The Teens They Are A-Changin’

One of the easiest traps to fall into when thinking about teens is to think back to your own teen years for guidance or inspiration. Those halcyon days of yesteryear may be wonderful to reflect on and reminisce about with friends but, trust me, they aren’t going to help you understand the current crop of teens. Why? Because the teen experience changes all the time.

In some ways things have stopped changing as much as they used to. When I was a kid I couldn’t really identify with my parents’ taste in clothes or music or pop culture. My own teen children don’t seem that different to where I was 30 years ago. (Damn, damn, damn, I just did it myself!) The truth is, they experience things very differently than I did at their age and to forget that is to risk doing really stupid things.

There are some very obvious things that have changed from one generation to the next. Technology, clearly, has changed a lot. Mobile, which has completely redefined our world, is less than a decade old. The Internet as a popular medium is less than 25 years old. Tech will continue to race ahead but think about other some of the other, more subtle changes. The media mix, for example, or going to the movies, or getting together with friends. All of these things have changed in ways that reframe the teen experience.

To try to a list of all the ways things have changed would be impossible so collected a handful of representative examples. It’s difficult to find exact apples-to-apples comparisons, so many of the stats included below should be viewed as directional. They illustrate broad changes in trends over time. Despite this, I think you’ll get the point.

  • Driving The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that, in 1996, 85% of high school seniors had their driver’s license. According to AAA, in 2014, only 54% of teens get their license by the time they are 18. The freedom of the open road just isn’t what it was. In part, the drop in driving rates is attributed to the recession; but many teens also report not needing to drive.
  • Summer employment In 1994, almost 55% of teens had summer jobs. Today that number is just under 35%. That’s a pretty big drop and one that impacts not only teen income but also the amount of idle time available to kids, and you know what they say about idle hands …
  • Marijuana use In 1996, the National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that 49.6% of high school seniors had used marijuana. In 2013, 41.3% of all high school students reported having smoked marijuana. This gradual decline is seen in virtually all substance categories. Cigarette smoking, for example, was reported by 65% of high school seniors in 1996 but by 2013 only 41% of high school students had ever even tried a cigarette.
  • Sex In 1996, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 29% of kids between 12 and 18 reported having had sex. Research by the Department of Health and Human Services conducted in 2013 found that 47% of high school students reported having had sex. That’s a pretty sharp increase; however, teen pregnancies are down.

These changes, occurring over the span of 20 years or more, make it critical to remove your memories from the way you think about teens. Asking teens directly may net some useful insights but perhaps the most effective approach for understanding teens is to observe and engage with them in their natural habitats. I’ve written about gaming connecting with teens through gaming communities and music in the past. These indirect routes may offer a clearer window into the lives of teens in a time of change.

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Connecting with Teens with Special Needs

Most of what is said about connecting with teens assumes the teen you’re connecting with is typical (but really, what does typical even mean?). The fact is there are millions of teens across the U.S. who face some challenge or another. As the father of one of these teens, I thought it might be useful to talk a bit about how my son experiences the world, what he wants from life and how the people, institutions and businesses around him can help.

My son, who is 18 now, has struggled with developmental delays virtually his entire life. His motor skills and executive functioning aren’t great and when he was a kid his ability to regulate his behavior wasn’t good either. He has come a long way and I’m proud of him and I like him and I love him. It can be hard watching as he tries to make sense of the world and his place in it.

We’re fortunate to live in a great town, where the school district has been willing to do everything they can to provide support. That has meant my son has been “out of district” since he was in kindergarten. The schools he has attended have been fantastic but each of them has been in a different community. When he was young that wasn’t such an issue; but as he grew older that became a problem. Without friends in his hometown he felt isolated and lonely.

So one of the things to think about when thinking about teens with special needs is the fact that they may have fewer connections to the community than other kids. It might not be about going to school in another town. Sometimes the nature of a kid’s disabilities can make it hard for them to fit in or be accepted. Finding ways to bring kids into the community is really important but really tricky.

For my son, participating in “special needs” groups or activities doesn’t cut it. He’s a smart and self-aware guy and sometimes he doesn’t want to be segregated. It’s hard though, it’s obvious he has challenges and that can make some typical teens uncomfortable. It can be heart-wrenching to watch your kid try to initiate a conversation with a peer in a store or movie theater, only to be ignored, rebuffed or laughed at.

