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Shatter the Six Un-truths of Today's Youth 

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"6 Un-truths of Today's Youth"


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Participation Trophies According to Kids, Tweens, and Parents


cartoon kid trophyThis year, we at YouthBeat have been talking about a new kind of parenting style we call “Om” Parenting.  The “Om” is a guttural exhale, a release of stress and negative energy.  As a parenting style, it’s characterized by common sense, reality checks, and raising children with healthy senses of responsibility and dignity.  Some of the ways “Om” parents encourage independence and resilience are through letting their children fail and solve their own problems, and through letting their children go without luxuries or extras in order to appreciate what they do have.

An “Om” parent might act similarly to James Harrison from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who this summer famously declined sports participation trophies for his sons.  His gesture encouraged his children to work hard to earn an emblem of success, rather than receive a shiny object merely for showing up to a game. 

But how do youth feel about their participation trophies?  This was one of the questions our friends at Highlights explored in their 2015 State of the Kid research report.  In the spirit of full disclosure, C+R conducted the fieldwork for the research this year and in 2014.  Though the majority of 6-8 year-olds and 9-10 year-olds say they want the trophy just for playing, some of them acknowledge that when a statue is a sure thing, everyone might not bring their A game.  The bulk of oldest kids 11-12 prefer to only receive a trophy when winning, as a more meaningful token of success.

All told, participation trophies are probably here to stay in the near term, at least for younger athletes.  Proponents say they foster a love of the game and a healthy sense of “doing one’s best,” rather than a thirst to outdo others.  Each family must decide for themselves what works best.

This year’s State of the Kid Report also explores youth attitudes around parental discipline and indulgence.  Highlights’ 2015 report is available for download, along with prior editions of the report.

Towards Teen Girls’ Self-Acceptance of Appearance


The way teen girls feel about their appearance can change on a dime.  A kind word, a cruel one, even how many “likes” their latest selfie receives, can impact the way they feel in the moment.  At YouthBeat, we track the way youth are feeling about their looks every year. 

Over the past few years, teen girls’ feelings about their looks have fluctuated, and in the first half of 2015 they’re not feeling as great as they could. Top 2 box agreement that “I am happy with the way I look” is down from a high of 55% in 2013 to just 47% this year.  Compare that to 61% of teen boys who are currently happy with their appearance, and the percentage seems even starker. 

Plus-size models NYFashionWeekIn this climate of acceptance of others—even as last month’s New York Fashion Week was inclusive of various sizes, shapes, combinations of features, and gender identities—our teen girls aren’t feeling as good about their looks as the adults who love them might hope. 

One marketer, Dove, has launched a new “Change One Thing” campaign that aims to move teen girls’ self-esteem needle in the right direction.  The spot features a series of teen girls, each speaking a wish for a different physical feature, followed by another teen girl with that desired feature, speaking her own wish.  The point is that, well, the grass is always greener the other side…in the looks department (reminding teen viewers that someone desperately wishes they could look like YOU).  The campaign is part of Dove’s overarching Campaign for Real Beauty, and consistent with its spots targeting adults, features layperson consumers, rather than professional models.  The new campaign also coincides with a Dove + Pinterest partnership in which 80 self-esteem boosting pins are available for teens. 

BitmojiAnother approach is to take real-life images out of the mix altogether.  Bitstrips, the online comic creation tool, allows teens (and adults) to create virtual avatars, usually with enough identifying features to look roughly like the creator.  The projection into cartoon style makes features less detailed, glossing over the one little thing that one might nitpick, and focusing on all of the things the creator loves about himself or herself.  Here, the author’s Bitmoji (a similar cartoon avatar, suitable for using in messages) delivers a positive self-affirmation. 

How can your brand help?  Closely examine every facet of your messaging to teens, especially girls.  What kind of standards of beauty are you promoting?  What kind of self-talk are you encouraging?  The village needs to pay more attention to these teen girls, who are still children.  Be a positive voice for them.

Kid and Teen Trends: Back-to-School Edition


Welcome Back, Bulldogs, Tigers, and Warriors (Oh My)!

