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Unplugged and coming unglued? Nick assesses how kids fare without access to tech

As the axiom goes, you don't know what you have until it's gone. But when it comes to kids, as Nickelodeon has discovered, it may be doubly true. In a time when more than half of all 12- to 14-year-olds in the US have a cell phone and have never known life without the internet, the company's research team recently set out to better understand the relationship kids have with technology by asking a group of them to go without it for 10 days. Summed up in a report entitled Living in a Digital World, the study's findings yield some interesting insights for marketers and advertisers trying to reach kids through these platforms.
April 1, 2007

As the axiom goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. But when it comes to kids, as Nickelodeon has discovered, it may be doubly true. In a time when more than half of all 12- to 14-year-olds in the US have a cell phone and have never known life without the internet, the company’s research team recently set out to better understand the relationship kids have with technology by asking a group of them to go without it for 10 days. Summed up in a report entitled Living in a Digital World, the study’s findings yield some interesting insights for marketers and advertisers trying to reach kids through these platforms.

‘Tech devices are so commonplace in our lives that the real motivation for using them has become subconscious,’ says Marsha Williams, who oversaw the study as SVP of research and planning at Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group. In fact, some common assumptions about why kids use certain gadgets proved to be completely wrong, and that surprised even Williams.

Nick’s researchers approached fifth- and eighth-graders who were heavy users of a technology – be it TV, internet, cell phones or video games – and persuaded them to give it up for 10 days. Additionally, a fifth group agreed to renounce exposure and access to all video devices, including handhelds, computers and TVs. Williams and her staff then opened up a 24-hour toll-free hotline that any participant could call to discuss (or complain about) their experience.

For its part, the team phoned each child daily to check in, and the net offered participants an honorarium upon completing the study. Basically, the program hinged on the honor system, and Williams isn’t ashamed to say her team dangled the money like a carrot to keep kids honest and motivated to stay technology-free. All of the kids made it through; in fact, Williams says it was the parents who were the worse for wear, in some cases.

In the internet deprivation group, parents found themselves more involved than ever before in helping their kids manage school work. Though kids (and researchers) expected that they’d miss the entertainment and communication aspects of web access the most, the collected data revealed that they go online to search for information as much as they do for fun.

Without being able to play games, search for music or watch videos online, kids easily found other things and other screens to keep them amused. Likewise, they simply picked up the phone to communicate when email and instant messenger were out of the picture. But the degree to which they and their families depended on the internet for information left parents and kids out of sorts come homework time. Many kids simply hadn’t prepared for 10 days without access to web research for school assignments, so parents found themselves looking things up on their children’s behalf or (horrors) driving them to the library. Moreover, kids missed the sense of control and self-sufficiency the tech provides.

‘The internet gives parents and kids information in such a way that is redefining agency,’ says Williams. They can find out almost anything they want to with a click of the mouse, making them more self-reliant and their lives easier. For marketers and ad agencies, Williams says this boils down to the need to create online experiences that aren’t just about making sales, but are service-driven and empowering as well.

Williams got her biggest shock from the group of kids who gave up their cell phones. ‘There’s an assumption that kids ask for cell phones and that parents find excuses to avoid giving in. But that is false,’ she says. In fact, Nickelodeon found that 47% of parents with kids ages eight to 14 wanted them to have a cell phone, while only 9% of phone purchases were driven solely by the kids. And in 37% of cases, it was a joint decision.

Without cell phones, the kids in the study were mildly inconvenienced. For example, some found themselves lonely on weekends without having copied out their contact lists so they could use the land line to call their buddies. The parents, on the other hand, says Williams, went nuts.

The accessibility, safety and peace of mind that comes with virtually residing in their kids’ pockets suddenly disappeared, which led to worry and anxiety for the vast majority of the study’s parent participants.

‘Parents are able to, in a digital way, stay in touch and involved with their kids,’ says Williams. With cell phones, they have more control from wider boundaries, and kids also have more autonomy and freedom. Rather than pre-arranged pick-up times, for example, kids with cell phones tend to make spontaneous calls and negotiate on the situation at hand.

As for TV, despite the plethora of digital platforms kids have access to at home these days, they are watching two hours more television a week on average. Williams attributes this to a greater need for downtime and relaxation in a cluttered life, as well as TV becoming a big part of family togetherness time in the US.

The modern family unit spends a significant amount of time cuddling and talking in front of the tube. In some cases, kids in the TV deprivation group stayed in their rooms within earshot of the rest of the family as they enjoyed a TV show or DVD together. But Williams says she was surprised to find that, on the whole, kids didn’t have that hard a time without TV. They either found something else to do, asked their parents to record shows so they could watch them later, or switched to watching content on another screen. It was a different story with the all-screen deprivation group. Those kids missed TV a lot, and found the lack of tube time far more worrisome and annoying.

For the video game group, the word ‘addictive’ came up a lot in pre-study discussions about giving this tech app up. But kids who went a bit squirrelly without habitual access to their consoles seemed to need about four days to ‘get over the hump.’ Then, ‘I got my son back,’ said one father. Another told

Williams he had never realized how often he was using the game console as a babysitter until his son got older and became more interested in the gaming than in spending time with him.

Besides providing valuable psychographic data to Nick’s advertising partners, Williams says the study’s findings about kids’ relationships to media helps sharpen the company’s direction from a products and leisure time perspective. Already the report has led to actionable insights in the wireless space, such as pointing out potential opportunities to partner with cell phone providers.

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