The fact is, he has many of the same interests as any other teenage boy. He plays way too many video games, likes to go to the movies, struggles to figure out girls, has to deal with an annoying boss and objects to almost everything I say. He wants so badly just to be accepted.

There are signs of hope. Beginning in September he will be enrolled in a life-skills program in our town. For the first time since he was a toddler he’ll be going to school with kids from his community and he’s elated. A big part of this program is focused on being a part of the community. Using local transportation, shopping in local stores, going to a local gym and working for a local business.

It’s great that the school district and business community can work together to create opportunities for kids like my son. The jobs these businesses offer aren’t sheltered workshops but are ones that match requirements with capabilities. That is a degree of engaging a teen with special needs that is super meaningful. It brings them in rather than keeping them apart. For my son that’s incredibly powerful.

Even a seemingly small gesture – greeting someone warmly (but not unnaturally), welcoming them, asking for their input and opinion – can make a world of difference. When my son heard about the program here in town he was initially ambivalent but excited by the prospect. He was worried about leaving his current school and losing the connection to friends there. Once he met with the staff and learned more he was ready to make the move.

As the possibilities of being connected to his community have sunk in, his mood has been lifted. Here’s a note he sent about the opportunity:

 im feeling good i can see my future and i feel hope i haven’t felt hope for almost the entire year i can see the path but i don’t know my destonason  

It’s OK that he doesn’t know his destination. Who does? But it’s important that he can see a path forward, and that is something everyone should support.

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Promposal — The Crazy Cost of Getting a Prom Date

Prom season is just winding down and across the country parents are still trying to lift their jaws off the floor due to the costs of this annual rite of spring. The good news is that costs have come down when compared with recent years but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still high. At a meeting earlier this month, the CEO of a company told me his daughter wanted $100 to have her makeup done for her junior prom!

One of the notable trends of this year’s prom season — and one that is attracting attention and dollars is the promposal — elaborate invitations to be someone’s prom date. The promposal isn’t exactly new; The Washington Post published a history of the promposal last year, which traces its roots to Dallas in 2001. This year, though, things have gone to a whole new level. Press coverage of the phenomenon has exploded, MTV produced “Promposal Mania” (a two-day “celebration of prom,” and the lengths kids are willing to go beggar belief. Here are just a few examples of notable promposals from this year’s prom season:

Creating these promposals (or being bailed out after the fact) doesn’t come cheap. According to Visa’s recently released 2015 Prom Survey, promposals consume more than 30% of the overall prom budget:

While kids and parents are spending more and more for promposals, the ways the idea is being discussed though traditional and social media is also notable. In looking at social media mentions of promposals between May 10 and 18, they are dwarfed by mentions of prom in general.

One of the things that makes this relative representation of promposal in social media interesting is the strong showing of Twitter, which accounted for more than 90% of the mentions.

These numbers paint a very different picture of teen social media use than the one provided in Pew’s recently released “Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015.” According to that research, the percentage of teens reporting which social media channels they use looks like this:

  • Facebook — 71%
  • Instagram — 52%
  • Twitter — 33%
  • Tumblr — 14%

Overall coverage of promposal on the Web (excluding Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr) dwarfs the social discussion. Over the same nine-day period mentioned above, promposal appeared more than 6,000 times on the Web vs. fewer than 600 in all the social channels combined:

This is a very stark — and in some ways unexpected — difference. Given that teens are the ones participating in promposals, you might expect they would be driving the conversation. That isn’t the case. Most of the media coverage is focused on highlighting examples of outlandish, illegal or cute promposals.

That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of social media activity around promposals. There are two promposal-focused Twitter accounts: The Promposal, with almost 25,000 followers but posts that are few and far between and Promposals, with more than 250,000 followers and posts that aren’t all promposal focused (or safe for work). The #promposal2k15 hashtag also features a nice selection of social content around the concept.

While brands and retailers might want to see some of the promposal spending (Visa puts the average spend at $324), few are actively promoting themselves, their products or their services through social channels. In looking at the social media channels for more than 100 mall-based retailers (The Brea Mall in Brea, Calif. was used to provide a sample), only three — Brighton Collectables, Taco Bell and Things Remembered — featured mentions of promposal.

Given the amount being spent, the volume of press coverage and the reach of social, promposals seem like a natural fit for teen-focused brands. Few took advantage of the opportunity in 2015. Perhaps more will do so in 2016.