Across the country, some schools are already in session, while others still have a week left to prepare.  Social media is brimming with “1st day of school” photos, and high school seniors’ throwback photos to the first day of Kindergarten.

Meanwhile, here at YouthBeat, we’ve been investigating lifestyle and attitude trends over time.  Click here to download our hot-off-the-presses Back-to-School infographics for 2015-2016.  We’ve looked at seniors, entering their final year of high school, and 1st graders, just beginning their journey through primary education.YouthBeat Back to School

The short story?  The kids are all right!  There have been some downright heavy events in the culture and news over the last few years that hit close to home for youth of all ages (a tumultuous economy, public violence, bullying, and concerns over sports safety, to name a few).  These types of events can lead to angst, isolation, and depression.  But what we’re seeing instead are youth who are clinging more tightly to their families.  They’re into healthy habits.  They are bullish on the future.

For more information on YouthBeat and the data available through our subscriptions, please contact Mary McIlrath at

Summer Flick Break for Youth


School is finally out for most kids across the U.S., many of whose vacations were delayed to make up for extra snow days racked up during another tough winter.  Families can now take a short breather for a few weeks before Back to School shopping starts in earnest—the National Retail Federation reported that last year, the highest proportion of shoppers (44.5%) started buying for kids ages 6-17 between 3 weeks to a month prior to the new school year.

Why not use that time to take in a summer blockbuster movie?  Our YouthBeat data shows that nearly half (48%) of 1st-4th grade kids go out to see a movie monthly.  The kids, then, will be ready and excited to go.  But which of this summer’s offerings will delight them the most?

 Let’s look at 3 options:  1) Jurassic World, 2) Inside Out, and 3) Minions. 

Jurassic WorldJurassic World is already the summer’s juggernaut movie.  Rated PG-13, it may be a bit scary for the youngest kids.  The theme of dinosaurs, however, is a perennial favorite even among preschoolers—10% of kids 2-5, including 14% of boys 2-5, want a dinosaur-themed birthday party.  Plus, kids are likely to have seen earlier films on DVD at home, familiarizing them with the content.  We predict that many families, especially those school-age kids, will make this their summer movie choice.  It will delight kids who love dinosaurs, who have lots of energy to burn while pretending to be them, and who get a lift in confidence from having seen the most talked-about movie of the summer.

Inside OutInside Out (rated PG) is a movie about feelings (gasp!).  Feelings don’t appear on the top 10 list of favorite birthday party themes anywhere.  The movie is surprisingly accurate about memory creation and storage, and for half of the narrative the main character is guided only by her fear, disgust, and anger.  What, then, is in it for kids?  A couple of important things—first, as of press time, it’s grossing the second-highest of any movie this summer.  That will make kids feel “in the know” for seeing it.  Plus, its honest look at the positive and negative forces driving all humans will give kids permission to live within their own skins, even if they don’t always feel like being on their best behavior.  That makes this a “feel-good” movie that, whether or not it is seen in the theater, is likely to go into many, many families’ regular home viewing rotations once it is released on DVD.

MinionsAnd then there are the
Minions (rated PG).  Not yet released, we predict this to be the most beloved 
movie of the summer for the preschool and grade school crowds for a few big reasons.  First, it is arguably a superhero movie—the main characters support super villains—and superheroes are the #4 favorite birthday party theme among preschoolers ages 2-5 (18%).  Second, the Minions are already familiar from the Despicable Me movies and attractions at Universal Studios. This makes them feel “popular” to kids, who will get a boost of self-esteem by affiliation when they go see it.  Third and most important, the main characters are innocent and well-meaning, but they make lots of mistakes and blunders on their journeys. Sounds a lot like…children.  Celebrating minions, then, is tantamount to making the children in the theaters the stars of the movie.  What could be more thrilling than that?

For your brand, consider how you can give kids a brush with popularity, a feeling of acceptance, and leave them happy.  See how you can incorporate some blockbuster magic into your brand experience.

