Lessons from creeping my kid’s social media: column

JWT's Rebecca Brown on why we should ignore certain stereotypes about gen Z and look at how they really use their apps.

By Rebecca Brown

There are two ways to look at my career in advertising. Both are tragic.

I was born too late. I missed advertising’s golden age, when TV was king, budgets were big and shoots took place in glamorous locales. Also, everyone felt reasonably confident they knew what they were doing.

I was born too early. We’re at the beginning of the beginning of the digital age. My peers and I are just holding down the fort until our gen Z progeny — the first genuine digital natives — grow up and do this digital advertising thing for real.

Regarding the first take: I’m over it.

But the second has given me more than one grey hair. I don’t want to be a mere stopgap; I want to make a meaningful contribution. And I have a way in: I’m parenting two of these gen-Zers who will eventually make my digital skills obsolete.

So I’ve been using my kids – particularly my 12-year-old son — for info. And when my casual snooping stopped returning useful intel, I invited him and some pals to my agency J. Walter Thompson for free pizza, a tour of our coolest amenities (ping pong was a hit) and a panel on the internet and social media.

What I discovered is that my born-at-the-wrong-time colleagues and I so completely misunderstand our digital progeny that we don’t even know the right questions to ask. These tweens can barely ride the bus alone, but they know digital so viscerally, they speak another language.

When they speak at all. What they prefer to do is block things. And what they prefer to block are messages that they’re not interested in. Oftentimes, what they’re not interested in is ads. They’re the most advertising-adverse generation to arise since the rise of advertising itself.

For these gen Z kids, digital is not a discrete thing. Like the air, or their mothers, it just is. Studies tell us that they can multi-task across five screens, have an eight-second attention span, spend 41% of their time outside of school with some kind of computer, and communicate effortlessly with images (emoji is the fastest growing global language).

But the stereotype of the oversharing, screen-addicted juvenile idiot doesn’t fit. They’re not idiots, and they aren’t juvenile. They’re mature.

Consider this trope: our kids are oblivious to the virtues of privacy, and so increasingly prone to online depredations. Here’s the real story. Our kids are the first generation of humans who grew up with a good chance of having every important moment in their lives documented and made public by their parents – without their consent. (According to a U.K. study, the average parent will post almost 1,000 photos of their child online before they turn five.)

And when this cohort got their own devices, their gen X parents and teachers began feeding them a steady stream of horror stories about online stranger danger.

The operant variable here was not our warnings, but our kids’ awareness.  In fact, we are the reckless oversharers, not them. They’re actually kind of private. (One Austrian teenager is currently suing her own parents over a violation of her online privacy.)

Today’s tweens are far more conservative about what they post than either their elder millennial cousins (inventors of the drunken selfie) or their gen X parents (oversharing parent bloggers).

They know how to use the privacy setting on their phones (most adults do not). They favour private messaging apps like Snapchat and Kik. Tweens post selectively to the social media handles parents, relatives and their broader circles of peers will see (my son has a total of four post on his main Instagram). They’re somewhat more active and open in their so-called spam or finsta accounts, and give only their inner circle access.

So what does this mean for advertising?  While I accept that I’m two steps behind this generation, I think I’ve discovered four basic pathways into their digital brains.

1. Since these kids relish digital control and have a high level of mastery, advertising experiences need to feed into that, not frustrate them with forced interruptions.

2. They grew up using the internet as a teacher, and they’re consequently receptive to content that delivers useful how-tos. They don’t care if this content is sponsored. They don’t block things that teach them something they want to learn.

3. They love funny. But while our in-jokes came from movies and TV, theirs come from an endless stream of memes and gifs that they trade with friends. If you can tap into their shorthand, you’re good.

4. They carry their friends around in their pockets and are basically involved in a 24/7 conversation with everyone they know. Getting your brand into that conversation is the holy grail. Humour is one way in. But providing them with tools or functionality to enhance their interaction is another way at it.

Truth: Everyone who works in this industry right now was born at the wrong time, and we often ask the wrong questions or make incorrect assumptions.

Don’t guess about their digital behaviours based on your own. Don’t too get bogged down in stats, they have little to say about the real future. Instead, try to jolt your system, somehow, into the mindset of a true digital native.

Or maybe just listen to a kid.

Rebecca Brown is VP, social media and content at J. Walter Thompson in Toronto.