The main research findings

by Dave Brennan, Former Research and Strategy Director

The motivation behind this research came from a conference where one of the speakers, something of an online fundamentalist, explained the reason why he thought TV was a dying medium; he pointed out that his fourteen year old never watched TV, he went straight to his room after school and got on the net to his friends. Thinkbox’s first reaction was ‘how does any parent know what really happens in a fourteen year old’s room?’. Our second was ‘what’s so revolutionary about that behaviour?’. After all, it is what fourteen year olds have done since time immemorial; it’s called hanging out with your friends. In our youth, that would have been behind the bike sheds or outside the chip shop. Nowadays, with outside ‘free time’ much more restricted, it is carried out online. That offers an opportunity to ‘hang out’ and watch TV that our local chip shops never offered. So, just how much has changed?

We decided to set the record straight, by looking at the young demographics, which are growing up with technology and access to content like never before, through a thorough qualitative and quantitative research exercise.

The encouraging part of this research was that we were not talking to stereotypes, neither the hoodie stereotype, nor the geeky one – they were just ‘kids’, and even the moodiest of our teen respondents were able to articulate their ideas, concerns and aspirations in an insightful way.

We originally called them Generation ‘Whatever’ because of the unparalleled availability of technology and content; they really can have whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want it. In fact, it is a better description of their attitude to the technology around them. It is frequently obsolete or broken and if it doesn’t do what they want it to do with the minimum of fuss, it ends up on a top shelf gathering dust. What-EVER!

Qualitative Research Methodology

  • 15 paired depths – inc. peer to peer interviewing element
  • We also gave 6 of them video cameras so we could see the world through their eyes
  • We created ‘MySpace’ type profile pages for them in advance of the interviews to provide us with initial insight & direction



Quantitative Research Methodology

  • 1,000 broadband sample (skewed towards heavy broadband users, but it was important we see if TV is still relevant amongst the most active technology users)
  • 200 SMS diary panel – to find out about media consumption ‘of the moment


The Evolution of Technology

We saw a clear evolution of technology, both in terms of the length of time different technologies have become established and also with their own personal evolution, where different technologies perform a range of roles as they grow older. TV is ever present – for pretty much all of them it is the first technology they experience and the first they get to control. But other platforms come to the fore at different stages of their growing up.

Technology Adoption Curve


Up until 8 or 9 years old, technology is very much in the background, generally controlled by parents and availability. Once they discover gaming, they begin to control the technology. It is an intoxicating, liberating and empowering experience. Add to that the social element of playing with friends and it is no wonder that some of them profess they would play morning, noon and night if their parents would let them. Thankfully, they don’t.

Boys were definitely more attracted to gaming than girls – but not by much. Age makes a big difference, though. The young are really enthusiastic BUT older respondents – even the ones who still play computer games – were a bit more dismissive – describing their previous zeal for gaming as ‘a phase’ whilst still often playing, albeit in a more casual way.


“I use the Wii more because the games we have are fun and it gives you more energy.”
Female, 10

“If I got the chance I would play the PS2 from 12 till 12!”
Male, 11

“I used to play them but I got past that stage.”
Female, 20 


Social Networking

The technology curve peaks at the point where they start reaching out and widening their friendship group. Social networking and community sites are one of their first ports of call

There were signs of real enthusiasm at the beginning; the research company describe it as being like starting up a scrapbook or doing up your bedroom where you put lots of work into how it looks, invite all your friends round to see, but then there is a sense of ‘now what?’

We’re not saying it’s just a fad; for example, in our recent TV Bites research on students living away from home, the growth of Facebook as a means of keeping in touch with friends has been phenomenal. The most common refrain, though, was that usage and updating of personal profiles has declined noticeably, even though they may be registered with two or more sites.

Also, there was a real sense their priorities are with their friends in the real world – hence the enduring appeal of MSN Messenger and other forms of peer-to-peer networking. 


“I had a MySpace but I didn’t really like it. I didn’t like the idea of just random people adding me.”
Male, 18

“MySpace is for looking at other people’s pictures, stuff like that. MSN is more just for talking.”
Female, 14

“I’ve got MySpace but I haven’t used it in about 6 months.”
Female, 18



Peer-to-Peer Networking

We saw relatively little evidence of any massive desire to make lots of online connections (unless it is a specific ‘space’ like sharing passions for music) BUT they do have desire to maintain contact with their real-life friends – which P2P applications like Messenger support. Sometimes this is to maintain contact with friends who have left or been left behind (we sometimes forget how much their relationships are determined by family moves and school changes), but mainly it is to continue the ongoing conversations they are having every day.

