Teens: What They Are All About

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of teens ages 12 to 19 soared to 32 million, an increase of nearly 4.5 million. Their 17% growth rate far outpaced the growth of the rest of the population. In 2010, the teen population is at 35 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the teen population in the South makes up 36.4% percent of all teens across the nation.

Millennial Generation Segments

Teen years are almost like dog years with regard to the amount of change and development that can be packed into 12 months. Teens change and develop quickly. Consequently, their attitudes exhibit a number of distinguishing characteristics.

While today’s teens exhibit a strong need for individuality in their self-expression, teens want to be in control. They also display a deep attachment and respect for family. Teens are realistic and optimistic, with a strong sense of individualism. Early teens want to fit in while older teens want to stand out and spread their wings of independence.


Teens are not overly concerned with ethnic designators. According to the market research firm Cheskin, teens are “intra-cultural.” They do not identify themselves solely as African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American or Caucasian. Teens blur the lines between ethnic and racial identities.

The current teen market represents the most multicultural population the United States has ever seen. According to Interep Research, one of every three teens, ages 12 to 19, belongs to a minority racial or ethnic group compared to one of five in the pre-Boomer generation. Some 15% of 12- to 19-year-olds are African American/Black, 15% are Hispanic/Latino and 4% are Asian American. The Hispanic/Latino teen market is 4.6 million strong. By 2020, it will balloon to 62% – growing six times faster than the rest of the teen market. Asian American teens, ages 10 to 14, are expected to experience the highest percentage of growth in this decade – 31%.

The Rate of Change

Teens today understand the need to be able to turn on a dime because they live with short-term change and volatility daily. Unlike previous eras, teens also live with paradox, realizing that their choices are filled with a mix of good and bad. Even so, they have a strong sense of empowerment and believe they can conquer any challenge, actively seeking out causes to support.

Teen Attitudes

Today’s Teens live in a time of sweeping technological advances, relative affluence, and a flattening divorce rate.  Consequently, their attitudes and cultural awareness exhibit a number of distinguishing characteristics. For example, they:

¦ Are realistic and optimistic with a strong sense of individualism, but not with the fierce independence of the previous generation

¦ Like to be in control and are “hip to hype,” but not to the point of cynicism

¦ Want and expect to have control over their media experiences

¦ Have access to evolving and new technologies

According to the Teenage Research Unlimited (2003), teens had the following to say about themselves:

  • 86% agree that people should be free to look, dress and live the way they want whether others like it or not.
  • 80% believe they have a very clear idea of objectives and life goals.
  • 75% trust their own judgment.
  • 70% say they tell the truth concerning things very important to them.
  • 68% say they often buy a different brand just to see what it’s like.
  • 67% think grownups are really stressed out.
  • 62% believe they are smarter than most kids of the same age.

Teens had the following to say about adult success and accomplishment:

  • 82% want to be really good at their jobs.
  • 78% want really good relationships with their kids.
  • 78% think it's important to be in control of their lives.

Teens and Education

Today’s youth may well end up being the most educated generation to date. Nearly nine out of ten 17-year-olds plan to attend college — and these are the Teens whose advanced education decisions are on the immediate horizon. Younger Teens plan to attend college at even higher rates. Only 26% of the 75-year old and older crowd attended college for any amount of time as compared to 59% of 25- to 35-year-olds.  Younger generations have generally attended college at higher rates than previous generations.


Everybody is somebody’s leader. Teens look to certain knowledgeable teens for influence in a specific category. However, the most effective role model exists within the family.


According to a study from Euro RSCG, Connected and Connectivity – The Power of Teens Online, teens are the most informed, media-aware group in history. They’re also extremely technology savvy. A teen's most important tool is the computer, which is used as a central communications system for e-mails, IM, blogs and even cell phones.

U.S. teens spend more time online than watching TV. Today’s teens make up the first computer-literate generation of shoppers. Not only are they used to media serving up advertising, but they’re also accustomed to consumer goods representing lifestyle choices and identity. Web sites define what it means to be a “cool chick,” all the while blurring the boundaries between “hanging out” and shopping. However, interpersonal communications trump media.


