Blog / The Age of Engagement: Youth Online

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend time with my teenage children and some of their friends. We were watching TV, but of course everyone had their phone and there was a constant conversation back and forth about various facts gleaned from movie database IMDb and the general playing of games. An earnest television commercial from a well known non-governmental organization appeared with a message that all of the teens sneered at, calling it lame. I was surprised.

At work, our clients are the very same social service and non-governmental organizations trying to reach the teens on my couch. So even though I thought it was an important issue, no one was paying attention.That moment represented the kernel of the problem. No one was engaged.

We are in the Age of Engagement for connecting to youth, but most social service and non-governmental organizations that want to connect with youth don’t know it. Whether you look at attitudes, lifestyle, or online behaviour, this new group of younger Millennials (born between 1980-2000) and Generation Z (born after 2000) are nothing like their parents, even though we try to talk to them as if they were.

We are failing our youth by not entering the Age of Engagement. It’s difficult for Generation Xers and Baby Boomers to communicate with Gen Y and Z youth. We fundamentally misunderstand how conversations occur. If you want to understand this, ask yourself the following question: is it important to say goodbye at the end of conversation? If you answer “yes,” you really don’t understand how youth communicate today. Check out any youth’s cell phone and you’ll see many conversations that have no definitive start or end. No goodbyes.

If we are in the Age of Engagement, the millions of dollars that social service and non-governmental organizations are spending this year alone to try to address youth issues are being wasted. We might be talking, but no one under 25 is listening.

Beatriz Luna, a professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, states that young people’s prefrontal cortices are developing slower than earlier generations’, because they are taking on adult responsibilities much later. This means that the limbic system—which supports reward, enthusiasm and novelty-seeking—continues to increase its activity all the way through the beginning of their 20s. So, emotion is a strong way to reach them, rather than the facts that social service and non-governmental organizations constantly use to educate.

We older folks underestimate the value of feeling. Can anyone over the age of 15 truly remember the heart-wrenching loss of a first love, the impact of a first kiss, or the stinging pain of a first betrayal? In the midst of that kind of emotional maelstrom, it’s not surprising that many of our messages are completely ignored. In the high drama of high school, how can a message about the “value of post-secondary education” compete? How can we expect the message of safer sex to get through the noise of hormones?

The noise continues with video games, casual games and other forms of interactive entertainment that have captured much of the time youth spend in a week of screen time. We know that a properly made game can occupy hundreds of hours of a player’s time. Yet the cost and complexity of creating a popular game are beyond the reach of most social service and non-governmental organizations. And the landscape of games is constantly shifting: today’s popular game is tomorrow’s bottom of the barrel, so even if you do create a game, you risk losing. How can today’s social service and non-governmental organizations compete?

And that is not the end of the competition. There are a lot of powerful money and resources in advertising, promoting all the other things youth can buy. Youth are highly valued as a commodity in advertising. Millennials will spend $200 billion this year in discretionary income and $10 trillion in their lifetimes, so they are intensely barraged with information and requests. They are almost the largest demographic group now, second only to the Baby Boomers.

Maybe this barrage of advertising is part of the reason in the decline of trust in institutions among youth. They don’t trust business, politicians, or authority. This means that cause-related organizations have to work even harder to connect with youth. Witness the fact that many Millennials say they would rather start a nonprofit organization than join one that already exists. This is an incredible waste of resources, as they motivate themselves and their friends to achieve the same aims as an organization with 40 years’ experience. When asked, youth say that they donate to issues, not organizations. Unfortunately, as many NGO-weary staff, board members, and contributors know, it just ain’t that easy.

So where does this leave us, struggling to make a connection with youth in a fragmented media world? These factors should not daunt us, for the importance of our work cannot be underestimated. Organizations that try to create a better world for our children need to work harder than ever to succeed. We need to upend the way we think about talking and communicating with youth. We need to completely change the things that we’re saying and the way that we’re saying them.

To enter the Age of Engagement, we need to use complex and sophisticated tools for the very simple task of attracting someone’s attention—real attention—and converting that attention into action.

But how? We believe that understanding the Age of Engagement brings new hope. There are new tools along with these new problems. The rise of CRMs and one-to-one marketing dashboards means that tracking and moving youth through the ladder of engagement is possible. Behavioural psychology means that we understand the science behind moving them to act. The rise of storytelling means personal opinion and interesting stories are paramount, and the power of social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat mean storytelling is about sharing and building social waves. BuzzFeed, VICE and other alternative news networks mean a shortening and condensing of news into bite-size chunks that we can use. Community building provides mechanisms that build a connection over time. All of these tools can be used to engage youth.

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