Skins: Are We Afraid of Authenticity?

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jan 27, 2011 @ 03:21 PM

Last week, MTV’s teen soap, Skins, garnered attention from bloggers and media outlets based on rumors that its producers may have violated child pornography laws by shooting its underage actors in inappropriate scenes. As we, like most everyone who has opined on this topic, haven’t seen the footage and don’t have expertise on this issue, we’re going to leave this issue alone…

But not surprisingly, the collective conversation on Skins quickly turned away from this legal issue towards a theme we’ve heard before: teen TV has gone too far. As I read and watched commentary, I couldn’t help but develop a sneaking suspicion that most of those who claimed that Skins had crossed the line hadn’t actually seen the show. Many of the most passionate blog comments came after the caveat, “I haven’t seen the show, but…” Seemingly under-informed commentators professed that Skins was “smut” (as one morning hostess noted), and that its producers should be “rounded up” (as one TV editorialist professed). The narrative surrounding Skins seemed to trump any conversation about the story of the show itself.skins logo

All of these critiques made me wonder, “will teens even like this show?” Our data shows that most teens have taste when it comes to TV. They get blamed for Jersey Shore, but more of them tune in to House. They watch Lost, but pass on The Bachelorette. They give Gossip Girl a chance, but they really go for Glee.

But after watching Skins, we think teens might continue to tune in. Here are a few things we heard about the show, and here’s what we saw:

  1. All they do is have sex! Skins shows a lot of kissing, and a little provocative dancing, but we’ve seen that before. And there is a lot of talking about sex - and it’s crass, raw and not so eloquent. It’s an adolescent version of fart jokes and potty humor. But it sounds pretty true to how teens talk about sex – more testing their knowledge than putting words into action.
  2. They make it seem like everyone is having sex and doing drugs…Actually, in episode one, the show’s suave star, Tony tries to persuade Stanley to lose his virginity before he turns 18. And – SPOILER ALERT – by the end of the episode, Stanley takes a pass. Stanley does buy drugs for a party but he’s hardly a seasoned pro. Far from being confident and cool, he’s terrified by the bizarre and decidedly unglamorous drug dealer who he meets (in the suburbs, no less). He’s so frazzled that he buys way more than he intended and leaves more shaken than self-satisfied.
  3. They’re acting as though all teens act like this. Actually, in this first episode, the show’s central characters explicitly differentiate themselves from the “rich” kids who don’t do drugs, and seem to live in a whole different world. Within their group, each character has a very different relationship to sex and drugs. And their appeal might be, in part, that they seem to be outsiders. Tony does have the chameleon-like ability to gain entrée into the prep school world, but he finds he doesn’t quite fit in when he shows up to a prep school party with his rag-tag group of pals.  
  4. These characters have no redeeming value. Yes, Skins is more about socializing than the SATs. But the characters are far from shallow or one-dimensional. They’re rebellious and cool, but also vulnerable and confused. And mostly, they seem to be seeking the kind of love and stability that the adults in their lives aren’t providing (parents and teachers are frequently shown as “on the verge” – fueled by out of control rage or neediness),  

Maybe the most subversive thing about Skins is that it feels real. We see the angst that we know teens experience. We see the moral dilemmas they wrestle with, and we witness how teens make decisions – sometimes the right ones and often the wrong ones. We see a world that doesn’t exactly mirror that of Skins’  teen viewers, but one that contains the elements that they can recognize and relate to (likely because the writers tapped into a poised panel of teen experts in the development of the show to make sure they got the language and the nuances just right). Real authenticity is sometimes harder to accept than reality TV.

Whether teens feel that Skins gets it right or not, it seems to us that this is the kind of TV that’s worth considering before dismissing. Adults might prefer shows that show teens a more aspirational view of their lives (one in which a song cures all ills and risks are easily avoided). But we think teens deserve entertainment that makes them think, reflect and even laugh at an approximation of reality on their own terms.

Tags: parents, Teens, gender, TV, culture, school, MTV, Skins

Do parents praise too much?

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jan 20, 2011 @ 11:56 AM

Chinese mother, Amy Chua has created fervor in the past week with articles and appearances (Today Show) that preview her book, Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, on “the superiority of Chinese parenting” to be released this week. While she claims that her tough approach to parenting is grounded in love, she has received more than a little flack for some of her essential rules: kids don’t get to choose their extracurricular activities, all kids play violin and piano – and nothing else, no TV or computer and no playdates or slumber parties. Chua blames “the Western model” of parenting for creating kids who are coddled and tweens and teens who take their opportunities for granted.

