The new parenting wars have profound implications for marketers — but most of them haven’t even noticed the battle lines.
That’s because the latest battleground isn’t over helicopter parenting, vaccines or any of the other squabbles that regularly grab headlines. The new divide is over how kids use technology, and it’s a divide with far-reaching impact on technology, media and any other industry that uses digital marketing to reach parents and families.
My latest research into this divide, which I’ll be sharing at SXSW this weekend, focuses specifically on differences in tech purchasing.
I uncovered this division by asking more than 10,000 North American parents about their attitudes towards their kids’ screen time, as well as about their families digital habits and activities. It turns out that parents are evenly divided between three approaches: Enablers trust their kids’ technology choices, and take their cues from the way other families relate to the digital world. Limiters try to limit their kids’ screen time as much as possible, and prefer their kids turn off their gadgets. Mentors take a middle path: they actively encourage their kids’ use of technology, but they also try to guide and shape their kids’ screen time.
When these three groups come into contact — whether that’s at a PTA meeting or a Facebook discussion — conflict breaks out. Schools get caught between parents who want their kids to learn to work with digital tools, and parents who want to keep their kids away from technology. Online, parents argue about whether devices can help their kids cope with learning disabilities, or whether screen time actually causes learning challenges. And of course, businesses who are trying to reach all three types of parents run into trouble when their messaging skews towards one camp or another.
As part of my survey research, I asked nearly a thousand parents to name the best tech purchase they’d made for their kids in the past year, and what made it stand out. While tablets are the most frequently mentioned “best” purchase for all three types of parents, their answers diverge quickly from there. Enablers, who are more likely to have teens, are particularly likely to mention gaming consoles. Limiters, who are more likely to have preschool-aged kids, frequently mention learning devices (like the LeapPad) as their best purchase. Mentors mention PCs, gaming consoles and gadgets (like drones or robots).
Different types of parents identify different kinds of “best” purchases because they have different reasons for buying. While all three types of parents care equally about product features and quality (something mentioned by about one in five parents), and very few of them mentioned price (less 7% of enablers, and less than 4% of mentors), their priorities are otherwise quite distinct. Understanding these differences are key to targeting your message — or even your product — to each market.
Enablers are most likely to prioritize the sheer fun or entertainment value of a tech purchase: the most important thing for them is how much their kids enjoy a purchase. (Don’t you wish you had parents like that?) One enabler mentioned the Xbox purchased for their child, “because he has fun with it and had fun with friends using it.” Compared to other kids of parents, they’re much less likely to mention the general educational value of a purchase. Don’t try to sell gadgets to enablers because they’ll make kids smarter: sell them products their kids will enjoy.
Limiters are almost the mirror image of enablers. They’re most likely to care about a tech purchase’s impact on their kids’ literacy or math skills, or its value to their schoolwork: more than 1 in 4 limiters cites one of these reasons for rating a purchase highly. “We purchased a Leap Frog computer for our oldest child,” said one limiter. “It has helped her learn things like shapes, numbers, letters, etc. She has really taken to it well.” But limiters don’t discount play value: they often mention it alongside the learning value of their purchase, as per the parent who said “I like to buy educational games because they are fun but my child can learn as well.” And despite their professed desire to limit kids’ screen time, parental controls and safety considerations were mentored by less than 5% of limiters (though that’s still more often than enablers or mentors mentioned them).
Mentors, who have found a middle path between the wide-open play land of enabler homes, and the restrictive approach taken by limiters, likewise have a more balanced set of reasons for buying. One in five mentors mentioned the same kind of literacy, math or academic benefits that matter to limiters — but one in five also mentioned fun, general learning and product quality. One mentor described a laptop as the family’s best purchase because their son “uses it for school all the time…and he can play games and look up fun things.” To reach mentors, you need to engage both sides of this equation: their commitment to using technology as a learning tool, and their appreciation for the fun factor.
But the divide among digital parents has lessons and implications that go far beyond the companies that sell family-oriented devices, software and services. Any business that markets to children and families needs to consider how differing family attitudes to screen time should affect marketing strategies, since the kids of mentors and (especially) limiters are less likely to have unfettered access to screen time, and thus, less likely to encounter your digital content and marketing.
The way digital parenting styles translate into consumer decisions shows how this kind of understanding can inform your marketing, improve your targeting and even reveal new market opportunities. When consumer differences turn into battle lines, marketers don’t have to get caught in the crossfire.