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When does a child become an adult? At 18? 21? 25? In a time when children as young as 8 carry cell phones, and adults as old as 30 still live at home with mom and dad, it's often tough to tell. One indicator of growing up is media consumption — in particular, one's preferences for either “youth-� or “adult�-oriented television programs. In July, American Demographics teamed up with Encino, Calif.-based research firm E-Poll to conduct a nationally representative survey of 1,000 young Americans ages 13 to 25. The exclusive online poll uncovered some clear trends, not only about what today's youth are looking for from the TV programs they watch but also about when — if ever — they begin ditching the kid-friendly shows for more adult fare.

Psychologists have told us for decades that girls mature faster than boys, and our analysis of their television preferences confirms that. Seven in 10 girls ages 13 to 16 (71 percent), for instance, watch what we called in this survey “adult dramas� — shows such as CSI and Law and Order — compared with just 57 percent of boys in that age group. Interestingly, the girls' penchant for more mature entertainment wanes slightly as they become young women. Yet females, regardless of age, are consistently more interested in serious, complex shows than are their male counterparts. Sixty-six percent of young women ages 17 to 20, and 64 percent of those ages 21 to 25, watch adult dramas, compared with 53 percent and 56 percent, respectively, of young men in those age groups. Even young women's sense of humor is more sophisticated: 81 percent of females ages 21 to 25 enjoy “adult comedies,� such as Friends and Will & Grace, compared with 73 percent of the males in that age group.

Perhaps because they mature so fast, girls often turn to the tube for a glimpse into their adult future, whereas boys seem to look for an escape from it. This is especially true among young adults ages 17 to 20, who are in the important transitional period between childhood and adulthood. Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of young females in that age group say they enjoy TV programs that portray experiences they expect to go through someday soon in their own lives, compared with just half (51 percent) of young males who say the same. Similarly, young women in that age group are significantly more interested than young men in shows that feature characters who are older than they are (61 percent versus 49 percent) and in shows that are about romance or have “love� themes (70 percent versus 27 percent).

Boys, on the other hand, will be boys…well into their 20s. The vast majority (85 percent) of males ages 13 to 16 say they watch “youth comedies,� such as Malcolm in the Middle and 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. This makes sense, given that young teens are the primary target of these shows. But 84 percent of men ages 21 to 25 also watch youth comedies, compared with 73 percent of the women in that age group. Young men are also more likely than females, at every age, to enjoy “youth reality shows� — such as Fear Factor and The Jamie Kennedy Experiment — although, admittedly, this dichotomy is the most dramatic among the younger viewers (63 percent of boys ages 13 to 16 watch youth-centric reality shows, versus 47 percent of teen girls).

If you want to be serious with young men, fuhgeddaboutit: 4 in 10 Gen Y males think serious shows or dramas are b-o-r-i-n-g. To catch their attention, especially the youngest of the bunch, appeal to their competitive nature: 89 percent of teen boys say they enjoy shows with some kind of competition involved, compared with 68 percent of teen girls.

And that's one to grow on.

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Methodology note: To form the genre classifications, editors of American Demographics selected 32 television shows and asked respondents how often they viewed each show. Using New York media agency Horizon Media's analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, we classified TV programs in which the audience's median age was under 35 as “youth� and those in which the audience's median age was over 35 as “adult.�

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