But while Chua’s cringe-worthy claims about the superiority of one ethnicity’s parent-rearing approach might sound shockingly new, her critique of self-esteem obsessed moms and dads is not. Chua resurrects the debate on how to praise your kids and instill your tweens and teens with confidence without spoiling them. Almost once a year, it seems that parenting experts and media pundits question whether all kids should get trophies, whether you can have a birthday party without inviting everyone in your class (friends and foes alike) and whether you should tell your child they can do it all (or let them know what their limits are at an early age). Parenting Book

We admit that we think Chua has missed the mark on many fronts. In our opinion (and in the opinion of most developmental psychologists and parenting experts that we know), a parent’s “job” is not to simply impose appropriate passions on their children, but to scaffold them. Raising successful children can hardly be reduced to a simple formula, in large part because one of the most important things a parent can do for their child is help them figure out what they love, and what they excel at. Parents can promote a work ethic, a sense of personal responsibility and accountability, and even a moral code for their kids to follow. But Chua self-reports that her parenting style borders on bullying – including name-calling and doling out threats – over a subpar piano performance.

Perhaps what Chua doesn’t know is that excessive praising and verbally abusing one’s children aren’t the only paths to child achievement. Self-esteem might, in fact, instill children with a false sense of their abilities. Telling kids, tweens or teens that they are “the best,” that they’re great and that they have won, even when they haven’t, sets up youth for a false sense of entitlement and for a rude awakening that will surely come when they’re least equipped to handle it. But most psychologists believe that it’s critical for parents to promote self-efficacy – that is, a belief in one’s self-worth, a true and authentic sense of what they’re really good at and where their limits lie, and the confidence and resilience that will allow them to push themselves to be their best.

Chua’s simple rules for parenting have made headlines, but it shouldn’t be news that raising children requires more than a few simple rules. It’s easier to impose than to support, to insist than to allow for exploration, and to yell than to listen. And it’s much easier to see parents as either overtly strict or overly lenient. But we suggest that seeing parents as having the possibility to teach kids, tweens and teens to love themselves and importantly, to really know themselves – the great, the average and even the not so good – will give us a clearer view of today’s moms and dads and maybe make us feel more like partners to them than critics of them.   

Tags: Education, Gaming, parents, book, family, Youth, Amy Chua

Parents to their Kids: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Jan 14, 2011 @ 11:17 AM

It’s no surprise to anyone – youth aficionado or not – that social networking has captured the attention and imagination of young people. In the first half of 2010, in fact, 16% of kids, 43% of tweens and 71% of teens reported visiting at least one. And in addition to causing us all to grapple with fundamental questions about our private and public selves, social networking poses force parents to ask themselves a critical question related to online parenting etiquette: do you friend your child or not?Facebook

Today’s parents are no strangers to social networking themselves – 71% of parents with children 6-18 years of age report having a profile on a social networking site. But when it comes to parenting in the digital domain, this generation of parents is pioneering. And every day, new dilemmas surface.  As parents and their children’s play spaces begin to converge online, so have questions about what to do when they virtually bump into each other.

What we know about parents ”friending” children tells us a slightly unexpected story. 45% of parents who have profiles on social networking sites have friended their children. And we might even predict that younger kids are more likely to be friends with their parents than not. Many of the youngest users of these sites (which restrict usage to those over 13), have profiles established by parents, who often set up the accounts to enable their kids to keep in better touch with distant family members, or parents who don’t live with them or who sometimes travel without them. It might be safe to assume that teens would take offense to parental invasion into their “personal” (despite being very public) spaces. But in reality, 12% of parents of kids, 47% of parents of tweens and a full 75% of parents of teens report “friending” their children.

What’s behind these numbers? Perhaps teens fear not “friending” their parents because they’re savvy to the privacy settings on Facebook. (Mom and dad might think they’re seeing all their child’s activities, but are getting a highly edited version). Have today’s tweens and teens begun to realize that they shouldn’t say anything online that they wouldn’t want their parents to see? Probably not. It could be that teens actually don’t mind when their parents know what’s going on with them. Today’s youth seem to crave connection with their families more than ever. When time with them is limited because of busy work and activity schedules, meeting up online might be more of a treat than a trial. Or maybe teens don’t mind just a tad bit of supervision – or even the insinuation of supervision – in a space where bullying and aggression can spread like wildfire, and where even the most confident teen might be willing to admit that a little guidance couldn’t hurt.

What do you think? Should parents friend their children or leave them to their own devices when they’re in these online lounges?

Tags: kids, parents, cyberbullying, mom, family, Youth, Facebook

What 2010 Tells Us about Kids, Tweens and Teens Today

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Jan 11, 2011 @ 02:17 PM

In our YouthBeat Yearbook, we wrestle with the headlines, dive deeply into data from across our twelve survey topics and look at what mattered in the market in 2010. But before we do that, we thought we’d share a few trends that told us about the way kids, tweens and teens thought in 2010, and what it means for 2011.

The Lady Gaga Conundrum: Overly Produced but Authentic. For today’s youth, independence doesn’t mean gritty footage, do-it-yourself fashion or even casual chic. In 2010, Lady Gaga struck a chord with youth with a deliberate self-depiction that felt anything but accidental. However, Gaga got it right by being herself – whoever that might be. Like Justin Bieber, who might have been pegged as part of the music machine in the past, she kept her cool by carefully crafting her image, and also crafting tweets – making her accessible, and allowing her “true” voice to be heard.