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It’s Time To Engage Teens In More Positive Ways

I recently attended an event at MIT, “Coming of Age in Dystopia: The Darkness of Young Adult Fiction,” that looked at the dark world of teen fiction. It was a panel discussion that featured moderator Marah Gubar, a professor of literature at MIT; Kenneth Kidd, a University of Florida professor who focuses on children’s literature and Kristin Cashore, author of Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. It was an interesting talk that highlighted the impact media can have on teens; as well as the responsibility of those who engage teens, through media or otherwise.

The discussion started with a reference to “Darkness Too Visible,” a 2011Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the nature of young adult fiction. Almost four years after it appeared, it still evoked a strong response from Cashore. She and Kidd touched on the issue of censorship by parents, teachers and librarians, with Cashore saying such attempts demonstrated adults’ desire to avoid difficult issues.

What troubled me most about the event was an apparent double standard at play. Cashore seemed happy to recount the positive messages she receives from young readers who can identify and find strength through her characters, but spoke with derision of letters she receives from adults chastising her for the sex in her novels.

Frankly, I have no issue with sex but there are parts of young adult literature that I find problematic. These are around destructive behaviors that are either glorified or glossed over. For example, the book Willow came up during the event. It’s about a teen girl who becomes involved with self-harm and tells only her boyfriend. They don’t seek any adult support and it seemed irresponsible to leave kids with the message they can cope with this type of thing on their own.

While none of the panelists were familiar with the book, Cashore offered two defenses. The first was that different readers will take different things from a book and the second was that she believes this writing is not necessarily meant to be instructive. That second point is the one that bears consideration.

Those who create content for teens must be aware that their audience is constantly seeking direction and validation. Whether intentional or not, teens will take lessons from content they’re exposed to. Some will find positive messages and meaning in media and others will gravitate toward darker signals.

As new content and distribution channels have become available, the ability to curate content aimed at young people has diminished. Teenage boys no longer need to face the judgmental gaze of a convenience store clerk if they want pornography. Young girls, via the Internet, can be exposed to more information on a range of diseases and disorders than ever before. The MIT panel, for example, brought up Wintergirls on the topic of anorexia, which some critics described as “an instruction book for how to be anorexic.”

The new reality of unfiltered exposure to content can have serious consequences for teens; whether it’s a dramatic increase in eating disorders or kids deciding to leave home to join ISIS. The media genie is not something that can be put back into the bottle. So what can be done to engage teens in more positive ways?

  • Recognize that the media influences teens. To pretend otherwise is to play a dangerous game. If you are developing digital experiences for kids — even if fun and frothy — your audience may latch onto things in unintended ways.
  • Create opportunities for positive experiences. Digital media has teens and kids in its thrall, and that affinity can be used to expose these audiences to their potential and big ideas. It may not be easy but it is worth considering. John and Hank Green — and the whole “nerd fighter” movement — do this really effectively.
  • Cynicism is part of teen life but there should also be room for affirmation. Always’ “Like a Girl” Super Bowl spot is a great example of this being done well.

The teenage years may well be dark and difficult ones for most kids. Dwelling on the dystopian aspects of life does little to alleviate the challenges teens face and, in some cases, exacerbates those challenges. Marketers are not going to solve the problems of the still nascent world of digital media but if they are more mindful they can avoid making a difficult situation worse.

Originally published at

Anonymity And Privacy

When it comes to connecting and communicating, there’s no shortage of choices available to teenagers (and the rest of us). How these different options work and impact the way teens communicate is worth exploring. There are three camps when it comes to social and messaging apps: private, semi-private and anonymous.

Anonymous apps, like Whisper or Yik Yak, offer consequence-free communication for posters. Names aren’t used and many of these apps don’t collect phone number, email addresses or other personal information. Of course, just because the sender’s name isn’t used doesn’t mean names are missing all together. You can frequently find people named in posts and rarely in a positive way.

This has had consequences on the perception of these apps. Yik Yak, for example, detects when someone is near a middle school or high school (it’s intended for 17+) and won’t display posts or allow them to be made. This is likely due to some of the concerns around bullying and threats of violence.

Private social/messaging apps like Facebook and iMessage are easier to understand. Even if they don’t use real names, these apps are all about individuals and groups connecting with each other. These treat identity and privacy in different ways. Some use real names, others use user names. Some store messages on servers, others do not. Some keep content indefinitely while others let it evaporate after a time.

