Hark back to the 1970s, an era of children’s toys as technologically advanced as Legos, Slinkys, Etch A Sketch, and the ever-mesmerizing Lite-Brite (Anyone remember Sea Monkeys?) Perhaps the most advanced toy was Rock’em Sock’em Robots.

Then came Atari (let’s say 1976) and Pac Man (roughly 1980).

Minds blown.

Today nine year olds are more technologically savvy than their Atari and Nintendo playing parents. A generation exists who have never known a life that hasn’t been “connected.” And then there’s GenZ, the first generation raised in the era of smartphones.

The debate over how young is too young for a smartphone is certainly not new. Articles touting the benefits and drawbacks are numerous. Why then weigh in on this debate? I was interested in how “connectivity” of this nature may affect online search as we move ever more rapidly into the future.

It’s not about the pros and cons (though these are examined in brief below). It’s about how a younger generation can affect the digital landscape as a whole.

By the ripe old age of seven, I had a Minnie Mouse watch and when my mother said to be home by 6pm, I was. I didn’t have the option of saying my watch “ran out of juice.” Several years ago, when I didn’t have a smartphone (or any cell phone for that matter), I made plans with a friend who had, like most others, a smartphone. I said I would meet her at a restaurant at 7pm.

She was very worried.

What if I wasn’t there at 7pm? What if I got hit by a bus? What if I was abducted by aliens? How would she be able to contact me?

Hmmm…well, I said I’d be there and I had a watch (No longer Minnie Mouse. It did, in fact, run out of juice.) The anxiety she faced, was anathema to me at the time. Now I understand it (yes, I caved and entered the current century.)

Our reliance on technology is real and is now deeply ingrained in the lifestyles of multiple generations. Our phone is impacting how we plan and communicate with each other. It is changing every facet of how we go about our daily lives. What other impacts is it having on us?

The Facts.

We know that kids are growing up with technology as the norm.  Since under the age of one, the technology a percentage of children have used breaks down to:

  • 52% of kids under the age of 1 year had watched TV
  • 38 percent of children under 2 used a mobile device for media
  • 36% had touched or scrolled a screen
  • 24% had called someone
  • 15% used apps
  • 12% played video games.

And when they become two years old?

26% of 2-year-olds and 38% of 4-year-olds use devices for at least an hour.

Whether or not you agree with the use of these devices in your home, it’s happening all over the world.

It’s Never too Early to Start.

For those on the side of “sooner is better” there are many reasons a child should have access to a smartphone:

  • Location – you can sign up for a location service and easily see where your child is at
  • Navigation – GPS (even when walking) means your child will never get lost
  • Homework – Pull up online classes, download helpful learning apps, record lectures from teachers, and keep up with others in their classes
  • Emergencies (this is the big one) – parents want to be reachable at all times and be able to reach their children

Not in My House.

For those on the side of “heck no,” smartphones are reviled due to statistics such as:

  • Nearly half of teens say they have posted something online that they later regretted.
  • One in three teens say they feel more accepted online than they do in real life.
  • 8 percent of people in the U.S., ages 16 – 34, have been turned down for a job because of their social media profile.
  • 87 percent of youths witnessed cyberbullying, compared to 27 percent the year before who said they witnessed cruel behavior online.
  • A 2014 study by UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center suggests that when screen time limits face-to-face interaction, kids’ social skills may be negatively affected, and this may blind them from understanding the emotions of other people.

[Source: http://www.growingwireless.com/get-the-facts/quick-facts]

The Debate and the Brain

The debate over the age and limits that should be in place for kids using technology will continue to be divisive.  Regardless of when, kids, tweens, and teenagers will play a large and important role in shaping the digital landscape.

Consider this quote from psychiatrist Ed Bullmore, “It turns out that the human brain and the internet have quite a lot in common. They are both highly non-random networks with a “small world” architecture, meaning that there is both dense clustering of connections between neighbouring nodes and enough long-range short cuts to facilitate communication between distant nodes. Both the internet and the brain have a wiring diagram dominated by a relatively few, very highly connected nodes or hubs; and both can be subdivided into a number of functionally specialised families or modules of nodes. It may seem remarkable, given the obvious differences between the internet and the brain in many ways, that they should share so many high-level design features.”

What could this mean for the future?

It may mean that your two-year-old is affecting the internet and its digital landscape simply due to the fact that she/he is “connected” to it regularly.

Think of it this way; if the internet’s design features mimic brain function then couldn’t your child’s brain function begin affecting how the internet works and how search engines evolve to keep up with users? Kids will begin thinking in terms of the way the internet flows and moves, changing the way they see and interface with the world around them.

If this is the case, couldn’t it also be proposed that the digital landscape is essentially transformed through the very act of using it? We see this already when we do user testing and evaluations. As data analysts and optimizers evaluate how kids use the internet, they make changes to the interface, the functions, the messaging, even the design and style.

I’m thinking specifically about intuitiveness. The more intuitive a child becomes through the use of the internet, the more intuitive the internet will need to be. And there in lies the change; the digital landscape evolving to meet the needs of the younger and growing generation of increasingly intuitive users that it has fostered.

Just look at Kiddle.

TechTimes, explains it this way, “Kiddle, the visual search engine for kids that is powered by editors and Google safe search, allows kids to do a Web, images, news or video search. Once a child enters a query into the search bar, Kiddle will pull up a list of related links. The first one to three results will include safe sites and pages that are written specifically for kids that are handpicked and checked by the editors. The next four to seven results will feature sites that include content that is written in simple language so that young children are able to comprehend what they are researching. These too are handpicked and checked by the editors. Results eight and onward include sites written for adults that are still filtered by Google safe search but are a bit harder for children to comprehend.”

The younger a child is when she/he starts “searching,” the more adaptive marketers will need to be to reach this generation of savvy searchers as they mature. Long gone will be searches for, “doggie daycares in Portland, Oregon.” What will the search term look like? We don’t yet know and, perhaps, there’s not a term at all.

This “intuitive internet” will only continue to evolve in order to meet our needs as individuals, no matter what age. It will continue to learn from us (what we like, don’t like, etc.). This tremendous amount of data will both inform and react to each generation using it.

Minds blown.


Jasmine Paul is a senior client manager at Mad Fish with over 15 years of experience in project management. Connect with her on LinkedIn.