Youth Are Running Circles Around Adults, Literally


PACRecently the Physical Activity Council published its annual report on American adults’ participation in physical activity. The results were rather alarming: In this age of fitness wristbands and personal trainers, more than a quarter of all adults reported no physical activity at all in the prior year.  Let’s pause and let that sink in. Not stretching…not playing slow-pitch softball…not walking for exercise...IN A YEAR!

What does this lack of physically active role models at home mean for our country’s youth?  It’s not a simple issue.

Thinkstock P.E.Child advocates call for daily required physical activity among school-aged children, through a curriculum of Physical Education as well as the opportunity for physical activity throughout the day.  However, given the village needed to raise a child, the P.E. teacher is only one of the special experts she gets to see sometimes—in many schools, P.E. is rotated with other specialty topics including Art, Media, and Music.

To address this, some schools are increasing the amount of P.E. children receive to up to 60 times a year, and encouraging teachers in all areas of education to get the children up and active, collaborating, during their lessons across all topics. 

How does this translate into exercise among school-aged children? That news is more encouraging.

Our YouthBeat data show that while only 44% of Kids (grades 1-4) participate in sports either in or out of school, 79% get some kind of exercise at least “a few times a week*.”  That level of exercise peaks at 91% among Tweens (grades 5-8) then starts to dip for time-strapped Teens at 76% (grades 9-12).

What can your brand do to encourage healthy and frequent physical activity among youth? Model physical activity in your communication to them. Some suggestions:

  1. Depict their favorite activities—swimming, walking, and bowling are all among the Top 5 physical activities Kids, Tweens, and Teens do for fun*.
  2. Show other types of play as being active—for example, dress-up can be walking down a makeshift runway, not just standing in front of a mirror.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, model adults of all ages being physically active. Our data show high proportions of co-viewing of media among parents and children. By inspiring adults to get up and move, you’ll inspire their children to follow suit. 

*YouthBeat total year 2014.

A Second Generation of Youth Empowerment


Kids' Choice Awards logoYour weekend TV viewing quiz question:

Q: Which award winner or winners on Saturday evening’s broadcast of the Kids’ Choice Awards on Nickelodeon said that they had “grown up” watching the awards?

A) Nick Jonas
B) Emma Stone
C) Angelina Jolie
D) Both A) and B)
E) None of the above

Kudos to you if you watched, and correctly guessed answer D

The winners have spoken, and the culture of kid empowerment has reached a second generation. The Kids Choice Awards were created in the mid-1980s, when Jonas and Stone were in the voter target.  Now they’re both in their early to mid-20s, of an age to have children themselves.

Parents of kids, tweens, and even teens in our latest YouthBeat data tell us that they’re a different breed now.  Ironically, one might argue, they report that they have more in common with their children than did parents of previous generations.  Case in point: SpongeBob SquarePants took home his ninth Kids’ Choice trophy this weekend as Favorite Cartoon.  He’s still got something for everyone, whether the viewer is the parent who knew him back when, or the young child who has just discovered him.

Elsewhere in the audience Saturday night, the star-studded crowd rivaled the Golden Globes in its variety of talent across platforms.  Present was everyone from Disney Channel actress Debby Ryan, to Little League World Series celebrity athlete Mo’ne Davis, to movie star Angelina Jolie, to recording artists Jennifer Lopez and Meghan Trainor. 

Modern Family at Kids' Choice AwardsOne winner stood out as appealing to kids, though targeted above kids’ maturity level.  Modern Family took home the Kids Choice Award on Saturday night for Favorite Family TV Show.  It is not surprising that a program that won the last five Emmy awards for Outstanding Comedy Series would attract a broad audience, especially when 86% of parents report co-viewing television programs with their child.*  Moreover, while Modern Family’s absurd situations are clearly fictional, it reflects authentic emotions and funnybone-ticklers that children of all ages appreciate. 

Now for extra credit, an essay question:

Q:  What can your brand do to recognize the empowered nature of this generation of youth in a way that is inclusive of their parents?

 *Top 2 box; YouthBeat data for total year 2014

Music Concert Time Warp


author, circa 1985I wasn’t necessarily aiming for the Auntie of the Year award.  In December, 2014, when tickets to the Maroon 5 “Maps” tour went on sale, I snagged two great seats, one for me and one for my 17-year-old niece.  Living in rural Iowa, it would be a trip to Chicago and her first concert.  The experience of attending the concert made me reflect on my own first concert in the mid-1980s.  Back then, I was an awkward 13-year-old, and fist pumping to the beat was the epitome of cool.