These conversations are often a continuation of the one they have just had on the school bus…….but BETTER! They love the fact that they don’t have to be so conscious of others – they frequently mentioned you can be ‘funnier’ and certainly less embarrassed or tongue tied when conversing online! Plus it’s free and immediate – the perfect way to hang out with your friends in an age where ‘hanging out’ can be strictly supervised or restricted. 


“You have to be a bit more careful with what you say to peoples’ faces than when you’re on MSN”
Female, 14

“I’m more funny on MSN”
Male, 18

“It’s not as embarrassing as saying it to their face”
Male, 11



Mobile Phones

As they get older, the mobile plays a bigger part in their lives. We need to remember that their first mobile is often given to them by parents to provide the security of knowing where they are and how they can be contacted

In all previous research I’ve commissioned, the evidence is that adults tend to have quite a personal relationship with their mobile, feeling a keen sense of loss whenever they lose it or leave it behind. The kids in this research exercise were definitely more casual about it – maybe because of this association with parental monitoring

So, the mobile is seen primarily as a communications device rather than multi-functional, mainly because it is initially used for ‘emergencies’ or being in contact ‘just in case’. Because of this – as well as the older handsets they tend to have – there is limited use of the additional functions and little evidence it is used much for ‘fun’. They will use it as an alternative to their mp3 player and even to play games if all else fails. It is only as they get older, once they reach the age they can regularly go out unsupervised, that a real sense of value begins, when it becomes a social enabler or lifeline. 


“You just text people you need to text and msn whoever is around.”
Female, 18

“If you get stuck then you can phone someone and it’s quite important”.
Female, 8

“I play some games on my phone. I use it as an MP3 player sometimes when my player’s not working.”
Male, 18

“The phone’s a lifeline when you’re out”
Female, 18


All This Technology But….Kids Are Still Kids

Tech Penetration Rates

So, we have a generation that has amazing access to technology. V is ubiquitous (they usually have a set in their own room) and PC/laptop penetration is high (but not this high – after all, this is a broadband sample!), although usage is usually shared with and monitored by other household members

They’re pretty much all multi-channel now and increasing numbers of them live with the latest TV technology – big screens, lots of choice, and increasingly high definition sound and vision.

They have all this technology on tap …..and yet, there is a major but….Technology does not dictate their lives, they are hardly aware of it as ‘technology’ at all. It just provides ‘stuff’ they do ‘stuff’ with. What – EVER!

That’s the great thing – even when the focus is on the technology, it is still kind of a background element of their lives. Their lives are dominated by the things that have always dominated kids’ lives – hanging out, being frustrated by parents AND siblings, multi-tasking – just trying to fit it all in.
And they still like to do things like read books, play sports, go shopping and dating.

The Role Of Television In Their Lives

The most established technology in their lives, and the one that perhaps they take most for granted, is the TV set. It’s been ever-present since they can remember and the first technology they ever really came into contact with. The research company describe it as an emotional anchor or emotional central heating – it provides a constancy and sense of intimacy or warmth, something they very much relate to their home. And the point about the central heating is you miss it when it goes! 

TV Values Chart

Although it plays a huge part in their inner life, there are signs that TV also reaches out into their external lives. With friends, TV provides something to talk about – social currency or social glue. There was also plenty of evidence that it is a major source of their aspirations; TV creates glamour and excitement and, most importantly of all, it is the source of FAME – probably the major youth currency in modern times.

Despite everything, it is still seen as something special – it is REAL when the explosion of choices around makes them question the version of reality delivered elsewhere. As such it has a stature and legitimacy other media lack – especially in the arena of advertising. 


“I like switching off and watching telly. That’s my thing to do”
Female, 20

“The TV will be on whenever I’m at home”
Male, 20

“If I was tired and just wanted to relax I’d watch a TV show”
Male, 18



Reasons for Using Different Media Technologies

Reasons for Using Technology

For all these reasons, TV is still hugely important to young people. It may not be the most important thing in their lives (it probably never has been) BUT…

  • Along with music, it is the first place they go when they want to relax
  • It is a great way of alleviating boredom – and even now, I’m boooored! Still seems to be the most popular adolescent refrain
  • It is NOT top choice for having fun with friends – although watching DVD’s is – so there is a real opportunity for the on demand television market there!

In fact, if we take use of the TV screen, via programmes or DVD’s, then the good old TV set outplays the computer, games console AND mobile phone in terms of the role it continues to play in their lives.

In total, almost two thirds of them said they would really miss TV if it wasn’t there, and this figure increases slightly as they get older. From what we saw in the qualitative  research, most of the remaining 1/3 would miss it as well, because as soon as we got even the most resolute ‘I don’t watch TV’ posturers to talk about their favourite programmes, the floodgates were opened! 


