SXSW: How teens use digital

James Keeler, strategy director, The White Agency
By James Keeler, strategy director, The White Agency | 20 March 2015

This write-up is focused on one of best presentations I saw at day four of SXSW – it focused on the digital behaviour young teens.

In this fascinating session two 13 year olds talked about the use of digital devices, social media, digital content consumption, and how to engage with their age group online. They had done an online survey on Reddit, surveyed friends and talked about the results of it as well as the experiences of themselves and their friends.

Sidney was 13 years old, in the eighth grade, she likes horse riding and mac and cheese. William was also 13 and in the eighth grade, and was into tech stuff.

Both used phones and laptops daily, and William also had a second laptop he had built himself. Neither of them cared much about the device itself, they just wanted access to the internet and to be able to do what they wanted. William and his friends had all routed their phones, and done lots of customisation to them, like changed home screens etc. This was a big thing for them.

Social media:

Neither of them use Facebook. They don't use it as their friends don't and they only have an account to get Spotify.
Their entire school uses Evernote for everything and they have chat notebook, image notebooks, etc. They have effectively turned it into a social media messaging tool. They said this was cool because teachers and parents just thought they were on Evernote doing homework, and didn't know they were chatting.

They use Google+ for hangouts, Steam because it integrates well with gaming, and Reddit. In their words Reddit posts links to content on other places on the web, let's you comment on them and vote on content to move it up and down news streams. Lots of people create their own content for Reddit which is what makes it awesome.

Their view of risk is more about people's impression of you, as on social media everything is either amazing or horrible, nothing is just average. They are wary of creepy dudes but this is less important than people's impression of you.

Most don't do anything for privacy to protect themselves, but they create additional profiles/personas that their parents don't know about and which portray them differently to their real ones.

Instead of prank calling, William and his friends prank each other online. They use TOR to set up profiles as his friends will look up the IP address and find you if you don't. No one else in the audience was on TOR daily.

These guys understand things never go away online. Once you send something it's online for ever. They are conscious this could make it harder for them to get into college or to get a job, so they are careful about what they email and post (but less about what they say in chat). This also contributes to why they have additional social media profiles. Millennial are different in this regard, they don't understand the longevity piece like this younger group do.

They view email as a more formal form of communication, in a similar way to how we view paper mail as being more formal.


There were split views when it came to advertising:

- Some don't pay attention to ads as mostly they're way off. Sidney gave the example of getting ads for Japanese restaurants when she mainly eats mac and cheese

- Others don't mind getting targeted advertising, and think this is better than getting random static ads. It's a win win, as they're more likely to see stuff that they're interested in.

- In the survey lots even said they wouldn't mind manually adding their interests to Google to get more targeted ads. They know it will give them a better experience.

On the balance more prefer not to share but there is a big shift to being happy to do it. Almost as many are happy that people monetise their data in return for free content as those who are unhappy about it.

They understand that companies monetise their content, and they are cool with this if they get free content in return.
What drives purchase? They kind of care about brands as a mark of quality/reputation, but they don't care about brands beyond that - they don't see them as status symbols as previous generations have. Neither of the two presenters had any idea what brand of backpack they had.


They see two distinct modes of content - snacking and long form. They love to get into longer form content, they just can't do it in the queue in Starbucks, and don't have time to do it very often. They don't often have time to watch 90 minute movie, so they more regularly use Vine or ifunny or social video, but it's wrong to say they don't like long form content. Sometimes they will binge-watch entire series’ in a weekend.

Fan fictions are popular but they get really annoyed because the grammar is so bad. Grammar is not as important in texting, but they would always use proper language when writing emails, on most social media and in any longer form content. They will switch off content if the grammar is bad.

Sharing content with friends using social is universally popular, it's part of the TV watching experience. They say 'it sucks when you're the only person who watches something because there's no one to talk to about it - you feel super isolated'. They all try to get friends to watch stuff or watch stuff other friends watch. And if you want to watch a TV series you don't just join in where it's at, you have to go back to the pilot episode and start from there to get to know the characters and storyline - it's not authentic to jump in part way through.

Paid vs. free:

Many early teens really hate paying for things because they don't have a lot of money. But just as big an issue is they don't have credit cards because they can't get them, and therefore they can't pay for stuff online. So they pirate stuff because it's the only way to get it. They don't really think of it as stealing, it's just the only way to get stuff.

They also believed you get far more choice with content when pirating it illegally than you can by buying it legally. You can only stream certain episodes and at certain times legally, but illegally you can watch whatever, whenever. Companies need to give a better experience if you pay for it or people won't. Games have cracked this and that's why there is much less piracy with games.

Ultimately they don't mind paying, but they don't want to pay for a bad experience.

Myths debugged:

- They can focus when they have time and when they want to.

- They don't care. They are actually really into what's happening in the world. They're into news, knew all about North Korea hacks, etc.

- They are obsessed with celebrities. They are not. Those people don't do anything for the world, they don't contribute to the global community. They don't care what celebrities do 'everybody gets drunk, it's no big deal if a celebrity does it, who cares'.

Do's and Dont's:


- Dumb stuff down for kids, they want the complexity

- Interfere with their experience or invade their space e.g. Pop up ads are hated. Don't encroach or they will hate you

- Be shady or creepy. E.g. Pop unders, stalking

- Only give them short, shallow content


- Adapt for kids, make it work for them. Eg. Not credit cards payments only

- Put effort into quality and authenticity because they notice. Use proper grammar, 'you' not 'u'

- Make emotional connections. If they like what you're doing, they will spread it around. But brands aren't people, so don't pretend they are

- Provide deep content and feeling too

James Keeler

Strategy director

The White Agency

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