Remember the days when children played with their G.I. Joes and Barbie Dolls? Those days have long passed, thanks in part to the amount of new media children are exposed to on a daily basis. Traditional toys have been superseded by chip-powered entertainment in the form of gaming systems, cell phones, instant messaging and the internet. According to a research study commissioned by BLM Azure, 90% of kids ages 4-15 own a game console, 85% have access to the internet, and 30% use Instant Messenger. Sixty percent of kids over the age of seven own a mobile phone. As these numbers show, everyone is going digital! Let’s take a look at how kids are using the internet, and how dominant this medium is in their lives. After all, today’s kids are tomorrow’s consumers, and we should understand how to communicate with them so we’re prepared when the time comes!

Kids and the Mouse
The TV set has served as the front door to kids’ entertainment for years. A child would encounter Mickey Mouse on the Disney Channel or Buzz Lightyear on a DVD, and, before long, that child would seek out related merchandise. Now, kids are turning to the internet. According to an MRI study, 47% of kids visited a website after seeing or hearing about it in a commercial.

Kids use the internet differently than adults. For kids, it’s more of an entertainment platform than a venue for communication. Most of their consumption occurs in the home, and they are always “on.” A study commissioned by KOL (AOL for Kids) revealed that, on average, kids ages 6-10 spend 75 minutes online each weekday. The most popular sites visited by both boys and girls include gaming websites, followed by homework, TV channel, toy and music sites. Two of the top three online gaming sites include the incredibly popular WebKinz and Club Penguin. SpongeBob SquarePants rounds out the top three among kids ages 6-8, while Runescape, a fantasy-themed gaming website, ranks among the top three for kids ages 9-10.

Visiting Virtual Worlds
Nearly half of kids surveyed by KOL/C&R Research visit virtual worlds or community gaming sites. Thirty-nine percent of kids ages 6-8 visit virtual worlds, and 49% of kids ages 9-10 participate in them. Knowing the top sites include Webkinz and Club Penguin, we decided to “play” a little visit of our own to see what the hype is about...

Launched in April 2005, Webkinz currently has four million active users. Owned by Ganz, Webkinz is a stuffed animal that comes with a special code, enabling users to play online at “Webkinz World” for one year. Here, users can design a room for their pet, buy furniture using “kinzcash,” and find out whether their pet is hungry, happy or sad. There is also a clubhouse where users can interact with other members. According to comScore, Webkinz has 1.2 million monthly unique visitors between the ages of 2-11 (U.S.).

Webkinz accepts a limited amount of advertising and restricts it to family-friendly products such as toothpaste and family movies. A few movies that have previously utilized this platform include “The Bee Movie” and “Alvin & The Chipmunks.” Hyperlinks are not permitted within advertisements so parents can be assured that their children do not wander out onto the internet unsupervised. Parents may also choose whether or not advertising is displayed to their children.

Club Penguin
Club Penguin was launched in October 2005 by three fathers in British Columbia and was later acquired by the Walt Disney Company in August 2007. There are now four million active users of this snow-covered virtual world. Members can decorate their igloos, play games, interact with friends, and go to parties in the guise of penguin avatars. According to comScore, Club Penguin has 1.6 million monthly unique visitors between the ages of 2-11 (U.S.).

At this time, there are no advertising opportunities on Club Penguin. While it is free to play, special features, such as priority access to exclusive parties, require a monthly membership fee. Revenue is generated by these membership fees and an online store located on the site.

What will Tomorrow Bring?
Virtual worlds aren’t going anywhere. In fact, more companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Disney has launched virtual worlds around Pirates of the Caribbean (Pirates Online) and Tinker Bell (Pixie Hollow) to appeal to varying age groups. Warner Brothers has also planned themed virtual worlds around Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and DC Comics.

Video downloads and online video viewing are also becoming extremely popular among kids. According to Nielsen Online’s VideoCensus, kids ages 2-11 average 51 streams per month, which equate to 118 minutes of online video viewing. YouTube has certainly been making an impression on kids (no pun intended!). In April 2008, 4.1 million streamers ages 2-11 could be found on YouTube.

No matter what the future holds, one thing is certain: kids have adopted the internet as an integral part of their lives and this trend will only become more prominent as younger generations emerge.

MayoSeitz Media Point-of-View
How kids will change the ways in which they use the internet as they age is uncertain. We do not know if children will grow out of their current consumption patterns or if they will continue them. Furthermore, the long-term demand for the “hot” youth-oriented sites of today is unclear. Fads have always dominated the children’s toy market, and websites are no exception. There is intense competition for kids’ attention. For example, there are at least ten websites that involve caring for virtual pets!

There is no crystal ball. All we, as marketers, can do is make certain that we understand kids’ online consumption today and gauge what kids will be consuming as they mature. Their childhood experiences, which are far different from ours, impact how we must communicate with this audience. Understanding the younger generation will become increasingly important as they grow into the purchase decision makers of tomorrow.