“I talk about the X Factor a lot with my friend because she absolutely loves singing and says ‘I’m going on the X Factor!’”
Female, 8

“We have Sex in the City or DVD nights – girlie nights in. So I guess TV is sociable”
Female, 20

“When that Doctor Who was on everyone used to talk about it”
Female, 14

“We both watch Hollyoaks because it’s younger people…it’s more situations we’re in”
Female, 20




So, yes, television does play a background role BUT it is ever present in their lives – they use it more than any other medium, primarily to switch off, relax and be entertained. It offers a great opportunity to catch them when they are relaxed and receptive In this respect it plays a unique role, possibly only matched by music (and even there, the importance of the music channels was a key part of that experience).

Even though it might be in the background a lot of the time – or competing with other activities – there was still a real sense they all had appointment programmes:

  • programmes they feel ‘part of’
  • or programmes that become the focal point of a night in with friends
  • programmes based on stories relating to their own lives
  • or a major source of social or playground currency

Watching Alone or With Family or Friends

TV Viewing Chart

It’s also one of the few times where you can get them and their parents together, and get a message in front of them. This is obviously not the case all of the time, but definitely early evening and weekends offers some real opportunities. Whether it’s big event shows like ‘X Factor’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, regular soaps like ‘Home & Away’ or ‘Hollyoaks’ or shared interests like sport or fashion, there are lots of examples of kids still watching appointment programmes with their parents.

When you can find those programmes that appeal to both parents and kids’ shared interests, they almost become like a ritual in those homes-  possibly taking the role that eating meals together used to perform as social ‘glue’ within those families. It’s enjoyed…..but not too much, that they would admit anyway! After all, this is their parents we’re talking about! 


“Me and my mum watch quite a bit of the same stuff. Like we watch Neighbours and ER.”
Female, 20

“I watch “Everybody hates Chris” with my mum and sister. My family also like Prison Break too.”
Male, 18



Generation Whatever may not watch as much TV as the rest of us – they have always been below the average – but they talk about it more than anyone. It is a guaranteed part of their shared cultural experience, something they know they can share with the people around them. It’s not just programmes; they talk about the ads far more enthusiastically than other age groups. A good example of this comes from our Engagement Study – of the15 homes with kids, 3 of them spontaneously talked about ‘whatever happened to the Frosties Kid?’, a character who has become a cult figure in the playgrounds of the UK, with three different theories developing about what had happened since he last sang ‘they’re gonna taste great, they’re gonna taste great’

They talk about TV because they know others will have been exposed to and interested in the content. Consequently, almost two thirds of them claim to regularly talk about TV programmes. Furthermore, almost a quarter of them regularly talk about the ads they’ve seen on TV; and when we asked them about their favourite ads anywhere, 80% of those they mentioned were TV ads

What They Talk About

Again, TV’s social currency doesn’t appear to wane as they get older – quite the reverse. When everything else is changing and in a state of flux, TV is a constant – it provides that anchor in their lives.

TV’s Role vs. Other ‘Buzz’ Media

The TV set may not be as personal as their MP3 player, or as portable as their mobile phone, but they still appreciate the medium as much as ever…and still more than many of the ‘buzz’ media we are constantly being told will change their lives forever.

Part of its appeal is that you can watch telly and still multi-task. This will possibly be part of its enduring appeal as their lives – indeed OUR lives – get fuller and more demanding.

TV-vs-Other Buzz Media


When we asked our 1,000 broadband sample which activities they perform at the same time, TV came out as the most multi-tasked medium of them all. This is because it doesn’t require much from them apart from their intermittent attention. Otherwise, they seem perfectly capable of parallel processing – switching between tasks when something captures their ears or eyes. It’s a bit like the cocktail party effect, where you can be in deep conversation with a person and somebody on the other side of the room mentions your name. They are in a constant state of readiness to switch attention to whatever medium or activity manages to grab their attention. This does mean that TV programmes and ads have to work harder at persuading them to switch up, but the potential is always there, because they are always looking for something:

  • Relevant
  • Creative
  • Or just to make them go ‘WOW’!



“You’re watching TV and if someone comes online you can talk to them for a bit”
Female, 14
“I sort of read a page and then I end up watching telly and sort of do it at the same time”
Female, 10

“I’m texting someone and I’m also glancing up at the TV”
Female, 11

“You want to play playstation but you also want to watch TV. Decisions decisions!”
Male, 11



Their Relationship with TV Advertising

Finally, let’s look at their relationship with TV advertising. We have seen lots of evidence from our Engagement Study that when Generation Whatever are in front of TV ads, their levels of engagement are significantly higher than for adults. We saw plenty of instances of them dancing, clapping, whistling, singing, mimicking the voice-overs, playing ‘guess the ad’ games, talking about their experiences of the products being advertised – even after the event. 