Thirty years later, some parts of the concert experience remained the same:

  1. The audience consisted mostly of groups of girlfriends—from tweens to adult 40-somethings, all defining themselves for the evening by their affiliation with the band and with each other.
  2. Girls of all ages had saved up their allowance, babysitting money, or spare cash to buy concert t-shirts, which they quickly changed into in the ladies’ room, for photos before and during the show.
  3. The people who appeared to take the greatest joy from the experience were those busting a move like no one was looking—dancing and singing along at their seats, in the aisles, and in the concourse.

One big thing was different—the phones in everyone’s hands and pockets. During the band’s break, the house lights went down and Cellphone LightsAdam Levine asked the audience members to shine their lights in unison. As the United Center lit up like the Fourth of July and a collective gasp was heard, we were suddenly all roadies, all a part of each other’s experience, all sitting at the Cool Kids Table.

So since it happened, thanks, Maroon 5, for making me Auntie of the Year.  

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Curating Creativity Among Youth


The Art of the Brick ExhibitNathan Sawaya, the artist behind The Art of the Brick exhibit that recently opened at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, takes creative fun seriously. While the exhibit includes innovative displays, and big bold print on the signs, it’s not interactive in the traditional “please touch” mode of museum play. In fact, kids can’t touch the displays, but they can bring their own building experience to bear on the very act of observing. More than most other materials and tools that traditional artists use, kids can relate to the art of making these playful masterpieces. At a moment in culture when The LEGO Movie continues to captivate and STEAM dominates curriculum discourse, this exhibit is situated for success.

But we took away another important insight from Sawaya – one that he champions in a short video at the start of the museum-goers’ journey – creating will make you happy. In the companion book to the exhibit, he writes, “The creation of art should never be opposed. Not just because the world could do with more beautiful things, but because there’s a mountain of evidence that shows that making art will improve your life in surprising ways…” And he continues, “Creative ideas are gifts, like windows that open up for just a short time.” Sawaya suggests LEGOs as therapy, and play as purifying. He elevates an important idea in kid culture to one that makes sense to even the most jaded adult.

Our favorite lessons for brands and organizations, content creators and innovators?

  • Don’t assume creative play ends early. Continue to see both creativity and play as viable platforms for even the oldest youth.
  • Don’t just romance kids with products – entice them with process. If you have the chance to walk through this exhibit, take note of the wheels turning among kid art aficionados. The sheer number of LEGOs used can make a kids’ head spin. And parents praised the careful way Sawaya organized his many, many bricks (any parent of a LEGO fanatic can only dream!).
  • Finally, consider creativity as career, not just a means to one. Sawaya spoke eloquently of losing his love of “lawyer-ly” things, and taking the bold, brave leap to full-time employment as an artist. So often, we suggest that creativity will lead to success in academic or professional endeavors, rather than recognizing that creating can be a valuable end in itself.

5 Insights Inspired by Boyhood


BoyhoodOf course, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood appealed to our YouthBeat team long before it garnered awards and attention – it’s a longitudinal “study” that covers the kind of day-to-day truth of a single child that serves as a model for the kind of research we wish we always got to do! In this case, the objective is simply to reveal the reality of a kid as he journeys through tweendom and teendom, into young adulthood. We couldn’t help but watch in awe as all the characters (mom and dad included) confronted the ups and downs of family life. We were compelled to keep our eyes on the boy at the movie’s center as he sought agency within the confines of the limited and limiting life in which he found himself. It’s tricky to use a fictional character as a font for real-life insights, but we’ll be so bold. Here are our five of our favorite insights inspired by Boyhood:

