Fandom is nothing new—but in today’s online society, it means something new to be a devoted fan. Social media and the internet have helped to facilitate these subcultures.

So in this context, what does it mean to be a fan for kids today? In its new study, “Pied Piper or Follower: Finding the Brand Advocates,” Nickelodeon Australia delved into this topic via an online survey of kids 5 to 12 in Australia, as well as qualitative research and vox pops.

Here are key findings from this project:

Fandom offers kids shared experiences with friends—along with healthy rivalry. They might find out about fandoms from friends and continue with them out of common interest. A subset of kids (36%) competes with friends to be the biggest fan. A third, on the other hand, may feel shy and want to keep their fan activity to themselves.

For Australian kids, being a fan is about self-expression, discovery and community.

  • Self-expression. For 77%, being a fan allows them to express themselves. Even more (86%) agree that being passionate about something is really important. More than half agree that being a fan helps you stand out from the crowd.
  • Discovery. More than 8 in 10 agree that being a fan of something helps you discover more related things you like. Nearly all (92%) agree that being a fan allows you to discover new things and connect with more people.
  • Community. For 4 out of 5 Australian kids, being a fan makes you feel like a part of something bigger. Nearly 6 in 10 think that being a fan helps you cope if you’re worried or stressed. And 81% say they connect more with those who are fans of the same things.

Kids’ fandom journeys change with age. For kids 7 to 9, relationships with the things or people they’re fans of are simpler. Parental approval plays a bigger role, and interactions are both more controlled and less emotional. Tweens 10 to 12, on the other hand, connect more deeply and experience more emotions as part of their “fandom” relationships. However, out of self-consciousness and a desire to fit in, they may be less open about their fandoms. Tweens are more tech-savvy and have more freedom, so parents sometimes have little awareness.

Fandom is a part of socialization–helping kids to bond with family, connect with peers and find themselves. Being a fan gives kids activities to share with family members. With other kids, they learn to socialize by enjoying shared interests and learning to negotiate group norms. Fandom can also help kids figure out what they’re good at, define their tastes and personality, and build self-confidence.

Fandom gives Australian kids an opportunity for escapism. It also helps them to form deep emotions. Kids have less control of the physical world, but being in their fandom allows them to escape from their daily life and social inhibitions. Fantasizing about, say, being Taylor Swift’s best friend lets them create, manipulate and immerse themselves in new ways. Additionally, fandoms expose kids to a spectrum of feelings—ranging from the disappointment of a sports team’s loss, the frustration of building a new Lego construction, or the thrill of meeting an idol in person.

The fandom journey can be expressed by child relationships: New Acquaintance, Friend, Best Friend, and True Love. (The latter two are “superfan” territory!)

  • New Acquaintance. In this stage, kids learn about a new thing, person, or brand via family, peers, or media. It’s not necessarily a favorite at this point.
  • Friend. Here, kids realize the benefits that fandom confers—it’s fun, helps them improve skills, allows them to initiate or strengthen friendships, facilitates playground conversations, or is consistent with their family values. The connection to the fandom, however, is still external.
  • Best Friend. This is where the journey becomes more internal, where kids identify with and develop an attachment to the object of their fandom. The fandom becomes part of their identity—they talk about it more, try to recruit others to join, and use more emotional language. At this point, they start to become collectors, saving money to buy things to support their fandom.
  • True Love. Kids in this phase have a real allegiance to the fandom, which impacts their attitudes and behavior. Their fandoms occupy more of their attention, shaping their perception of the world. They’re seeking new information, creating things to do, and collecting items to nurture their fandoms over time. The intense connection they feel puts them in the inner circle with their fandoms.

Those in the “True Love” category are the biggest consumers, but not necessarily the biggest advocates—owing to feelings of possessiveness, jealousy, defensiveness and embarrassment. When it comes to brand advocacy, those in the “Friend” and “Best Friend” categories may be more rewarding to brands.

Putting this all together, these are key takeaways for brands when it comes to Australian kids and fandom:

  • Keep your brand fresh and evolving so fans can interact in multiple ways
  • Make it personal by connecting authentically, being both accessible and responsive, and putting kids in control
  • Involve the whole family, because family is a huge influencer and the ability to share experiences is very powerful in generating brand love