Attitudes to Advertising

If you give them a reason, they will switch into the ads. This is because they are fundamentally very positive about TV advertising.

We replicated some of the TGI statements to compare their views with those of adults. We found out that they are

  • 2 ½ times more likely to say they enjoy TV ads
  • Almost 50% more likely to say they are attracted by what is advertised on TV
  • And 30% more likely to want to talk about the ads

And when you get them talking about the ads, it becomes immediately apparent that they absorb them, process them ….and are quite prepared to act on them.

Teenagers in particular seem to get more out of TV advertising than any other demographic. Young men claim to be most influenced – 71% saying they often want to buy the products they see advertised. Young women, on the other hand, are by far the most likely to talk about TV advertising to their friends. 


“I think the cigarette one is a good advert because my mum used to smoke and I asked her nicely and she quit”
Male, 11

“TV adverts are better because you get a visual satisfaction and an audio satisfaction”
Male, 18

“I did want a lot of the things I saw on adverts when I was younger –action toys and stuff”
Male, 18


So, when we asked them to tell us about their favourite ads, there was no shortage of examples – in fact this was possibly the part of the interview where they got most garrulous! Not surprisingly, they respond to the entertainment elements of the ads, citing music, humour and special effects on a regular basis. Talking about ads like these…. 


“The one where he’s about to have a shower and she nicks the keys and goes off with the car and then they all try to get it back, and eventually, he gets into the middle of the road and his towel falls down”
Male, 11

?"I like the Renault, the dancing car."
n"I think that’s Citroen."
?"Oh, that’s Citroen is it?"
n"Yeah. It’s really cool."
Males, 18

“I like the Lynx advert where she goes “Boom Chikka Wah Wah!” It’s funny!”
Female, 11



I’m not even sure we need to make this point, but ads on TV still have a stature and legitimacy; they are famous and real at the same time. They tend to be quite dismissive of ads on other media – often saying they are not ‘real’ in the way that TV is. In some ways, they are more conservative than their parents in this respect

They currently avoid online advertising for these same reasons. They are singularly unpersuaded about click through – unless they want to deliberately bring the school system down with a virus, which one fifteen year old girl told us was her motivation for clicking through online ads on the school computer!

They are aware that TV ads have to be ‘checked’ whereas online ads don’t. The indications are that online will work better with this age group with the addition of audio visual delivery – but it will be far more effective if it can work off the fame + legitimacy + mass exposure of a TV campaign. Like the CDM ‘Drumming Gorilla’ commercial. 


“You tend to ignore them online because they are usually “you’ve won a million pounds””
Male, 18

“I just click on them to get a virus on the school computer system.
Female, 16



Children Are The Future

Finally, what about the future? 

You can’t really ask this age group to project forward in research like this because they’re kids, and kids live fully in the moment. That said, we did see some emerging signs.

The future for on demand programming looks bright. Around half of them have already downloaded at least one programme off the internet. At the same time, there is the importance they attach to the DVD, especially when they watch with friends.

Although they mentioned UK sites like 4OD and by name, most downloading appears to currently come from US sites, where they can access programmes to give them ‘first watch’ status; this is especially true for major league US series such as ‘Heroes’ and ‘Dexter’.

Set against this is the importance of live TV; they really like to be ‘in the moment’ and feel they are sharing the viewing occasion with others. The importance of playground currency is relevant here; it is pointless watching a show after the event if everybody is going to be talking about it in school the next day.

There is also the importance of ‘family time’  for specific appointment to view programmes – maybe TV is the new ‘sitting round the dinner table’. Otherwise, much of their viewing is unplanned – serendipity – what –EVER!

TV’s importance is undiminished, but they are starting to watch in different ways BUT even those who were most vocally resistant to ‘normal’ TV – because they are just ‘too cool for school’ – will always let their guard drop eventually. As with all kids’ research, you have to dig below the posturing!


So, in summary…

  • TV provides ‘emotional central heating’
  • It plays a huge role in social currency
  • It still helps shape their aspirations, moral outlook and dreams
  • TV has a halo effect on brands – creating perceptions of glamour, stature, legitimacy and, most of all, fame
  • We are moving towards a more on demand future – but we are not sure how fundamentally different it will be from a downloadable, DVD-rich present.

Generation Whatever

How do people who've grown up with a wealth of technology and content at their fingertips use and play with media?  What implications does this have for TV? Thinkbox sought to demystify young people and their media habits in their recent project, 'Generation Whatever!'

Associated content

Justin Gibbons & Dave Brennan look at student life in halls of residence and shared housing.