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New Horizon Media Research Reveals 2023 Back-to-School Season As Financially - and Emotionally - Costly for Parents

New Horizon Media Research Reveals 2023 Back-to-School Season As Financially - and Emotionally - Costly for Parents

PR Newswire

- The "Pencils Ready" Survey Finds Safety, School System Failures, and Inflation among Parents' Top Concerns –

NEW YORK, Sept. 19, 2023 /PRNewswire/ -- As the nation prepares for the 2023 school season, Horizon Media, the largest U.S. media agency according to Ad Age Data Center 2023, released findings of a new study –  "Pencils Ready: How Parents Are Navigating The Back-To-School Season" – which gives insight into how parents are doing as they approach the upcoming school year. More than three years after COVID sent students home, the Pencils Ready study results reveal that while things may look rosy as parents send their kids off to a more normal school experience, parents are also experiencing an undercurrent of concerns ranging from their children's safety and schools not meeting educational needs to the burden of purchasing school gear in a climate of inflation and juggling schedules as more return-to-office policies are enforced.  Horizon Media's WHY Group surveyed 1,002 parents of children in school, ages 2-22, to better understand how they are navigating the back-to-school season.

As families adjust to pre-pandemic normalcy, the study shows that attitudes have shifted greatly from the 2021 school year.  Normalcy (43%), happiness (40%) and fun (32%) are the dominant emotions, up significantly from 2021 COVID-era results of 31%, 25% and 21%, respectively.  In 2021, stress (37%), anxiety (35%), and uncertainty 34% were the dominant emotions, but 2023 study results show those numbers dropping to 20%, 18%, and 13%, respectively. 

The study also indicates that fall marks a time to reconsider priorities and focus on health, with 80% of parents thinking of back-to-school as a fresh start and a prime time to focus on their family's emotional (63%), physical (62%), and mental (58%) health. 

But underlying the excitement around a new academic year is pressure on parents that is coming from all directions, with major concerns around schools failing to provide basic protections and lacking sufficient funding to support the educational needs of their students.  Furthermore, parents say schools are not delivering when it comes to both traditional curricula and teaching softer life skills.  Costs and scheduling further complicate the emotional dynamic for parents who must contend with stressors both within and on the road back to school.  Pencils Ready study results indicate:

  • System Failure: 40% of parents think schools aren't setting children up for success, and 42% think schools are underfunded. While Republicans are more than three times as likely as Democrats to feel that schools don't set their children up for success, both sides of the aisle agree that more needs to be done, with 40% of all parents believing there is significant room for improvement in schools.
  • Safety: Parents say the issues they are most concerned about when it comes to their child's school experiences are emotional health, i.e., bullying and stress (71%) and physical safety, i.e., shootings and COVID (57%).
  • Curricula Disappointment: Other issues most concerning parents include traditional curriculum, i.e., STEM and arts (42%) and non-academic curricula, i.e. and life skills (38%). Although lower in ranking, 37% feel that politicized curricula, i.e., critical race theory (CRT) and book bans, is seeping into classrooms, further contributing to an emotionally fraught road back-to-school, with Democrats being two times more concerned about book banning and Republicans being three times more concerned about CRT and exposure to LGBTQ+ materials.
  • Conflicting Schedules: 50% of parents want ideas for family schedule management. The decrease in remote work options will likely exacerbate this.
  • Additional Costs: While parents are still purchasing about one month out before the school year, 97% of parents would like to see back-to-school sales and promotions continue through the fall. So, as parents turn to back-to-school shopping, they are already planning to spread out their purchases, rather than doing everything at once as a reaction to rising inflation prices. While they will not be forgoing shopping, parents are doing so with inflation in mind – with 80% of them expecting to be impacted by inflation as they shop for supplies. In addition, their concerns about education are costing them more and reflected in parents' need to fill in the gaps, with 42% having spent additional money in the past year to help their children catch up after COVID, likely through tutoring, and 39% expect to do it again this year.

Most parents are shopping with their children's preferences top of mind and turning directly to their children as the true decision makers. More than 80% of children 5+ come to their parents with school supply requests, and parents are happy to oblige, with 85% calling children extremely influential on back-to-school purchases. The biggest influences on kids are what their friends have (67%), store displays (58%), games and websites (44%), social media (38%), TV programming (37%), and celebrity endorsements (20%).

Shopping differs by generation with parents as well. 53% of Millennials seek back-to-school inspiration, while only 37% of Gen X seek inspiration. Both value low prices and the best deal, but Millennials value a convenient buying location and getting their items quickly, while Gen X values brands their children request over convenience.

"While inflation may prove challenging to marketers, especially with some people switching brands to take advantage of better deals, our work highlighted a potential opportunity to extend the Back-to-School shopping sales and promotional period into the fall to help parents manage what feels like a shrinking budget," said Pam Wake, VP, WHY at Horizon Media.  "When it comes to back-to-school, kids, even the youngest, are one of the top influences on their parents and marketers need to plan with the power of the 'nag factor' in mind. That means being where the kids are - store displays, games and websites, and social media feed into this audience. There is also the opportunity to think about end-of-summer co-viewing activities such as family-oriented movies and TV shows."

For the full survey findings and recommendations for brands, visit:

Survey Methodology

This survey was fielded from 6/26/2023 and 7/6/2023 with 1,002 parents of children in school, ages 2-22, who play a role in shopping for their children, weighted to be representative of age, ethnicity, region, and income. 

Horizon Media

Horizon Media, Inc, the largest U.S. media agency according to Ad Age Data Center 2023, delivers data-driven business outcomes for some of the most innovative and ambitious brands. Founded in 1989, headquartered in New York, and with offices in Los Angeles and Toronto, the company employs 2,400 people and has media investments of more than $8.5 billion.  Horizon Media's fundamental belief is that business is personal, which drives its approach to connecting brands with their customers and engaging with its own employees resulting in industry-leading workplace satisfaction levels (Glassdoor).  The company is consistently recognized by independent media outlets for its client excellence and has earned several "Best Workplaces" awards reflecting its commitment to DEI and the life and well-being of everyone at Horizon Media.

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