Social media for kids: a growing need for virtual interactions

The ongoing pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have been important reminders of the need to have social connections and spaces for sharing and conversation. Adults and kids cut off from their regular circles of friends and extended family members are more than ever in need of virtual contact points that allow them to connect to the real world. Under such circumstances, social media for kids takes on a whole new dimension. However, major players and independent studios alike did not wait for a pandemic to wade into that market…

In our 2020 Trends Report we gave top billing to the emerging Alpha Generation and their digital consumption habits. Social scientist Mark McCrindle defined Alphas as those born – and yet to be born – between 2010 and 2025. The trend is unmistakable. The shopping malls and parks where their parents and grandparents used to hang out on weekends have been swapped for online hangouts like TikTok or Fortnite, while sports like hockey are being traded in for esports.

Fortnite and the like, from online gaming to virtual public spaces

A social and cultural phenomenon in its own right, the Fortnite game (Epic Games) has become the Fortnite world with an ever-expanding user base of more than one quarter of a billion, and a global leader in the movement to reproduce and extend the possibilities of traditional social spaces into virtual public spaces. Like its competitors Roblox (Roblox Corporation) or the more recent Horizon (Facebook), Fortnite provides much more than just an online gaming community. Users consume and create cultural content, play games, socialize with their peers, and interact with brands or rock stars, all without ever leaving the metaverse, that “virtual public space created by the convergence between an augmented physical reality and a persistent virtual space that never ceases to exist,” according to Matthew Ball, former chief strategist at Amazon Studios.

There’s no doubt about the huge appeal virtual public spaces have for Alphas. Roblox is the hands-down favourite for the under-13 set with 150 million active monthly users spending more time there than they do on YouTube, Netflix, and Facebook combined. As for Fortnite, some 63% of its 350 million active monthly users are under 25 and average 6 to 10 hours a week with the game. Fortnite’s appeal is so great, in fact, that the Montreal law firm Calex Legal started a class action lawsuit against it in 2019 at the request of the parents of two children, age 10 and 15, contending that the game was designed to make it “as addictive as possible.” Even Prince Harry has called for the game to be banned…

Esports are also experiencing exponential growth with more than 450 million spectators worldwide and projected revenues of US$2.2 billion by 2022. Esports have already been given the seal of approval in Canada with events being broadcast by Bell and Rogers as well as being integrated into certain educational programs. And last, but not least, you can’t chat about social media without mentioning TikTok, the talk of the town with teens, totalling more than 800 million active monthly users and over 2 billion downloads, clearly demonstrating the hyperconnectivity of young audiences, on the one hand, and their insatiable appetite for video, on the other.

Social media for young kids, too!

While the metaverses are mainly focused on teens and young adults, they haven’t left the 12-and-under set out in the cold. Facebook dipped its giant toe into this market by launching Messenger Kids in 2017. The app lets parents create verified profiles for their children and keep an eye on how they interact with others. The Birds n bats app was launched in India in July 2019. It lets kids 7 to 17 add friends online, interact, and play together, as well as access entertainment and educational content. What’s special about the app is the way it restricts parental control to connections and access to certain content, while leaving kids with private spaces where they can freely express themselves.

Closer to home, Montreal-based Tobo Studio introduced SMALA, described as a family network for creating intergenerational links between children, their parents, and their grandparents, especially in the context of the lockdown, as in the case of expatriate families, for example. Producer Florence Roche says that the platform was designed to provide original editorial content, mini-games, and spaces for sharing. What’s its major feature? A well-thought-out concept based on an ethnographic study with test families and content and design tailored as much as possible to their specific needs.

When online networks become solidarity networks...

While online networks can be criticized for many reasons, not the least of which is their seeming disregard for the negative impact of cyberaddiction, they do have a few positive things going for them. A good example is Zevent, the popular French charity esports event where dozens of online streamers get together in support of a good cause, like the 3.5 million euros they raised or the Pasteur Institute in September 2019, or during the 2018 event, when they managed to bring in more than 1 million euros in support of Doctors Without Borders.

More recently, TikTok joined forces with the World Health Organization to offer its young users verified information on the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially through Q&A sessions and online advice, as it increasingly becomes a space for dialogue for millions of young people sharing their experiences and their questions at #coronavirus, a commendable initiative in these anxious times of social distancing.

Prune Lieutier
Prune Lieutier is both an independent digital experiences producer for youth, and a young researcher in education at UQAM. As part of her work for young audiences, Prune has been in charge of many innovative projects, mostly involving a large work ecosystem, where creators, developers, researchers and broadcasters (Interactive Fonfon, The Mysterious Creatures Club, etc.) collaborated. She is also very involved in various academic research, for the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, the Quebec Research Fund-Society and Culture, and others. As part of her practice and research, she has published and given numerous conferences and papers, notably at the National Library of France in Paris, at Berkeley University or for major scientific media. Her projects for youth, led as a producer or as a young researcher, won two Boomerang Grands Prix (Best application for youth, tied with the NFB, and Content), the NUMIX Convergence Jeunesse Award, and the MITACS-National Research Council Canada Award for Commercialization, among others. Finally, Prune is the founder and general director of the children's podcast production studio La puce à l'oreille, the first of its kind in the French-speaking world.
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