Turns out Tweens are, well, different.

The next generation of consumer is even more different than you think.

My 11 year-old son makes me insane. Don’t get me wrong, I love him more than anything, but after watching him walk around with a trash can on his head the other day, I’m starting to think that maybe . . . just maybe . . . there is something wrong with him.

Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to have unrestricted access to a cognitive neuroscientist – his grandmother.

I was quickly (a) assured that there is nothing wrong with my son; (b) that I was way worse in terms of making my parents insane; and (c) that, duh, he’s a kid.

Quick side note – people here at bloomfield knoble know that I have a tendency to explain Hawking / Einstein when asked, “what time is it?” Well, if you think I’m bad, you should meet my Mom. Here’s what I learned about Tweens and early Teens: Adolescence is a period of human brain growth and that from about 12 until 14 the brain’s cortex layers thin down probably as a result of pruning out unwanted connections between neurons, while important neurons gain a sheath that helps transmit signals more quickly. I was directed to a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America titled, “Adolescence is associated with genetically patterned consolidation of the hubs of the human brain connectome.”

While I am more familiar with physics than biology, I thought I would take a look and uncover the mystery of youth. I was kind of excited, not just because I would like to figure out what is going on inside my son’s brain, but also because we at bloomfield knoble have had the opportunity to work on many projects that involve marketing to the parents of children. Let’s be honest about our industry – it’s not just advertising to the parent, it’s also getting the child excited about the product enough to help encourage the parent to make a purchase. So I’m pretty confident that this new research could really help us better understand the next generation of purchaser and position us as an agency to get ahead of the curve.

I made it through the abstract.

How does human brain structure mature during adolescence? We used MRI to measure cortical thickness and intracortical myelination in 297 population volunteers aged 14–24 y old. We found and replicated that association cortical areas were thicker and less myelinated than primary cortical areas at 14 y. However, association cortex had faster rates of shrinkage and myelination over the course of adolescence. Age-related increases in cortical myelination were maximized approximately at the internal layer of projection neurons. Adolescent cortical myelination and shrinkage were coupled and specifically associated with a dorsoventrally patterned gene expression profile enriched for synaptic, oligodendroglial- and schizophrenia-related genes. Topologically efficient and biologically expensive hubs of the brain anatomical network had greater rates of shrinkage/myelination and were associated with overexpression of the same transcriptional profile as cortical consolidation. We conclude that normative human brain maturation involves a genetically patterned process of consolidating anatomical network hubs. We argue that developmental variation of this consolidation process may be relevant both to normal cognitive and behavioral changes and the high incidence of schizophrenia during human brain adolescence.

So I called my Mom back, who, having heard from me twice in the same week presumed that something was terribly wrong, to ask for a summary of the report. It turns out that kids are different. Not just different, but different. As in, their brains aren’t like ours. Playing – even if it seems pretty nonsensical to adults – is training their brain to process information. Lack of focus is the brain creating pathways to different files that form foundations for future reasoning. Doing stuff that seems, well, stupid, is just a part of growing up. What we, as adults, perceive as a lack of common sense, is really just the brain shedding – or adding – layers of information.

I asked my Mom about ways that we, as an agency, could better market to Tweens. She chuckled (or snorted, either way it was a verbal dismissive gesture) and said that while market research may generate some observable results, the simple truth is that adults no longer know how to relate to kids that age – our brains simply don’t work like that anymore. Furthermore, asking a kid to come up with an ad for kids doesn’t work so well either, because it forces them to process information differently. In other words, asking a kid to come up with an ad will get the kid to stop acting like a kid and start thinking (or trying to think) like an adult who is problem solving. My Mom said that the best examples of success in her trials had always been to watch kids at play and observe. Enough observation may reveal certain patterns of behavior that could be used to identify opportunities for engagement.

I decided to give it a try – rather than let my son make me insane, I decided just to observe and try to identify a pattern that we could use on our next project. That lasted about 20 seconds because my kid declared himself a human Nerf gun and shot a dart out of his nose.

I think we’ll just avoid marketing to children in the future.