It’s the age of YouTube, app stores and Minecraft, and today’s kids are privy to a limitless array of content. But underneath the appearance of plenty is an underlying, growing trend of frustration—the paradox of choice. In the US, 78% of two- to 15-year-olds (along with their parents) say they are often or sometimes frustrated when trying to find something new, and roughly the same number of children in the UK (75%) are experiencing the identical quandary.
Today’s omnimedia environment has allowed kids to master the art of organizing their own content intake. This phenomenon, referred to as “emotional scheduling” by Dubit’s global head of research Peter Robinson, sees kids choose content, platforms and even viewing behaviors suited to their needs at that moment, which are defined by time, place, access to devices and other environmental factors. But has the rise of child-led commissioning produced a happy consumer? In many ways, yes—but not always. Children want the freedom that makes new platforms so appealing, but they also crave the old benefits of structure and limitations. Schedules help them focus, discover and satisfy needs, which makes sense to kids.
Freed from appointment-viewing
In the past, older kids discovered new shows by watching television or chatting with friends on the playground, while younger ones relied on their parents. Children’s media was primarily and predictably found on TV, and on Saturday mornings—the only day of the week when kids owned the remote control. While parents enjoyed a weekend sleep-in, children filled their boots with live-action, animated and wonderfully obscure TV fare. Everyone saw the same shows, and talked about them on Monday. Today, it’s mainly YouTube, mobile store promotions and even in-app advertising that drive discovery (though the old-school methods still carry weight).
So what happened to Saturday? Weekend appointment-viewing for kids disappeared for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there’s been an ongoing fragmentation of media services among families, with 28% of US households, and 15% in the UK, subscribing to at least two video services. There’s also been an increase in always-on media, since most children under the age of 13 have access to at least 10 connected devices in their homes. Finally, a lowered barrier to content creation and distribution has allowed creators to build and launch products at low costs through YouTube, app stores and their own direct-to-consumer channels.
As a result, the power of schedulers to dictate kids’ consumption has been depleted. Over the last two years, our global media and brand tracker Dubit Trends has observed a 24% decrease in live-TV viewing among US kids, and a 19% drop among their UK counterparts.
Kids schedule themselves
Viewing modes may be changing, but kids’ natural tendencies have not. Additional Dubit data reveals branded children’s blocks are outperforming TV channels, kids are choosing curated streams within VOD services, and the most successful YouTubers are ones who release content daily—at predictable times. In fact, kids will wait for their favorite clips rather than seek similar content elsewhere. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Many years ago, Nickelodeon’s Noggin block structured its daily schedule to mirror a morning at preschool, and Sprout in the US has special wake-up and bedtime programming.
In terms of daily scheduling, Dubit finds preschoolers tend to use tablets in the morning to watch YouTube content, since mobile is perfectly suited for the busy breakfast rush. Tablets allow a child to access any content he or she wants (that is allowed by parents), and this is primetime for nursery rhymes and revisiting favorite clips.
In the evenings, eight- to 10-year-olds are usually squeezed out of controlling the big screen from both ends. They have to yield to adults and teens, and to younger siblings, too. Tablets in hand, they escape to quiet parts of the house after younger kids are in bed. There, they turn to YouTube to indulge in chill-out time with content that speaks to their hobbies and niche interests. Watching videos is popular, particularly those of the Minecraft variety.
Emotional scheduling is good news for media giants that own or present well-known, trusted content and characters. It also bodes well for emerging entertainers introducing contemporary and trendsetting insights, platform owners seeking to organize access to deep content, as well as game and app makers who need to align their UI, UX and marketing strategies with their audiences’ behaviors.
Good producers have always kept a vision of their demo in mind while developing and designing children’s media, and more than ever before they need to understand when, how and where a child is likely to watch or use their content. For example, short-form themed pieces (unboxing videos or game tips) that work for evening wind-downs aren’t the same as the narrative deep-dives (sitcoms or Minecraft sessions) that kids seek when they have more time. Social consumption demands something snackable and shared. If content can support the range of options that suits varied needs, kids will smartly figure out how and when to use it.
Children’s content makers and distributors must also focus less on counting users in terms of ratings or downloads. Today, a deeper emotional connection with a smaller audience may be more valuable than a superficial one that begets larger numbers. This is going to become increasingly important as families hit “subscription fatigue” and drop the least-used service in their homes.
Of course, this is all somewhat Back to the Future. For decades, children’s media succeeded by being a trusted friend for its audiences: predictable, accessible and easy to use. Emotional scheduling isn’t a call to return to linear or one-size-fits-all services. There are lots of good reasons why on-demand, streaming and interactive media are booming. It is, however, a clear and urgent call to use old models with all platforms to help overwhelmed audiences find and stick with their next favorite thing.