The legend goes that 11-year-old Peter Ford played a small but pivotal role in the development of modern music.
If we subscribe to the ‘great man of history’ theory then Chuck Berry ‘invented’ rock’n’roll while Buddy Holly, Elvis and the Beatles developed the genre towards the form we know today.
But young Peter helped determine the timing of the breakthrough.
Back in 1954, actor Glenn Ford and producer Richard Brooks were looking for a song to open their new movie, the Blackboard Jungle. It was a gritty tale of ‘juvenile delinquency’ that would scandalise the US and solidify the new-coined concept of the ‘teenager’.
When, on a visit to Ford’s home, Brooks overheard the B-side of a largely forgotten track called Thirteen Women emanating from Peter’s room, he knew he had his opening song. The producer ‘liberated’ the record and took it to the studio.
When the opening bars of Rock Around the Clock sprang into life over the opening scenes of Blackboard Jungle it was akin to the Sex Pistols snarling God Save the Queen in 1977.
The point of the history lesson is this: content creators should always look where very young people place their attention. Whether it is Rubik’s Cubes, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Teletubbie dolls, Finger Spinners or bottle flipping, it is worth examining what is trending with pre-teens and why.
Ten-year-olds are the teenagers of tomorrow and the 18-35-year-old’s of next week. In short, they are your future customers.
Fortunately, I happen to have a perfect specimen in my house… as well as his eight-year-old sister. This is what they are telling me at the moment.
Traditional TV is dying fast
There was a decision to be made when our family returned from the US last year, something we had not considered before.
Should we still design our living room around the TV? Before we went away in early 2015, it was a given; arrange your furniture for the purpose of staring at the “idiot box”. It allows you to slump, like the Royale Family, during those slobbing hours after your evening meal and before bedtime. This is supposed to be “together time”, albeit the togetherness was often diluted by endless “sssshhhh-ing” from the person most interested in the programme.
This is no more. Now our children are huddled on different islands of furniture, headphones on, gawking down at tablets. Often they lie on the floor, facing away from the television, in order power their quick-draining devices from an outlet.
As parents, we monitor the level and suitability of their consumption as much as possible but they have found their YouTube channels their way. Watching video content is not a communal activity anymore.
We’ll still watch sport together. But, when we do, the crucial difference is that the adults’ second screen is a phone, the kids’ is the TV.
And they only really look up for the goals.
Stories still count
We are being told that attention spans are shortening, video is everything and hard-to-capture audiences should be served with content created by the peers. So, for example, we might use Millennial creators to capture Millennial attention.
Although my son is more in the get-what-you-are-given demographic where critical faculties are less well developed, he still votes with his eyes. Dull, uninspiring content will just not stick in his grasshopper mind.
However, after rejecting it 18 months ago, he has dived into Harry Potter with relish in the last few months. Goblet of Fire (636 pages) and Order of the Phoenix (766 pages) would be daunting reads for me. But he has devoured them at the breakfast table, in the car to school and, most wonderfully, while walking the short distance to the gates.
So, a story written in coffee shops by a middle-aged, single mum from Edinburgh has grabbed his 10-year-old attention despite everything that ‘should’ stand in its way.
Great stories, well told, are everything.
No more heroes anymore... actually just homemade ones
The closest thing I had to heroes growing up were the footballers I saw every other week at Highbury. But my son has a very different frame of reference. As a result, I am currently batting away suggestions we should get a pug.
Most kids want a dog at some time but the specific breed is down to DanTDM, who hosts a popular Minecraft channel on YouTube.
When he grows up my son wants to be, in order, “a footballer, a gamer or a YouTuber”. In fairness, these are the three topics that occupy his mind outside school. Actually, let’s face facts here, inside it too.
As the Managing Editor of Arsenal’s entire content portfolio throughout the emergence of digital, I occupied a job that did not exist when I was asked the “what-do-you-want-to-do-when-you-grow-up” question. Giving the accelerating pace of change, it is almost certain my son will be in the same situation.
But he has a very different frame of reference to me.
Gaming is your after-school club
There is a major generational gap in terms of gaming. I hammered my International Soccer cartridge on the Commodore 64 for hours. So, given the stunning quality of modern games, I can entirely understand the obsession and emersion of today’s youngsters. Keeping gaming time under control will be a never-ending battle for parents from now on.
I admit I fail to see the value in watching videos of others gaming on YouTube. But then, given my happiest sporting event right now is watching Essex play four-day county championship cricket, I can throw no stones.
My son’s friends are playing the same games, on the same consoles at the same time. So, having got home from school and wolfed down 2,000 calories in 20 minutes, the first thoughts are YouTube or to see who he can play with – but unlike me, this would be in a virtual not a physical sense. We’d meet for a jumpers-for-goalposts game in the park; he’s playing FIFA. But, crucially, we both pretend to be the superstar du jour.
Children’s TV has got a fight on its hands if the lessons from my lounge are anything to go by. Video content has become easily made, utterly fragmented and therefore, for my son at least, television is less relevant.
The shared experience is around gaming.
A (YouTube) stranger is just a friend you’ve never met
Kids’ interests have always moved in phases but, these days, the influence upon them is much wider. In my day, I got ‘into’ things because it was featured on a TV show carried by one of the four channels, an article in a magazine/newspaper or, most likely, my friends.
My daughter has returned to playing with dolls because of the YouTube channel she watches. She will take her tablet to her room, arrange everything neatly then she plays along to the videos. This also happens with ‘making’ videos. These are made by little girls (or least fronted by them) for little girls.
It is so much better than the Blue Peter versions I had to cope with. However, the mess and the requests for random objects remain the same.
The spirit of Why Don’t You… is strong
This play-along idea has quickly evolved into more of a do-it-yourself. My daughter is watching videos of kids around her age performing activities which she could do – a taste test, a trip to the zoo, covering a song on a musical instrument. Naturally, she wants to copy.
Some of her “play” is presenting her own YouTube clips. Arranging everything for an imaginary camera, hello/goodbyes and pointing to imaginary subscribe buttons.
As ever, you watch, you copy, you create.
These days, highly-intuitive software and dirt-cheap-but-decent cameras mean that my children will be capable of making quality content very soon.
They are already talking about creating a YouTube channel.
But that is more about supplementing their pocket money.
The lost serendipity of ‘lying around’ media
From an early age I knew I wanted to be a sports journalist. Call it acute self-perception, call it defeatism, but it was apparent at a staggeringly early age that I would not make it as a footballer. However, I eagerly read the Daily Express discarded by my father and considered myself relatively articulate. Writing about sport was the next best thing.
However, there are no newspapers in my house. We switched online before my children could walk. So how do they get their news (sports or other) or value the concept of being informed? The answer once again is YouTube and its algorithm. Over the last 18 months, both children have started to search in a more advanced manner.
Recently my son spent half an hour thumbing through a newspaper at my mother’s house. It was a rarity.
He’ll never know the feeling of ink on his fingers.
Given my start in newspapers, I’ll admit, part of me feels sad about that. It is the only item on this list that I really lament.
The rest of it is simply progress.