Gamification, Social Media and the Rise of Youth Crowdcultures

18th May 2016

Ever heard of Felix Kjellberg? Nor had I till a few weeks ago. Felix is a Swedish YouTube phenomenon who goes by the moniker PewDiePie (pewdeepie).

He is no 1 on YouTube and the highest ranking vlogger (video blogger) in the world with 43 million followers. Last year, he earned $12 million mainly by spending his time joking, gossiping and gaming to a worldwide audience from his bedroom.

Disney wants to build a TV network around him, while F1 sponsor Red Bull wants to emulate his success. While Felix’s videos cost only a few thousand dollars a year to produce, Red Bull spends $2 billion a year on its social media marketing. To add insult to injury, Red Bull is 184 places behind PewDiePie on the YouTube follower ranking.

To comprehend the scale of the attraction of social media for teenagers, you need to understand the world of Felix, his fellow gamers and the sheer complexity of today’s gamification subcultures or crowdcultures.

As safeguarding practitioners, police officers, teachers, social workers et al, try to understand how to address the online world children and young people now inhabit, these same young people, commonly referred to as GenZ (post millennials), already live in a vastly different private/public space to that of even 20 somethings – and it’s evolving all the time.

Teenage crowdcultures orbit the world of online gamification that is fractured into multifarious subgenres, from war and sport, to fashion, comedy and practical japesters –  and then another world of subgenres in between. If you have a few hours you can see much of this crowdculture livestreaming games on Twitch or gossiping and pulling practical jokes on YouTubeNow, Twitter or Snapchat. Elsewhere, you can watch urban gangs interact on Blab, see teens negotiate virtual deals on fantasy football and real deals on Instagram or Kik; or ask to join a closed Whatsapp GenZ environmental pressure group set up by sixth formers.

And, believe me, this is just scratching the surface.

For parents and professionals, networked crowdcultures based around gamification and social media will become increasingly important when it comes to engaging with GenZ. To build a rapport with the modern teenager, and to capture the voices of these young people, you’ll need to start to understand the games they play and the networks they inhabit.

Some groups in the US have already started to link social media, gaming and safeguarding together with surprisingly positive results. In Los Angeles recently, a study programme was set up to see how social media and gaming could help disadvantaged families. The research group enrolled 155 families who were part of a hard-to-reach population and, astonishingly, the results quickly showed that parental participation in online gamification with children significantly improved outcomes for children, reducing the risk factors for child maltreatment and improving parenting skills.  The old fashioned word for what they did together was “fun”.

In the study 50 per cent of parents continued to ‘lurk’ online, 32 per cent shared occasionally and 17 per cent shared frequently. This compares with the traditional models where 90 per cent lurk, 9 percent share occasionally and only 1 per cent shared frequently.

The overwhelming conclusion from the experiment was that emerging crowdcultures based around gamification and social media, could improve the lives of parents and children, creating less stress and producing far higher bonding and life chances for all concerned. Unsurprisingly, parents and children suddenly started to enjoy each other’s company and spend time together as a family.

The success of this programme has resulted in a number of similar gamification and social media study programmes now being rolled out across other areas in the US.

If gamification can make such an improvement to hard-to-reach families in the projects of Los Angeles, what kind of outcomes could it produce among parents and professionals attempting to understand the crowdcultures of the UK’s GenZ population?

In Britain, there’s a huge amount of soul searching and incomprehension regarding social media and the gamification culture. And the gulf is widening as media reports constantly warn of the risks of GenZ spending too much time on games and on text messaging apps with networks of friends they’ve never met. Likewise, even bigger concerns of online radicalisation, sexting, grooming, sexual exploitation and bullying. These problems are real and need addressing, but parents and professionals also fail completely to understand the issues involved or highlight any positive benefits gained from online crowdcultures.

Furthermore, so long as professionals fail to grasp how to address and be part of the emerging crowdcultures, none of the fundamental problems involving online safety will be properly addressed. As with the Los Angeles study programme, parents and professionals need to understand and even take part in gamification, social media and the myriad of sub genres. In this way, the voice of GenZ and young children now growing up within these crowdcultures will be heard and problems can more easily be addressed.

Nevertheless, some charities are trying to find solutions to the online crowdculture phenomenon.

Recent attempts to seek out and understand GenZ’s use of apps and games have been carried out by the NSPCC. The Net Aware guide, produced by the charity , in partnership with phone firm O2, offers the UK’s only parents’ guide to 50 of the most popular social media sites, apps and games young people use and is designed to help parents talk to their children about socialising safely online.

Most parents have huge concerns about the lack of control they have over what their young children and, in particular, teenagers are viewing online and who they are making contact with while accessing social media.

The simple truth is that crowdcultures now exist and the only way to understand these phenomena is to reach out and take part in them. Play the games. Even watch a few PewDiePie broadcasts. The alternative is that by monitoring and prohibiting children and older GenZ teens to go online, you will simply provoke a backlash and the GenZ networks will be even more hidden than they are at the moment. The gulf will become a chasm.

Below are several apps and websites that can be used to help monitor young people’s online activities and it’s worth checking them out as a reference. But beware; spying on a teen’s activities could lose essential trust in the long term.

Sites monitoring online activity

Online Them is a programme that parents can install to monitor the “negative” and “positive” words used by their children.  For example, this programme files words used in categories of “crime”, “high risk” or “adult content” when children are on computers. Online Them, however, does not monitor messenger, snapchat, whatsapp or text messages.

Teensafe is software developed for parent to access their children’s devices from a distance.  This software allows parents to access every text message sent or received and every single whatsapp chat that your child is involved in are also reported on.

MSPY is another app. It shows for example your child’s 10 favourite contacts.  Who they make and receive contact from.  There is even a GPS tracking on this in order to keep up with your child’s surfing ability online.

Selfiecop  sent parents a copy of every photo or video sent or received by children.

Internet matters is a really useful tool for parents, professionals and children and young people

By Andrew Chilvers and Marisa De Jager