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Today’s family demands are launching youngsters into consumption at an earlier stage. Typical factors include parents struggling with work / life balance and a consequent greater consumer reach for paid-for convenience, extended online time for all and youngsters staying in the home, often into their 20s and beyond. This reality empowers children with greater agency — not just as family consumption influencers, but consumers in training. Increasingly, the input of children in purchasing decisions is welcomed by their parents, rather than being perceived as a nuisance. The parent-child relationship, characterised by delayed parenthood and smaller families, is now more bilateral. Parents seek their kids’ opinions about all kinds of once-adult decisions, including where to go for dinner, what kind of car to buy, even what to wear. Online life is also exposing children to buying opportunities and to brands that solicit the start of an evolving consumer relationship.

Mini consumers with greater agency

A late summer 2016 Bloomberg Businessweek article, looking at US discount retailer Target’s involvement of kids in planning 2017 clothing aimed at them, is entitled “Target’s future will be decided by kids”. It compares brands to bemused parents facing more opinionated consumer offspring. “Like contemporary parents who give children so much decision-making power, Target is also learning about the institutional confusion that comes when children are really seen and heard”. A picture of casually-dressed children is captioned, “Mini taste arbiters select favourites at Target’s head office”.

One factor behind the growing influence of children on consumption patterns is the fact that they are assuming adult roles at a younger age. In school and at home, they’re exposed to more adult topics such as poverty, the environment, sexuality and identity. In March 2016, the New Yorker magazine noted that “The prevailing ethos of middle class child rearing” is one in which “offspring are urged to find their enthusiasms and pursue them”. One aspect of this trend is giving children greater agency as both consumers in their own right and as influencers on the spending of their parents.

A common driver of this new-found, younger consumer independence is parent struggles with work / life balance. The need to make the most of their time finds parents open to ready-meals and other time-saving convenience. In this context, parents often pass down some of the decision-making around consumption to their children.

This child input in buying decisions is illustrated by the results of Euromonitor International’s August 2015 Analyst Pulse survey, offering feedback on consumption from its network of global researchers. In terms of child-specific treats, such as toys and games, for instance, 67% of analysts in the US, Canada and Caribbean asserted that children aged 3-11 had considerable input or complete control of the purchasing decision in their countries. In the Asia-Pacific region, this reached 69%, in Europe it was 77%, while in Latin America, this figure rose to 82%.

Playing at consumption

The success of KidZania — which, according to its website, “allows kids between the ages of four to twelve to do what comes naturally to them: role-playing by mimicking traditionally adult activities” — is significant. As in the real world, children perform “jobs” and are paid in a currency that can be used for shopping or entertainment. KidZania branches feature mini cities complete with “a functioning economy, and recognisable destinations in the form of ‘establishments’ sponsored and branded by leading multi-national and local brands”. There are almost 40 worldwide.

Such trends are unsettling to some. One commenter, Itaxpica on website MetaFilter writes, “There’s a fine line between letting kids play at doing grown-up stuff and creepy corporate / consumer indoctrination. The Price Chopper supermarket near me has little plastic kid-sized shopping carts, and the first time I saw a little kid pushing one around I was all ‘aw!’ Then I saw the ‘customer in training’ sign on the side of the cart”.

The “youngest social network” and other tech outreach

Kids and young people may navigate the digital world including e-commerce with ease, but there’s an ongoing discussion on their lack of communication skills and functional literacy, making them too immature to be full “digital citizens”. However, with even the youngest “digital natives” shifting their entertainment in most countries from TV to online life, tech brands are playing a daring game, reaching out to this tech-hungry audience, with a nod to parental involvement.

Apps used by kids include Musical.ly, reported as being the youngest social network to date; the Shanghai-based company claims over 100 million users. While aimed at the 13–20 age group, some users are known to be younger still, entranced by the chance to create videos in which they can joke and dance to popular songs and film scenes and post the videos to an Instagram-type feed. This reality highlights tension between younger users, tech companies and the norms and laws that regulate them. While Musical.ly emphasises that it “talks” to parents, rather than users, it is a functioning social network which is popular with young people but not marketed to them.

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