Advertisers: read on for the Gen Z digital trends of 2020. From video to gaming to smartphone use to their parents, here’s everything you need to know about advertising to the “digital native” generation.

Kids these days. They can swipe, click, snap, ‘gram, TikTok…verbs that weren’t even words just fifteen years ago. 

Gen Zers (born between 1995 and 2010) make up a vast proportion of the new “digital natives” advertisers need to be aware of.  Nearly all US teens are internet users. eMarketer estimates that 97.4% of 12- to 17-year-olds will use the internet at least once a month in 2020. And by age 13, 73% of kids will have a smartphone.

Having grown up as “digital natives”, this new generation of self-learners is also more comfortable absorbing knowledge online than in traditional institutions of learning (McKinsey & Company, 2019) This means they are pragmatic and analytical about their decisions, which includes what they buy and how they buy it. Beyond consumption itself, they are re-defining the term altogether: access is becoming the new form of consumption, rather than possession.  Gen Zers are also passionate about causes that matter to them and they want brands to be, too. 

Meanwhile, their little siblings (born after 2010) are gaining digital time of their own, supervised by their parents. Before kids aged thirteen and under start getting smartphones, they use tablets shared by the family for gaming and digital use. They’re not the only ones growing up fast. Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) are growing into quite the tech-savvy parents, keenly aware of the perils of the vast internet and digital landscape. They’re spending money and implementing digital rules for their kids in a different way than generations before them, having experienced, well, a little of both. It’s important for advertisers to appeal to savvy parents of the younger generation.

So what does it all mean for digital advertising in 2020? In order to engage with the kids and teens you’re targeting, it’s never been more important to put quality, safety, and value at the forefront of advertising. Further, video is the primary method of engagement across devices. 

In case you’re confused about who’s what age, McKinsey & Company made a great table here.

Kids vs. Gen Z: Videos, Gaming, and the Social Media “Recession”

Parents are spending record numbers on video and digital gaming for their children. Until age 13 or so, kids are substantially more interested in videos and gaming than social media. If they do have a phone, it’s used for games. 28% of children’s online videos “were related to toys or games.” (Pew Research Center via eMarketer, 2020)

46.6% of kids 11 and younger will be tablet users this year. The tablet is usually shared by the family. (eMarketer, 2020)

By Age 13, 73% of kids will have a smartphone (eMarketer, 2020) and 57% of 4-to-14 year-olds “mainly use their phone for gaming” (SellCell via eMarketer, 2020). 

58% of parents of 5-to-7 year-olds who played video games said they expected to spend more on such goods in 2019’s holiday shopping season than they had the previous year. So did substantial numbers of parents with gamers ages 8 to 10 (49%) and 11 to 12 (40%). (YouGov via eMarketer, 2020). 

Outlays from spending on digital games for kids ages 7 to 12 is projected to rise from $1.03 billion in 2015 to $2.26 billion in 2021. (Nielson via eMarketer, 2020).

As they grow into teens, video prevails:

On whatever device they’re using, teens will often be watching video. eMarketer estimates that 93.7% of 12-to-17s will be digital video viewers in 2020 (eMarketer, 2019).

For Gen Z, social media is of significant interest and time, but not necessarily in a positive way. Social media usage – especially Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat – is high, but so is anxiety and depression, cyberbullying, and self-reported phone addiction. Those surveyed pointed to social media as the primary cause of “fomo.” eMarketer goes more in-depth in their study on Gen Z here: At the Core of Gen Z.

Others claim we’re in a “Social Recession.” Instagram’s user growth is expected to drop to single digits for the first time in 2020, to 6.7% from 10.1%, and its owner Facebook’s growth is essentially flat. (eMarketer via WWD, 2020)

Bottom line: Video and digital games will be the primary methods of content consumption for Gen Z. If younger than 18, target parents’ who will spend big on their kids’ gaming interests. Think beyond desktop – tablet and smartphones are preferred – as well as outside the Walled Gardens as social growth slows.

Side Note: Do Gender Differences Matter in Kids’ Toys?

Much to the chagrin of newer generations, the jury is still out when it comes to gender-neutral versus traditional gender roles in toy marketing.  According to eMarketer, in an essay posted to in July 2019, Sarah Chumsky, vice president for Insight Kids at the Insight Strategy Group, analyzed findings of a study by her company among kids and teens ages 5 to 16. “Girls tend to gravitate toward more female-centric topics (such as cooking, theater and dance, fashion and makeup), while boys still over index in the video games and superheroes categories.” But, importantly, “for every gender-polarizing category, there is a sizable minority of the opposite gender that engages with it [emphasis added].” A more gender-neutral approach to play clearly has a constituency among millennial parents. What remains to be seen is the degree to which kids themselves will get on board with this. (eMarketer, 2020)


Bottom line: Gender-neutral toy advertising may appeal to millennial parents, but kids still tend gravitate to traditional masculine/feminine interests when it comes to toys. Just let the kid choose which one.

Time Folding: A Real Thing to Describe How Much Content Gen Z Is Consuming

Do we really need a new term for what is essentially digital multi-tasking? Apparently. According to WWD and Nudge, “Time folding” is a new term to explain how Gen Z (and everyone) is consuming so much content. 

