By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: January 22, 2007 4:00 AM PST
When Amy Jo Kim's son Gabriel says he wants to "watch videos," she knows he doesn't mean DVDs or television. He wants YouTube.
Gabriel, an intensely curious kid who's about to turn 8, has been fascinated by everything from skateboarding and basketball to statistics about world extremes (like the tallest building in the world). He likes to look up information about the subjects on Wikipedia with his mom and then turn to YouTube for short video clips of kids playing sports. If he hears a likeable song in a YouTube video, he might visit Apple's iTunes store to download the music, too.
Gabriel watched more TV when he was younger, but now he only likes to sit for one or two shows, like PBS' Reading Rainbow, when "he needs to chill out," his mom said.
"He finds TV boring. So during Reading Rainbow we look up stuff on Wikipedia like side commentary. But I'm driving that," said Kim, a 40-something game designer and resident of Half Moon Bay, Calif. "His interest in TV has really declined, because it's just there, you can't customize it."
Certainly, Gabriel is growing up in a computer-savvy family with parents who, as game designers, encourage use of technology. They own a TiVo, so when they do watch TV, it's time-shifted without commercials. Gabe and his dad also play on Sony's PlayStation 2--games as well as other titles like the instrument software Guitar Hero. Though Gabriel parents imposed a limit of only two hours daily in front of a screen--TV, PC or game console--he's tuned to a world where he controls media, not the other way around.
Researchers say this kind of environment, in which parents aren't afraid of or clueless about technology, is fostering a new generation of kids who are naturally adept with technology and comfortable with having virtual access to friends, family and the world at large. They have a much more global outlook at a younger age, and experts from the research firm Iconoculture say that unlike the picture of entitled teens and 20-somethings that many pundits have dubbed the Me Generation, today's kids under the age of 11 are part of what Iconoculture dubs "Generation We."
"What we're talking about is a generation that has the ability to be in touch with each other immediately at earlier and earlier ages," said Nancy Robinson, vice president and consumer strategist at Iconoculture, a Minneapolis company that tracks consumer trends for consumer giants like Nestle and Sony. "If you asked someone 10 years ago about the necessity of a cell phone for a 5-year-old, they would have laughed and walked away; now you can buy that at Target."
Think of Generation We kids as a product of Generation Xers--a demographic born roughly between the years of 1961 and 1981 whose influence over pop culture peaked in the '90s. Parents of Gen We are not only savvy about media and advertising, they're also comfortable with technology. They're taking those skills into parenting, encouraging their offspring to understand that with technology, the kids can be in control.
"Parents of Gen We's don't see technology as the enemy and don't need to moderate it as much: They see it (as a way to) help them with parenting. They see it as a bonding experience," Robinson said. "As a kind of media Sherpa, they're encouraging kids to not just absorb what media tells you, but to think about how you can change it."
She added: "There's nothing remote about control anymore."
This generation hasn't rejected TV, but the way Generation We watches the tube has evolved from their parents' days. What's been called the "Tivo-ization" of households now give kids unprecedented freedom over the handling of their TV diet, so much so that young kids often don't understand the traditional way of watching shows with a set geography and time. And now that TV shows are migrating to portable devices and are streamed on demand from the Web, the experience for kids is even more interactive and community-based.
Jonathan Steuer, a researcher at Iconoculture, has a 5-year-old daughter who recently asked to watch one of her shows while they were visiting a friend's house. Because the friends didn't own a TiVo, "I had to explain to her the show wasn't on there," he said.
"You've got a generation of kids who've had an unprecedented amount of control of their media and they're not going to give it up," Steuer said. "It does put out a challenge--for anyone in the media busines--of how to keep attention in that media."
I want my MTV mix masher
Take what MTV Networks is doing with its teen-targeted digital cable channel, The N. It produces television shows that air on cable, but its audience can stream the shows via the Web through its broadband player, The Click. On the site, kids can use a so-called video mix masher to take a scene from a show, put a comment on it and add other scene asynchronously to create their program. Part of it is what The N calls "vomenting," or adding commentary to shows via text blurbs or audio, ala Mystery Science Theater."
Dixie Feldman, an editorial director at The N, which reaches about 50 million homes, said that group's audience is increasingly turning to the Net to watch shows and bond with their peers from all over.
"On the Net, geographic boundaries disappear--a teen can watch a scene in New York, and another teen in Nebraska can watch and comment on that same scene," and they can both create something new, she said. "The Net creates that community aspect."
"Our audience is increasingly community based--it's the Me Generation (and) the We Generation. You use the community to find out who you are and play with identity, that's just as much about the We as it is about the Me," Feldman said.
To be sure, researchers say TV consumption isn't dissipating, despite long-held fears among TV producers that the Internet would eat their lunch. Vicky Rideout, a vice president at nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation and a researcher of teen habits, said TV still dominates kids' media diet.
A 2004 study of kids age 8 to 18 showed that they spent an average of three hours a day watching TV, the same amount from five years earlier. Yet kids' time spent with other media rose over that same period, a trend evoking the idea that children today are adept at multitasking--watching YouTube videos, instant messaging friends, or listening to music while playing a game. According to the study, kids spent an average of one hour with the computer daily, nearly two hours listening to music, 50 minutes with video games and 45 minutes reading.
Still, with more control of media, it's hard to believe that kids' TV consumption, like Gabriel's, won't decline.
"Media has moved yet again and managed to reinvent itself in the family--from the hearth to the boob tube to education station to interactive experiential mode," said Iconoculture's Robinson. "It's not about being anaesthetized, it's about being engaged."
Just ask the Kims.
"Driving home we'll see a bird," Kim said, "and then go to Wikipedia (at home) and look it up. Then once we're online, he'll say, 'How about we go to YouTube?'"
Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit with children when they're online to ensure they visit only parent-approved Web sites. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends. To kids, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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