An angry mother storms into her 14-year-old girl’s bedroom. The room is dark, but a light subtly glows from underneath the sheets. Mom already knows: it’s not a flashlight and a magazine, it’s an iPod Touch,  and it’s the third time this week that her daughter has stayed up well past her bedtime to play Candy Crush. 

The scene is not an uncommon one, as more and more young children are communicating in ways that were foreign to parents while they were growing up. The motivation is the same as it ever was: socializing, entertaining, and learning. But as the details of consumption change, they paint an interesting picture of how lines are blurring, behaviors are changing, and brands are reacting to the lifestyles of the cohort called Generation Play.

Youth in 2014 are living a philosophy called device-agnosticism. With digital devices as core (and often, the only) windows into the world of content, the medium is no longer the message, at least not in the way Marshall McLuhan intended. With video, audio and print interchangeable between devices and spaces, we’ve long lost certainty over where and when our content will be viewed. A Facebook ID provides a gateway into thousands of other digital experiences. Cloud computing and entertainment platforms give kids access to their digital experiences and rewards across every digital device. It’s the rise of a trend we call ‘Mocial’, social and mobile have merged for an always-on, always-connected social lifestyle. With this revolution of device agnosticism comes a type of stimulation we could not fathom a generation ago. Everything has immediate feedback. Everything’s a game. Everything’s amazing. Yet everything is boring too, just ask the 14-year-old girl. 

Everything’s a game. Everything’s amazing. Yet everything is boring too...

In essence, we take in more, but less. Teens and tweens in particular are caught up in a world that has cultural ADD in an unprecedented manner. Social media, smartphones, apps and media fragmentation have fundamentally changed how we communicate, and our relationships with those who wish to communicate to us. At Fuel we call this trend ‘Distractionified’ – youth consumers are so distracted across their digital life that kids, tweens, teens and young adults are impacting product lifecycles, marketing promotion performance, and even how they interact with their families. The impact is profound on all aspects of digital marketing, marketing communications, and brand management today.  

But who exactly are the ‘youth’ of today? If we’re talking the Millennials and iGen demographics, we’re talking about a varied and vast demographic that, while comprised of different age groups, has a startlingly uniform and shared experience. In the age group between 10 and 29, no one age group has any demographic weight over another. This is profoundly different to 20 years ago, when Gen X as young adults in the 20–24 demographic had a significant size difference compared to teens and 25-30 year olds and as a result dominated pop culture trends.

But who exactly are the ‘youth’ of today? If we’re talking the Millennials and iGen demographics, we’re talking about a varied and vast demographic that, while comprised of different age groups, has a startlingly uniform and shared experience. In the age group between 10 and 29, no one age group has any demographic weight over another. This is profoundly different to 20 years ago, when Gen X as young adults in the 20–24 demographic had a significant size difference compared to teens and 25-30 year olds and as a result dominated pop culture trends.

Youth culture has become a shared, “we” experience, and it’s entirely likely you’ll find your 12-year-old niece exhibiting a lot of the same online patterns and behaviors as your 25-year-old son. Cross-boundary and cross-platform experiences like Angry Birds, Instagram and, yes, the multitudes of cat videos readily available, mean that wholesome concepts like ‘family game night’, ‘trivia hour’ and ‘Saturday morning cartoons’ are happening at all hours of the day, and across much broader groups than ever before.  Content that may have once been considered ‘kids stuff’ is now so easy to digest that it’s become the domain of working parents, young professionals, teens and tweens alike.

Let’s paint a picture: Steve lives at home with his parents. He goes to school and has a part time job. He likes movies and sports and connects with friends on his Android. On the weekend, he hangs out with his “girlfriend” and plays his XBOX. He wears Vans sneakers and a Hollister t-shirt. How old is Steve?  Did you answer 15 or did you answer 30? As of end-of-year 2012, 45% of 20 – 29 years olds live at home, and trends are showing that percentage growing. The result? A prolonged adolescence, a proclivity to consumption and entertainment, and a wealth of web-connected digital devices acting as key cornerstones to serve up that content.

In a true adolescent attitude, digitally-connected youth and young-adults can’t imagine a world where they’re not in control of what they’re reading, what they’re playing and what they’re hearing at any given moment. You can’t just tell a young person about your brand. You almost can’t even show them anymore. You have to make them feel the message, and make them want to have it as part of the flow of their day – and it had better be interactive.

In a true adolescent attitude, digitally-connected youth and young-adults can’t imagine a world where they’re not in control of what they’re reading, what they’re playing and what they’re hearing at any given moment. You can’t just tell a young person about your brand. You almost can’t even show them anymore. You have to make them feel the message, and make them want to have it as part of the flow of their day – and it had better be interactive.

The_Digital_Life_of_Youth_Graphs3Welcome to Generation Play, where entertainment and engagement are the most valuable currencies, and a teenager in the her bedroom has more brands at her beck and call than she even realizes, and is spending less time with each of them than they ever expected.