Meet Gen C: How COVID-19 could define this generation

Disney Channel's Lisa Dracolakis and Cathy Gallant look at the lasting effects on kids relationships with their family and friends now that their home lives are their only lives.
October 21, 2020

“Unprecedented.” It’s a simple word to describe what has been a very (very!) complicated 2020. In a good year, most kids content takes 18 months to get to screen. That means creators today are looking at a 2022 release for a recently greenlit series. But how does one plan for two years down the line when the present is unprecedented?

From the “silent generation” influenced by a pair of world wars, to a prosperous “baby boom” that spoke of nothing but promise and potential, to the launch of the internet and all that entailed—few global events have the power to collectively shape a generation. But for today’s Gen Alphas and Gen Zs, COVID-19 is likely to be one of those defining experiences.

So how can the industry plan for a post-pandemic future? To start, you have to talk to your audience today. Experts from Disney, MarketCast Kids and Dubit went right to the source, checking in with families about how their lives have changed in order to discern which new trends and habits are likely to have staying power. There’s still time to sign up for our Kids of 2022 virtual keynote series for even more future-focused audience intel. 

By: Lisa Dracolakis and Cathy Gallant

As families adjusted to sheltering in place and kids switched to distance learning this year, routines have been turned on their heads. The physical limitations of quarantine have left kids feeling bored and isolated—they miss seeing friends and teachers, and playing outdoors. We know many families—especially BIPOC kids and parents—are facing added pressures from income loss, lack of childcare, learning challenges, and space and technology constraints.

Pandemic parenting

Parents are responding to the uncertainty of the wider world by prioritizing a sense of safety and stability at home. They’re finding ways to adapt to  the hurdles thrown their way—creating new routines as they adjust to the “new normal.” When  they can, parents are designating physical spaces for downtime, free play and crafting, and finding alternative ways to stay active—like family dance  parties or exercising together. They are emphasizing values of patience, respect and resilience,  and are having open conversations about money being tight or vacations put on hold.

Parents are also seeking to ease anxieties around COVID-19 by guiding kids’ attention to what they can do to help. Families with younger kids are focusing on control and safety, and discussions are centering on things kids can do to stay safe, like washing their hands or staying inside. With older kids, conversations often focus on gratitude and empowerment, encouraging kids to do their part to slow the spread of the virus.

Kids have come to their own realizations about what is most important to them, and what they hope to never take for granted again—namely school and their friends. Roughly 35% of kids are worried about their friendships, while concern over how long they will be required to stay at home rose as the summer months came to an end. To cope, kids are actively seeking out ways to comfort each other through virtual support networks, helping peers with schoolwork and checking in on how they’re feeling each day. Nearly nine in 10 kids (86%) are using visuals like memes, emojis, GIFs or videos to brighten friends’ days. But they recognize technology’s limits and are developing a  deeper appreciation for IRL interactions, under- standing that true face-to-face time strengthens  existing friendships and allows them to form new ones.

And through the concern and anxiety, families are acting as teams and sticking together more  than ever—one in three parents say they’ve got- ten closer with their kids since lockdowns began.

Parents are raising kids to be true to them- selves and embrace what makes them unique,  not to fit in. With fewer in-person interactions, kids are becoming more reliant on digital spaces  and content to explore their multi-faceted identities. Curious and creatively inclined, they are  also looking outside the digital sphere for ways to express themselves, both with their families and independently—like crafting, cooking, baking and gardening. This generation of parents embraces open and authentic conversations with their kids, who aren’t shielded from what is going on in the world. The realities of COVID-19 aren’t lost on kids, but parents are entrusting and empowering children to do their part in keeping their communities safe. And kids believe they can, and are, making a difference.

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Normalcy now

Comfort that helps kids and families wind down is a frequent and important need, and their time today is filled with more co-viewing moments than we’ve seen before. On their own, kids are re-watching familiar favorites and turning to passive entertainment like cooking shows or social media scrolling. Families are hosting regular movie nights filled with classics on repeat, and older kids are watching lean-back sitcoms with their parents.

With the stress of the current moment weighing on kids, they’re also turning to content for much-needed laughter and emotional release. Kids are sharing coronavirus-related memes to try to inject some lightness into an otherwise serious situation. But they’re also totally escaping reality through cute animal videos, trending dances and “satisfying” slime videos.

Like adults, kids are filling “bored” hours with content that draws them in and keeps them on the edge of their seat. And increasingly, they watch this content together with family members. Siblings and parents have begun selecting serialized shows and must-see events to watch together.

An emerging content need of this generation is passion-based empowerment. Kids of all ages are taking this time to explore their passions and discover new ones. They are consuming content and tapping into technological tools to unleash their creativity, as well as to engage in “productive pursuits” and hobbies. Many are also joining in community activism to help those affected by COVID-19, and to make their voices heard on the social justice front.

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Inevitable change

Chaotic times make it hard to forecast two months out, let alone two years. But as families emerge on the other side of COVID-19, we can imagine how their trials might amplify some of the defining qualities of this generation and guide their content choices.

As a result of this collective crash course in epidemiology, we may see a heightened interest in science, more discipline around maintaining healthy environments, and an appreciation of the everyday heroics of “essential workers.” And parents’ advice to focus on what you can control and be thankful for what you have may bolster kids’ confidence in their own ability to bounce back, and deepen their already generous capacity for empathy.

Speaking of empathy, the literal closeness of quarantine provides kids and parents new windows into each other’s daily struggles, which we think will lead to more patience, understanding and a stronger team spirit among families.

The interruption of friendships may lead to a new appreciation of in-person social experiences (“getting to” go to school versus “having to” go to school). Reestablishing relationships and social ties are likely to be awkward and hard at first, and kids may place more value on forging fewer, closer friendships and a closer-knit support system.

Although free time will be at a premium in a post-quarantine world, families will likely hold onto new co-viewing habits that allow for quality time that is equally fun for all. Not every new interest will stick (we’re looking at you, sourdough starter), but their exploration of hands-on hobbies can expose kids to both the emotional and practical benefits of practicing new skills and seeing concrete evidence of their contributions.

Distance learning has many drawbacks, but self-directed learning may lead to an interest in more “educational” or “true story” content among kids. This is potentially reinforced by a social justice awakening that has encouraged many kids and parents to educate themselves on the topics of systemic racism and inequality.

Resilience and empathy—fully on display in their response to this pandemic—are hallmarks of this generation. The kids and families we know are optimistic and inspiring. Their belief that they can and should make a positive impact—and their inclination to support those who need it—is a lesson we should all take to heart.

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Using a variety of research methodologies, including self-ethnography, weekly trend surveys and virtual focus groups over the course of spring and summer 2020, Disney Channel engaged with more than 2,000 kids ages six to 11 and their parents to understand how they are coping with the stress surrounding the pandemic.

Disney Channels Consumer Insights focuses on providing insights across all aspects of kids’ lives: culture, content and the evolving media landscape. The Consumer Insights team shares its learnings across all areas of the Disney Channels business, including creative development, programming, marketing, brand and business strategy; and produces innovative, award-winning research that informs all content and strategies.

Image courtesy of National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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