By: Maxine Fox
Kids are driven by two motivating factors when it comes to choosing what to watch—who they’re watching with, and how they’re feeling in the moment.
Who they’re watching with is relatively self-explanatory: Are kids tuning into a show solo, or are they sitting down with their friends or family to enjoy a group experience? This decision point has implications for the type of shows they watch, and also the devices or settings in which they consume that content.
But this shared-versus-individual choice doesn’t live in a vacuum. Kids often pick content based on whether they want to wind up (excited, intrigued) or wind down (calmed, comforted).
These might be subconscious decisions—such as choosing to watch a show before bed because it’s a night-time ritual—but they ultimately shape the types of content kids choose to turn on.
In the end, our research finds that most popular kids shows sit somewhere between these four tensions, satisfying different needs along the way. Ultimately, producers should think of each of these tensions as a quadrant. And where a kid’s mood falls within those quadrants will determine the best type of content to fulfill their needs in the moment.
Together versus solo
In our recent “Kids and the Screen” study, respondents cited spending time with family (79%) and friends (79%) as the top reason to watch something, followed closely by wanting to have alone time (72%).
Streamers such as Netflix (61%) and Disney+ (53%) were the go-to platforms for shared viewing, with 69% of respondents saying they watched these with other people. SVOD content that resonated the most were shows and movies that provide a feel-good shared viewing experience—such as Toy Story and Star Wars—something that has been lacking due to cinema closures throughout the pandemic.
Two-thirds of US kids also reported watching linear TV with family. Despite a steady decline in viewership over the past few years, traditional television is making a comeback with light-hearted competition shows like America’s Got Talent and The Masked Singer providing something for the entire family to enjoy.
When it comes to the 72% of kids who turned to content for alone time, YouTube was by far the platform of choice, with 75% of kids going there to watch content that was just for them. YouTube is more of an individual experience because it’s most frequently watched on portable devices (78%), and also because its content more easily reflects children’s passions and personal hobbies like music videos and gaming. Ultimately, with its vast variety of options, YouTube provides niche content that’s just for them.
Wind up versus wind down
A large number of kids said they tune into a show to be wound up and generate a feeling—this could be humor (60%) or excitement (47%)—that infuses their day with something new.
Dynamic content offers characters who tend to have cool powers (29%), save the day (20%) and beat the bad guys (19%). There is something frenetic, lively and energetic about these shows that draw kids in—and often their families, too. This content does particularly well on VOD platforms, and top dynamic shows viewed on streamers include PAW Patrol (19%), Teen Titans Go! (19%), Raya and the Last Dragon (4%) and PJ Masks (3%).
Aspirational content, meanwhile, explores different talents that people have, and the glamorous lives they lead. It’s an opportunity to daydream and live through others. Kids who enjoy watching these shows appreciate the excitement (47%) and the talented nature of the characters (24%).
YouTube satisfies kids’ desire for aspirational content by providing a window into over-the-top celebrity life, while also allowing viewers to see “normal” people just like themselves living out their dreams. Music videos from the likes of Justin Bieber and Olivia Rodrigo are among kids’ top aspirational content choices, as well as YouTubers such as JoJo Siwa and Kids Diana Show.
Wind-down viewing, on the other hand, gives kids an outlet to de-stress. The majority of children surveyed said they view content as part of their daily routine (76%) or something to have on in the background (66%), while 41% said they watch TV as a way to relax before bed.
Alternative shows feature weird and wonderful universes that are full of funny and silly characters and the everyday mischief they get up to. They allow kids to escape their everyday lives and travel to another place. This content is light-hearted and worry-free. Kids reported enjoying its silliness (28%) and weird characters (15%) the most.
Familiar shows are characterized by humor (60%), family themes (25%) and the relatability of the main character (15%). This type of content provides trusted and predictable storylines that kids can rely on, so watching it is extremely easy.
Collision versus co-existence
We cannot satisfy all kid needs at the same time, so producers should identify which one is the driving force behind their IP in order to determine whether winding up/winding down or solo/shared should dictate where their content lives.
But where do these four tensions collide? Is all family content watched on linear TV? Are all aspirational shows watched on YouTube? Of course not. Content that really succeeds in capturing kids’ attention will often cross-pollinate elements from more than one quadrant to satisfy an entire moment.
For example, while familiar content is most often watched at home on linear TV with the whole family, it also has a place on YouTube, where kids often seek out something comforting after a long day. And although aspirational content—offering a window into glamorous worlds—works remarkably well on YouTube (the bastion of solo content consumption), it also has the power to draw in the entire family, as evidenced by shows like America’s Got Talent and The Masked Singer.
But what takes precedent? The need for an individual moment, or the desire to be “wound up” and excited? Ultimately, that’s for producers to decide.
“Kids and the Screen: Changing the Channel” was conducted in the US in June, 2021. The survey polled 2,000 kids between two and 12, exploring their viewing habits across both linear and digital platforms.
Maxine Fox is managing director at Giraffe Insights.