When technology was mostly analog, toddlers weren’t able to use it independently. The controls and interfaces of televisions, desktop computers, and VCRs weren't kid-friendly enough. As a result, while kids could communicate favorites and preferences, parents had a much bigger influence on what toddlers watched because they were always involved in the process.
Now that technology is more accessible, toddlers are making their own media choices. Tablets are so easy to use, they have democratized access to media. The interface is visual, so kids can make choices without knowing how to read. And touching an icon or thumbnail image doesn’t require fine motor skills. The upshot: toddlers can swipe before they can wipe!
During field research at consumers’ homes, we see one-year-olds choosing YouTube videos. We see three-year-olds playing Minecraft and five-year-olds choosing filters on Snapchat. Though such applications aren't made for consumers this young, kids can access them anyway. They can't read the word "Snapchat," but they know what the icon looks like. All it takes is a tap.
Today’s toddlers are so savvy, we've seen them fix technical problems—like enabling wi-fi—so they can maneuver their way to their favorite games and applications.
A Tablet All Their Own
For many kids, the tablet has supplanted the security blanket or Teddy bear, offering comfort and being dragged along wherever they go.
Some tablets are passed down from other family members, and some are bought directly for the child. Regardless of how they got their little hands on a device, toddlers are typically given free rein to use it. They know exactly where devices are kept (typically within reach, even if they have to open mom’s purse to get it), and most parents don’t set parameters for their kids' tablet use. While some families use “walled gardens” like YouTube Kids or Netflix Kids, which put forward only kid-friendly content, kids are pretty good at self-regulating the content they watch. Usually, they'll click away from a video that they know isn't meant for them.
Why tablets and not TV? Mostly because of usability. TV remotes are more forbidding for all kids, with their abstruse words, lettering and tiny buttons—tapping a screen is much easier. Toddlers can't yet read or type, so they can't use the guide or search to find shows. And the TV is the family's shared device, while kids see the tablet as their own, which is very empowering.
And there is tons of great stuff for toddlers to find, with effective algorithms to help them do so. Many videos feature real kids unboxing toys or demonstrating play, giving kids ideas for their own play. Scripted shows feature toddler-friendly visuals, simple stories, and catchy music. And wonderful characters cross formats to capture kids’ attention—kids can see Elmo on YouTube, on TV, and on toy store shelves.
Benefits for Brands and Kids Alike
Today's kids start their media consumption lives on tablets. They'll have no bias toward network TV, well-known streaming companies, or smaller players. Enterprising companies can stake a claim early by meeting kids where they are, providing digital content that kids can watch and play on a tablet. Marketing helps, of course, but tablets play into kids’ natural curiosities and foster exploration, giving newcomers a chance.
While some parents might not like to see their toddler burying his or her head in a tablet for hours at a time, parents also see the benefits, both in terms of getting their own stuff done and providing information and entertainment for their kids. Tablets can give kids a sense of ownership, and help them get in touch with modern technology so they are on par with peers.
Today's toddlers are autonomous media consumers. Like the latchkey kid of the 1980s, the toddlers of the 2010s are a new audience. This is a revolutionary change—and it offers opportunities to aid child development that content creators and brands are just starting to understand.