Engagement with content increased 20% last year, and the number of pieces of content produced is up 10%  (WWD, 2020).

Also consider that 97.4% of 12- to 17-year-olds will use the internet at least once a month in 2020 (eMarketer, 2019).

WWD writes: “Younger generations are doing more than one thing at a time, they’re folding time and they’re able to condense,” said Amy Emmerich, Refinery29’s global president and chief content officer. “Yes, they’re binging, but they’re skipping every 10 seconds. We’ve seen it, the younger generation is truly built to fold time.”

Haik of Vice Media, Refinery’s new parent company, offered that younger consumers are actually doing “three or four things at once” in terms of content consumption.

Bottom line: Create content often, but create content that sticks. It will take a lot to hold this generation’s interest.

Gen Z Isn’t as Worried About “Custom” Content Being Creepy…They Prefer It, As Long is It Provides Value

88% of Gen Zers indicated that custom content feels like a good way for new brands they haven’t heard of to reach them (Time Inc. Study via MediaPost, 2017).

⅔ of Generation X and Z consumers trust branded content more than traditional advertising. (Time Inc. study, 2017).

Gen Z are most likely of all consumers to use “buy” buttons (56%) and shoppable photos (34%) (IAB via AdAge, 2018).

36% of Gen Zers have a positive reaction to Native Ads (Millward Brown, 2018)

“I feel like the native ads are more engaging. They have more entertainment value, are thought-provoking, and I perceive a more memorable and lasting connection than with traditional click ads.”  –Nicholas, 33, Finance Guru, a respondent in a Time Inc. Study (MediaPost, 2017)

Gen Z are dramatically more passionate about music and movies. Ads placed in these contexts are far more powerful with this group, with 39% of Gen Z saying music makes them more positive to advertising and 38% reporting that movies have the same effect (Millward Brown, 2017).

93% of Gen Zers say they want to see brands do something new, unique, or creative to get their attention (Time Inc. Study via MediaPost, 2017).

Bottom line: Advertisers should create ads that don’t feel like ads, but instead match the environment they’re in – in form and context – that lead to valuable content.

To Appeal to Gen Z, Be an Expert or Stick Up For a Cause

In polling for a 2019 report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, 68% of girls and 59% of boys ages 11 to 17 endorsed the statement, “I have discovered a new talent or interest [by exploring online].” And 60% of girls and 51% of boys agreed that they are “more connected to social issues and causes [because of the internet]” (eMarketer, 2019).

92% of Gen Zers believe brands have expertise on topics and add value to content (Time Inc. Study via MediaPost, 2017).

77% of Gen Zers say they feel more positively towards a brand when it promotes equality on social media. 71% said they’d like to see more diversity in advertising (Patagonia via Hootsuite, 2019).

7 out of 10 Gen Zers say it is important to defend causes related to identity, so they are more interested than previous generations have been in human rights; in matters related to race and ethnicity; in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues; and in feminism (McKinsey & Company, 2019).

60% of teens support brands that take a stand on issues they believe in regarding human rights, race, and sexual orientation, according to the study (AdWeek, 2017).

Gen Zers value online communities because they allow people of different economic circumstances to connect and mobilize around causes and interests. 66% of Gen Zers surveyed believe that communities are created by causes and interests, not by economic backgrounds or educational levels (McKinsey & Company, 2019). 

61% of Gen Z also says they’d pay more for products or services that are produced in an ethical and sustainable way (Facebook Insights, 2019).

Bottom line: Lead with your values, connect through communities, and offer your expertise.

How Much Are Gen Zers Really Buying?

61.8% of 14-to-17s will be digital buyers in 2020. Though substantial, that’s lower than penetration for all age groups younger than 65 (eMarketer, 2019).

McKinsey found that 42% of Gen Zers from 17 to 23 years old are already gainfully employed in either full- or part-time jobs or as freelance workers—a high percentage for people so young. (McKinsey & Company, 2019)

While eMarketer stressed that parents are still ultimately making big buying decisions for Gen Zers, as most are still teens. “Marketers shouldn’t assume teens have gone wholly digital in their shopping. Physical stores still matter, in part as venues for in-person interaction with their peers. And teens are not too cool to use cash.”

Bottom line: While they may not be big online spenders now, Gen Z is on their way. In the meantime, create experiences for physical purchases and appeal to parents.

Gen Z is Leading the Way to Re-Defining Consumption

In their report, McKinsey & Co. touched on a significant shift in the younger generation: re-defining consumption. That is, “owning” something is no longer the sole signifier of success nor is physical possession. For Gen Z—and increasingly for older generations as wellconsumption means having access to products or services, not necessarily owning them. As access becomes the new form of consumption, unlimited access to goods and services (such as car-riding services, video streaming, and subscriptions) creates value. Products become services, and services connect consumers. This is because Gen Zers have access to more information than ever before, and are accustomed to evaluating a broad range of information before purchases. Gen Zers analyze not only what they buy but also the very act of consuming.  

Bottom line: Advertisers should keep this in mind when appealing to Gen Z. Remember experiences, travel, and memberships/subscriptions will be more appealing than “stuff.”