Teens want to be in a world where they can be anything. Teens need to be able to find self-expression in the products they consume. Consciously or unconsciously, teens are attracted to products that affirm their interests and lifestyle choices. Youth want to build resilience and resistance of society, moving confidently out into the world and pursuing a unique path. Teens create their own worlds.

Teens and the Economy

Teens are a robust part of the economy and have significant discretionary income. Teen income is thought to have risen 29% in the past five years because more teens are joining the workforce. According to the U.S. Labor Statistics, nearly 40% of youth ages 16 to 19 hold jobs. According to American Demographics, kids buy things to satisfy their play needs first, their need for sensory experiences (such as food) second and their need for affiliation with others third.

In buying products, teens tend to purchase products from companies believed to have a social conscience. Income and spending for boys are about 15% higher than that of girls. Clothing topped the list of both what teens planned to buy and what they actually purchased. Entertainment items, such as video games, CDs and magazines, were also on teens’ planned purchases list as well as what they actually bought. Food, candy and soda were the most common items recently bought. Boys tend to spend more on snacks and toys when young and move into fast food, electronics and cars when they become teenagers. Girls 9 to 11 spend a lot on grooming products. By the time girls become teens, clothing has shot to the top of their shopping lists.

Parents are having fewer children, thereby increasing the influence of each child. The growing number of one-parent families has resulted in a corresponding rise in the number of children who do their own shopping. In 2003, nearly half, 47%, of 9- to 17-year-olds were asked by their parents to go online to find out about products or services. Older teens had more influence than younger teens on household purchases of personal computers, cell phones and deodorant. Older teens and young teens had the same influence on fast food, soft drinks, toothpaste, chewing gum, potato chips and sunscreen products. Younger teens have more influence than older teens on video games, ice cream, candy, pretzels and vacation travel.

The Power of Choice

Teens have more choices than other generations. Thanks to numerous easy ways to communicate with peers, they express both positive and negative opinions with peers.

Media Sophisticates

Teens are media sophisticates. Today’s teens distrust hype where they see it, from product advertising to political campaigns. As consumers, teens are astute observers of the mass media, sharply aware of advertising techniques and knowledgeable about modern marketing strategies. According to Neopets Youth Study (2004), magazines appeal to eight of 10 teens and are the advertising medium they trust the most.

Give Teens a Place to Be Heard

It’s important to be aware that what adults perceive will be attractive to teens may well not hit the intended target audience. Michele Kaminski, president of her own Pittsburgh consulting agency, said, “I’ve never seen anything so different as the things adults think teens would like versus what teens are actually drawn to.”

The same general rule extends to using slang. By the time a popular word or phrase makes it into advertising, it’s too broadly used to be hip to a teen audience. Peter Zollo, president of market research firm Teenage Research Unlimited, shares, “Teens see this as adults infringing on their privacy.” Teens will remember you as long as you give them a good product and don’t talk down to them.

Those flocking to the burgeoning kids market are finding new ways of learning more about their elusive target. One effective method of peering into kids’ minds is focus groups. Conducted on children’s own terms – some are held using young people as moderators – focus groups foster interaction among children and provide valuable insights for development new products.

Despite what you’ve heard, kids do read. More than two-thirds of teenagers read at least one daily newspaper a week, reports American Demographics. Readership is highest among older teenagers, and Sunday readership is higher than weekday.

Keep Your Brand Strong

Teens start brand loyalty at 10 years old, and that loyalty is fixed at 15 years. It’s important to keep your brand strong in various media beyond the Internet, and teens will respond by coming back for more. Brand advertising should engage teens in linear and entertaining stories.


Teens are the first generation of true multi-taskers, easily balancing e-mail, chat and other communications simultaneously. Fifty-five percent multi-tasked with the Internet and TV compared to the Internet and radio. Teens love to interact. Instead of static, one-way communications, teens look to activities that encourage participation.


Teens are a diverse, vibrant, growing and crucial segment of the population. Their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors will affect the community for years to come. With their considerable trustworthiness, reach and effectiveness, youth organizations can remain a powerful way to connect with youth.

Developed by:
Janet Fox, LSU AgCenter 4-H Youth Development

8/11/2005 2:55:25 AM
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