Digital Natives, Katniss Everdeen, and Exit Strategies: MTV's Data-Driven Look At Young Millennials

MTV Insight’s just published study, which shines a light on younger millennials ages 14-17, aims to make musicians, marketers, and media producers stand up and take notice of a group that’s poised to change the future.

Harry Potter may have legions of devotees, but he’s on his way out. At least as the unofficial mascot of younger millennials ages 14-17. He’s being replaced by Katniss Everdeen, the badass baroness of The Hunger Games, whose finely honed survival skills are much more relatable to a group of kids coming of age during economic turmoil, global political strife, and natural disasters. That’s the word that’s come out of MTV’s latest landmark generational study as the network takes a deep dive to understand the youth who will soon age into its sweet spot core target demographic of 18- to 24-year-olds. 

The just published findings aim to illustrate all the ways that younger millennials differ from their older counterparts. Despite copious amounts of research, analysis, and criticism, most data portrays the generation as a monolithic block 80 to 90 million strong (depending on which dates you use), according to MTV Vice President of Insights and Innovation Alison Hillhouse. MTV’s study illuminated definitive differences based on data collected via in-home interviews, Instagram journals, and the digital diaries of 1,800 younger millennials, as well as "what they were organically posting online," she says. Focus groups with their older siblings, other older millennials, and a cadre of gen-Xer and boomer parents rounded out the study.

Based on the previous research MTV Insights put forth in 2010 and 2011, the New Millennials study shows a significant shift in attitudes and approach to ambition, parents, and technology, says Hillhouse. Thanks to events such as the Arab Spring and the Boston Marathon shootings, Hillhouse notes that about a third of young millennials say they routinely plot out escape plans when attending concerts or sports at stadiums. "They are not completely freaked out," she observes. "[They believe] this is just the world we live in, and I need to be prepared."

Likewise, their more pragmatic attitude is programmed in by gen-X parents, as opposed to the more idealistic boomer cohorts. Forget the boundless optimism of the first wave of millennials (now in their twenties). Without the boost of an economic boom and the reality that college costs continue to rise, even though a degree doesn’t ensure employment, much less success, younger millennials agreement with the statement "If I want to do something, no one is going to stop me" decreased from 71% in 2010 to 57% this year.

Gone, therefore, are the starry-eyed arts and humanities students. Hillhouse says they’ve been replaced by teens who’ve done the research and identified very specific career paths. One 17-year-old declared she wanted to work for the USDA as an entymologist studying insects that destroy the ecosystem, Hillhouse points out. Their parents commented that it’s not them but the teens themselves who put the pressure on to compete, stand out, and succeed. Some 69% of teens surveyed agreed. (Note to parents: This may have an added benefit: 68 percent of teens find that you’re like a best friend, compared with 58% three years ago.)

"They also have these random niche interests," Hillhouse observes, such as the 13-year-old who was all too eager to discuss her proprietary vampire stakes. She’s made five different kinds to tackle very specific species of bloodsuckers. "She wasn’t trying to sell them," recalls Hillhouse with a wry laugh, "But we do see many [younger millennials] making their own crafts and selling online."

The Web and social media has certainly greased the wheels for these younger digital natives to explore such specific interests. With less adult supervision, this group of online "latch-key kids" have learned to filter disturbing or inappropriate content and have taken to conscious curation of social networks in search of privacy. The concept of self-branding is evident in teen’s social media feeds such as Tumblr, yet fewer young millennials (49% versus 58% in 2010) believe "what I post online defines who I am."

Though it may be a bit too early to tell, says Hillhouse, it’s "not out of the realm of possibility" that the study’s findings will begin to influence the future of MTV’s programming. Two years ago, for example, when participants’ responses reinforced older millennials’ desire to see shows featuring more smart, funny female leads, that led to the development of shows such as Awkward, Live with Nikki and Sara, and Girl Code.

Results also played a part in how MTV markets shows to build successful franchises. Promoting season three of the popular Teen Wolf series began the day the finale of season two aired and kicked off a 365-day engagement plan to cultivate and reward the show’s "superfans," notes Hillhouse.

Using creative tactics such as a call and response that brought 100 pounds of cookies to the Teen Wolf set, Teen Wolf’s social footprint grew exponentially while the show was off the air, increasing Facebook fans by 33% to 2.4 million, Twitter followers by 41%, and its Tumblr presence by 143%.

Hillhouse notes that music video production may experience a shift in order to play to this unique audience. She points out the popularity of Arcade Fire’s personalized approach to its interactive video set to the track "We Used to Wait." "The Wilderness Downtown," melded music with Google Maps to incorporate viewers‘ hometowns into the imagery. "It’s about giving (listeners) a role and voice," Hillhouse contends.

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