraged to explore and make mistakes as they learn to master each topic.

Confidence Breeds Action

The key to Khan’s 10 minute video tutorial’s success is his unique style of presenting the material in a straight forward and personal manner without distractions (i.e. not a boring lecture) and where the students can approach the system at their own pace. They can pause, go back and review and then proceed when they have a firm grasp of the lesson.  In other words, instead of getting 75% on a quiz and then moving onto the next level the student can stop, review and go back and fill in these gaps (the missing 25%). The end result equals confident students (with agency) who are now encouraged to take on new challenges.

Empowered Kids Making a Difference

When kids feel empowered they are more likely to be more productive and even take on causes much greater than themselves. Take for example the continuing story of the two Girl Guides who (for the past five years) have been rallying against the makers of Girl Guide cookies to stop using palm oil as an ingredient. The land needed for palm oil production involves the clearing and burning of Southeast Asia’s rainforests which is also the habitat of many endangered species including the orangutan. Through social media campaigns involving Facebook and their website, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen have attracted worldwide attention and even gained support from Jane Goodall as well as The Rainforest Action Network and have thus demonstrated that kids do have the power to make an enormous difference – especially when given the agency to do so.

Addressing Kids on Their Terms

When addressing today’s kids and teens it’s important to understand and recognize that they are immersed in technology unlike any other previous generation. The way they learn is through meaningful engagement which often includes games and social reward systems and it also means they expect a high level of empowerment (or agency) where they are free to explore and make their own choices. Being authentic and genuine is crucial for any online marketer, blogger, or social media platform, etc. – especially now – since these kids are literally everywhere online and can be the best and most loyal advocates/brand ambassadors or conversely, a marketers worst nightmare. The trick is to listen, learn and engage in what these kids are saying (and doing) and then proceed with integrity without being too preachy or presumptuous.