Finally, there are semi-private apps like Instagram, Kik and Tango where posts and profiles may be public but conversations are not. These apps can also allow information to be viewed and shared in ways the poster might not have originally anticipated.

All three types of apps have their place but one interesting issue affecting all of them is the conflation of anonymity and privacy. I decided to get some other perspectives on this issue so asked people involved with app development, marketing and advertising for their thoughts:

“Open and productive communications are impossible when one party is hiding behind the armor of anonymity. Consider the difference between driving and walking. No one swears at strangers as they pass on the sidewalk, but it’s rampant when we’re behind the wheel. In digital communications anonymity can be harmful to brands and individuals alike whereas private, or even semi-private communications, offer a nice alternative to the wide exposure of public comments. Think Angie’s List reviews as opposed to anonymous blog comments from Internet trolls.” — Beth Monaghan, principal, InkHouse Media

“Teens have flocked to apps like Snapchat and Yik Yak; but as we know, their claims of security and privacy are not exactly watertight. This is because messages sent using those services are stored on servers, meaning they can be — and have been — compromised. This can be a problem for teens since they are notorious for acting before they think — so their need for assured privacy is almost a safety net — as is the ability to delete a regrettable text message after the fact.” — Greg Parker, founder of Raketu, creator of the RakEM app

“Teens are an expressive crowd and they crave public gratification, whether its favorites/likes, comments or just having a photo added to a stream. We’ve discovered it’s best to offer multiple communications layers — anonymous when needed, private when they want to share with a friend, and public when they can get larger feedback.” — William Agush, founder of Shuttersong

“Anonymity means not being accountable for what you say — and usually not controlling who hears or reads it. Privacy, on the other hand, not only gives you control over who hears what you say but also makes you accountable for it. Young people should consider whether they are willing to be accountable for what they share on anonymous apps — sometimes posting is the brave thing to do, and sometimes it’s just the opposite.” — Jenny Mirken, founder of Jet

“Effective communication often comes down to truth and honesty. If you want the public to view your comments as truth, then be honest about who you are. If the truth is not appropriate for public consumption, keep it private. And, in those instances when anonymity can help uncover the truth (market research, for instance), only share it with those who need to know.” — Jeff Freedman, CEO, Small Army

The points about accountability and honesty ring true. For teens — or anyone — to communicate there needs to be some knowledge of who is on the other side of the screen. Sure, it can be liberating to say whatever is on your mind without worrying about the consequences but can it be the basis for a two-way conversation?

For brands that want to establish meaningful connections with teenage customers, it’s hard to imagine the anonymous route being at all effective since anonymity by its very nature negates the benefit of the brand. Private or semi-private channels make more sense and there are great examples appearing every day. To be successful, keep the channels of communication clear, open and honest — and for goodness sake, don’t confuse privacy with anonymity.

Originally published at

Engaging Teens Through Music

Think back to your own teen years. Maybe it was not long ago. Maybe it was decades ago. What did you love when you were young? Cars? Video games? Movies? Dancing? Sports? Some of you probably liked some of those things but there is one thing pretty much every teen loves and that’s music. Music holds a special place in everyone’s heart and memory. A song from a long ago summer can bring back memories in a way few other things can match. Listening to and loving music is part and parcel of being a teen.

For some kids, music is about more than listening though. They want to play. That’s where there are opportunities for you to engage with teens. Now this might be a little self-serving (but probably not) but here goes.

I have two teenagers. My daughter, whom I’ll call Z, loves playing rock and roll. She listens to a lot of punk rock (classic and modern), hard rock, metal, screamo, emo and more. Finding an opportunity to play was a challenge. A few of her friends are musicians but not into rock, and while there were some kids at school, actually coordinating things was easier said than done. It was a problem.

That changed a few years ago when someone introduced her to PluggedIn, a band program aimed at teens. PluggedIn organizes kids into bands based on the music they’re into, has a building that is chuck full of practice spaces, has adults who mentor the kids and maintains a weekly rehearsal schedule. It’s all pretty turnkey.

Every week my wife or I drive Z to her practice and pick her up when it’s over. Sometimes this is inconvenient. Sometimes there are things she’d rather be doing on a Saturday afternoon. Sometimes, when she recounts her practice sessions, I wonder what they’re actually doing. Any doubts, though, are erased at their concerts.