Good Guys Get What’s Theirs. Look no further than Glee!  to see that squeaky clean shows (even those that feature a little drama) have found a place. While we can’t deny that the cast from Jersey Shore and the moms from 16 and Pregnant  got attention in 2010, when it comes to what youth are watching, more care about characters with good – or at least complex – intentions – than with Gossip Girls. Perhaps youth have gotten burned out from the bad girl and bad boy celeb stories that seemed to dominate headlines in 2010, or maybe reality TV began to look just too unreal. But in any case, we think that kids, tweens and teens would agree that to be “bad” in 2011, celebs and shows might want to try to be “good.”

SpongeBob as Seal of Approval. SpongeBob
Okay, that might be going a bit far, but in 2010, a licensed character didn’t signify sub-par food as much as it meant a seal of approval on a slightly healthier option. Nickelodeon’s and Disney’s policies on partnering with healthy food manufacturers became truly visible in the marketplace with Mickey found on snacks like unsweetened dried apples. Shows on both networks also worked in healthy eating and living into their narratives. So in 2011, protecting your brand might mean partnering with a property that cares about parents’ perspectives, or managing your own property by making deals with partners who make a positive difference in the life of kids, tweens and teens.

Design on a Dime. Prior to the economic downturn of the past few years, we had begun to notice that average suburban girls were showing up to focus groups with designer purses…We noticed more and more conversation surrounding brands that many adults would find to be aspirational. Now we’re seeing designers catering to this market (see Coach’s Poppy line) while being conscious of the price-point that’s really practical for today’s increasingly cost-conscious kids, tweens and teens. Mass merchants are youth’s favorite places to shop, and designers that might have previously been inaccessible have found a way to meet their young consumers half-way. We think this formula – along with offering deal-savvy youth special ways to save – will continue to redefine fashion in 2011.

Tags: Lady Gaga, advertisment, parents, Youth, Teens, music, tweens, Justin Bieber

What does the end of a decade tell us about the state of youth marketing and innovation?

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jan 05, 2011 @ 10:43 AM

The first decade of the 21st century is behind us, and along with it are innumerable changes that affect the way we live now (a world that is post-9/11, post-Internet boom, post-Internet-bust, post-Facebook and the first African-American president in office). All of these and many more changes in the ways we connect, entertain ourselves, and even how we eat have made the day-to-day lives of today’s kids, tweens and teens different than in the past, and have made marketers, program developers, and innovators respond to today’s youth in very different ways. We’ve captured a few of the key shifts that have changed the youth market in the past decade.

  1. From Child-centric to Family-focused. In the first part of the decade, kids were still king. It’s not that moms didn’t matter, but brands that wanted to stand out in the youth space put their budgets against true consumers of their products – not the people who paid the bills. With the top youth advertisers facing criticism from consumer advocacy groups and multiple economic set-backs making marketing budgets more slim and focused than ever, many marketers walked away from their youth-focused campaigns. While the pendulum first shifted to mom messaging, most recently many marketers have sought the middle ground – or ideally, the higher ground – where parents’ needs and youths’ needs come together. We still believe that creating products for youth means you must know them first, but understanding how families make decisions as a unit, could unlock more sophisticated strategies for the next decade of youth marketing.
  2. From fruit snacks and fat-free to more authentically healthy food. In 2000, fruit snacks were the healthier option for most parents who struggled to make lunches a little better and to give their kids an easy treat they could feel good about when on the go. By the middle of the decade, that belief had started to wane, and parents began scrutinizing their food more closely than ever. With the obesity epidemic in the U.S. in full swing, many marketers began to look for ways to up the health quotient on their classic snacks and meals targeted to kids, tweens and teens, and many more began to explore how to reinvent categories that no longer worked in the new health paradigm. Whether they’re looking for all-natural or organic products, or simply striving to slice their kids’ sugar intake, today’s parents look at snacks very differently than they did at the start of the decade. And kids no longer reject foods because they’re healthy, but often see added nutrients as an added benefit to them. As long as they taste great, of course.
  3. From TV trumps all to 360 Degree Strategies. In 2000, TV was still the medium of choice for most youth marketers – and it was still the centerpiece of most youth campaigns. Promotions kept pantry and fridge staples top-of-mind for moms and kids, but beyond the pack, most of these contests and give-aways took to TV to tout their rules and rewards. But by the end of the decade, TV was just one of the tools in most youth marketers toolbox.  Having an Internet presence went from a luxury to a critical link with youth. And by the end of the decade, a youth marketing team not only includes online experts, but many include social media gurus. Promotions have become multi-modal, with youth learning about them and participating in them across all the devices they use. But, while much has changed, TV may still matter most when it comes to catching the attention of today’s youth. It continues to top the lists of sources for new information about products, places where they expect to see their favorite ads, and spots where they see something that provoked a product purchase.

In the past decade, the state of the market has fundamentally changed – but many of the brands who have stood the tests of the last ten years have succeeded because they have continued to master the fundamentals while staying ahead of the curve on some of the most important shifts in the space.

Tags: parents, family, Youth, tweens