  • Growth happens. Of course, many of us know that kids go through stages as they go through ages. But so often, we think about growth through the lens of development. What we can easily miss is the way that relationships shift and morph, how their sense of their place in the world evolves, but also realigns. Children don’t grow in neat patterns, but rather in fits and spurts, through stagnation as much as stimulation. The tale of this boy suggests that kids are constantly growing, but not always upward and onward.
  • Kids are resilient. So much has been said about Boyhood as of late, but we haven’t heard enough about the resilience that the kid characters display. Resilience is one of the most valuable characteristics today’s kids could have, and it’s often earned despite, not because of, the adults in a child’s life. Still, Mason managed to have it. Our insight: it’s easy to bemoan all the ways in which youth culture and family life threaten resilience – it’s harder to notice it when it’s right under your nose.
  • Families are systems. We often debate the role of kids and parents: is one more influential than the other, who “nags” whom, and what moment do the scales tip in one direction or another (especially when it comes to purchase decisions). But Boyhood reminds us of the complex interconnectivity apparent in the everyday life of kids and families. There is no such thing as a “decision-maker” that applies to every situation. And even when parents assert authority, kids (and particularly teens) often override. It’s not that the effort to understand the shopping or decision-making process isn’t worthwhile. It just requires closer observation and more flexibility than we often give it.
  • Observe the silence. When it comes to research, particularly with boys, it’s important to listen to (and respect) the silence. We often assume that every insight and every idea can be articulated and expressed if just the moderator would ask the magic question. We sometimes believe that we can see and hear what young respondents believe and know if we just go to the right space. But many of the most important moments in children’s lives are bathed in silence – not expression. They happen in spaces that are intentionally invisible, in places that are hard to access by design. Our job is not always to reveal something not meant to be revealed but rather to notice and acknowledge that what happens quietly and what is said softly is as important as any statistic or proclamation. 
  • Life is in the everyday. It’s easy to consider children’s lives as a series of milestones and achievements, capabilities mastered and skills gained. But in understanding children, and in finding ways to connect with them, it’s often more important to note the everyday matters that make up their lives and make them who they are. This can be the fodder for great content and products as much as the disruptions and events that are easy to talk about and to include in PowerPoint presentations. But truly understanding youth requires the patience to tell a story in which nothing “happens” as much as everything unfolds. 
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Why Character(s) Matter to Kids, Tweens and Teens

522397525 webFor many marketers, the importance of properties and characters in kids’, tweens’ and teens’ lives comes to the forefront only when they’re considering promotional partners. For others, who have committed to understanding youth culture apart from their own category, knowing the characters that matter to youth can serve as a fun intro to what are often perceived to be deeper, more strategic and more influential trends. Tracking the top characters in kids’, tweens’ and teens’ lives is often seen as a nice to have, but not a necessary part of a marketers’ research plan.

But we would argue that the characters that populate the ever-changing landscape of youth culture provide invaluable and incomparable clues to the mindset of a cohort. A new book with one of the most intriguing titles we’ve read in a while, makes a similar argument. In Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation, authors Anthony Gierzynski with Kathryn Eddy ask, “Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your life more than most real people?” They suggest that many soci-political factors can shape the views of a specific cohort, but that to ignore the tremendous power of entertainment, and of specific narratives and characters in particular, would be an act of denial. As the title suggests, they hypothesized that Harry Potter had a profound effect on the attitudes of members of the Millennial cohort, in general, and that Harry Potter fans displayed beliefs aligned with those that prevail in Hogwarts and that are embodied in the “boy who lived,” even when other factors (like being an avid reader in general) are considered. They suggest that the impact these characters have on the psyche of youth who were born between 1982 and 2002 (the definition they select for Millennials), is far from superficial. They attribute attitudes towards diversity, social justice and even torture to the narratives that took hold of them during their formative years.

For marketers, we encourage taking characters seriously, regardless of your category. Gierzynski with Eddy’s work suggests that making the most of this kind of market intelligence requires deep analysis of the themes and memes associated with any given character or property, but it also necessitates knowledge about the characters that are truly connecting with this audience right now.

At YouthBeat, we’ve always believed in using these character inventories as critical indicators of youth culture. Starting in 2015, we’re adding a Preschool Character Tracker to our existing suite of products. To find out more, please contact Amy Henry at or at 312.828.9200.

Happy 2015!

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