A few weekends ago was their show. Z played in two bands, one on Saturday night and the other on Sunday afternoon. I’m not going to lie; there was some tragically terrible musicianship on display. But that didn’t matter, because there was plenty of good music too. What was also on display was a whole lot of teens doing something they really loved. When Z went up on stage and sang three songs with one of her bands I was blown away. It literally brought tears to my eyes.

As I looked at the audience and at the kids on stage and at the ones waiting in the wings, I saw people transported by the opportunity to make and enjoy music. There are programs like PluggedIn all over the country. There’s Camp Jam, School of Rock, Girls Rock and Seattle Teen Music to name just a few.

As budgets for the arts in public schools tighten, teens and their parents are turning to these programs as an outlet for expression and community. What I didn’t see at the PluggedIn concert — and here is where there’s an opportunity for marketers — was anyone sponsoring the program. It seemed crazy to me that there could be a group of 200 kids in one program in one community that was demonstrating loud and clear a really strong and specific interest without a business recognizing the opportunity to connect. It seems a shame that more marketers aren’t recognizing the potential of supporting kids in exploring a passion, especially one as strong as rock and roll.

Originally published at

Make Time For Game Time

A new class of media channels is creating vast new audiences of deeply engaged young viewers. They are also blurring the line between creators and consumers. While some marketers recognize the potential of these platforms, there is more that can be done.

Twitch, Major League Gaming and Steam have made it possible for gamers to share their skills and connect with other gamers. These services have made gaming a spectator activity that has become wildly popular. While teen engagement through traditional media channels may have advertisers and marketers reaching for their Maalox, participation in these new platforms is going through the roof. Consider these facts:

  • Twitch has 100 million monthly viewers and over one million gamers streaming their sessions live
  • In 2013, MLG compared viewership for its Pro Circuit Championship with the NCAA March Madness Tournament Video Live viewership: MLG had 54 million hours of video consumed vs. just 14 million for the NCAA
  • On Jan. 4 of this year, steam saw its highest number of concurrent users:8.5 million; NBC was the highest rated network for the week ending Jan. 4– with 7.3 million viewers

These are big, big numbers and they point to a level of engagement between streamers and viewers that other media channels can’t approach or replicate. But what does this engagement look like? What are these millions of streamers and viewers doing for all of these millions of monthly hours? These are the basic activities:

  • Play — there’s got to be someone streaming their gameplay for this to work and so it starts with the gamer. Their game screen is the core of the experience. As they play the gamer is visible, either in a small pop-out box or green-screened in one of the corners.
  • Narrate — as they play, most streamers are talking — mostly about the game they are playing, the opponents they are facing, the system they are using, etc.
  • Interact — viewers can talk to each other via chat and with the streamer. Sometimes there may be a Twitter feed on the screen, sometimes a chat box. Either way, there is a lot of flow across the screen.

It can be a pretty busy experience for the uninitiated. What is missing from this cacophonous space is any meaningful marketing. What there is typically takes the form of video before a stream launches or a site takeover (“The Lazarus Effect” owned the MLG screen when I wrote this). There are also brands that sponsor specific teams or players. Little evidence of that appears in the actual stream experience though and that’s where the action is.

Figuring out how to connect with the audience is a tricky business and one that needs to be handled with some sensitivity. As was the case with social media when it first appeared on the scene, brands need to learn the rules and norms of these channels before barging in. Here are a few ideas for getting a handle on the world of streaming gaming:

  • Watch — have someone spend time simply observing what is happening, learning the language that is used, understanding how interactions take place in the environment.
  • Play — this is a tough job, but if you want to connect with this audience, someone is going to have to be a gamer. Why?
  • Stream — This is why you need a gamer. Ideally, you want people to want to watch you. Your brand can become a destination for this audience if you can present a personality that they want to connect with. A funny, affable, skilled player and voice is key.

Obviously, this type of thing isn’t appropriate for every brand; but for technology companies, game publishers, snacks and soft drinks, and entertainment properties this approach could make sense. Yet as was the case with the early days of social, brands wanting to participate in this channel need to be authentic, committed and thick-skinned (there’s no shortage of trash talking, trolling and inappropriate banter here).

A brand that is able to create a strong personality and following within the new realm of streaming gaming will have a direct channel to a large and growing audience in a way that no other channel currently offers. Seriously, make time for game time.

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