The Ofcom media literacy event in January shed light on children’s media consumption, issues and habits in an attempt to delineate attitudes towards children’s media in the UK.

According to the UK broadcast regulator’s latest quantitative and qualitative research conducted among children, young people seem to be spending less time watching TV on a TV set but they are still consuming a significant amount of content, particularly on other devices and platforms – with all their  issues and benefits. The event also discussed children’s online safety, digital skills among young people, parents’ attitudes and how they both relate to the media and online world at large.

The research, compiled in the Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, shows that content consumption is not falling. Thus, even if children are spending less time watching content via television sets, they still consume over 1h40 minutes per day on other platforms such as Netflix and YouTube. It is  YouTube in particular that has increasingly gained popularity among the younger audience, followed by ITV, Netflix, BBC One and Two.

The biggest increase in viewing habits on YouTube (+17%) comes from the 5-7 age group, who are moving to online platforms in search of content that better represents them. In fact, the research suggests that many children – especially between 12-15 years old – do not take particular interest in the programmes provided by broadcasters like ITV, BBC, and Channel 4, as they feel there is not enough content that reflects them and their lives. This group has a greater appetite for content found across online platforms such as YouTube or Netflix.

When it comes to news consumption, trust and credibility are still the main parameters of value among both children and parents. 62% of  young people aged 12 to 15 years old are aware that some sources are more trustworthy than others, especially on social media. And, with 64% preference, TV still remains the primary source of news for children aged 12-15.

However, children tend to remember most the content and specific programmes they watch, rather than the carrier that provides them. In addition, the research does not indicate what kind of programmes or content children engage with and why.

What does this mean for children, their viewing habits, their interaction with the digital world and for the media at large? After the event, PMA had the chance to speak with Emily Keaney from Ofcom, Anna Grant from Carnegie UK, and Prof. Jeanette Steemers from King’s College London who offered their insight on these matters.

What platforms do children use the most?

When it comes to selecting a device, children are increasingly moving towards mobile gadgets and platforms that offer shorter and alternative content than that available via traditional television sets. This does not necessarily imply that people are watching less public and/or commercial broadcasting programmes or content, as they could do so via the BBC iPlayer or other on demand platforms. So what and how much do we know about this transition?

We spoke to Emily Keaney, the Head of Media Literacy at Ofcom. Emily told us about the quantitative research that Ofcom has been conducting for over 13 years to explore children’s viewing habits and media literacy, which  Ofcom broadly defines as “the ability to use, understand, and create media in a variety of different contexts”.

The research presented during the event indicated that brands like the BBC, and other broadcasting channels are becoming less recognisable when compared their digital competitors, such as YouTube and Netflix. “It’s important to note that this is the first time that we’ve asked that question, so we can’t say that they are slipping down because we don’t know what that pattern would have looked like in previous years,” she told the PMA. “I also think it’s really important when we look at that data to understand that it really represents the different ways in which children use the media they consume.”

"When children are thinking about content they often think in terms of programmes and characters rather than channels. So really, what it tells us is how complex that picture is."

Emily Keaney, Ofcom

So, whereas YouTube is still bigger than any other individual programme or brand and plays a considerable role in children’s interaction with content, young people seem to remember programmes or characters more, rather than the brands that provide them. “While brands like BBC1 and BBC2 are less top of mind and children are less likely to say they’ve heard of those channel brands, there are certain programmes brands or characters that are much more resonant,” Emily said. “I think what it means is that when children are thinking about content they often think in terms of programmes and characters rather than channels. So really, what it tells us is how complex that picture is.”

The main issue however, is that at this stage there is no clear picture as to what children are watching on these platforms. Ofcom was able to gather an insight into the categories that are most popular among children and they are quite different depending on age. For younger children, the categories are more similar to traditional TV but in a shorter format, so they are more likely to watch cartoons and animations, mini movies and similar. Whereas over a quarter of 12-15 years old are more likely to use  YouTube for music videos, funny videos, jokes, pranks or challenges. “It’s that slightly more teeny content, what we might have watched MTV for,” said Emily.

In an attempt to bridge some of the gaps in their research Ofcom launched a call for input for a review into children’s content. “We will be looking broadly at three main areas, starting with the audience: what they want, and what they think about is currently available,” Emily explained. “Then looking at what is available to children and making sure we understand how that differs by age and genre and then looking at the potential barriers and incentives in the marketplace.” 

The aim is to understand what children’s media use, consumption and attitudes actually look like. “We want to initially understand the landscape more broadly  before we think about what the next steps might be,” said Emily. 

Digital skills development: What do we know and why do we need them?

There are a lot of misunderstandings and assumptions surrounding digital skills, especially in terms of what children and young people can or cannot do on the internet. These skills include managing information, communicating, creating content, problem solving and transacting so that everyone can navigate the web productively, safely and enjoyably.

These skills are not available to everyone in the UK and there are currently around 300,000 young people in the country who do not have basic digital skills. Can broadcasters and media content-at-large play a role in digital skills development among young people? We asked Anna Grant, the Development and Policy Officer at Carnegie UK. Anna told us about #NotWithoutMe, a digital inclusion programme organised by Carnegie UK for vulnerable young people aged between 11-25 across the UK to develop digital skills in a variety of formats, and the assumptions that often surround young people and their interaction with the digital world.

“There seems to be this idea that because young people are born into a generation of abundant technology, that they are innately born with these skills – but through multiple sources and research we know that this isn’t true,” said Anna. “We talk about people having or not having digital skills but obviously it’s not a binary ‘yes they do’ or ‘no they don’t’ concept. There’s a huge spectrum of different skills, knowledge, and confidence that everyone needs to be successful online, and people might exceed in one area while they might be lacking in another.”

"Partners like the BBC and other partners that have that broad reach can really do a lot to support that adult support network in terms of engaging them and creating trustworthy and useful resources in both formal and informal settings."

Anna Grant, Carnegie UK

To find out more about how to support young people’s digital skills development, Carnegie UK launched its pilot programme in January 2016 and ran it for a year. They ran a series of events with a variety of partners, including a cross-sectoral event with the BBC in Glasgow, held as part of the broadcaster’s Digital Cities Week

“The BBC was a fantastic partner and the event was a chance to bring together all those voices, policy makers, academics and more to really engage previously disengaged young people in the project, “said Anna. “Participants were able to film videos, create blogs, podcasts and all sorts of creative media.”

The event, alongside the work carried out throughout the duration of the programme, was a chance to identify the possibilities available to move forward but also highlighted the need for collaborations. “There are a lot of opportunities, but we need to be considerate of the fact that there are a lot of young people who need further support and to do that effectively we need to have a whole variety of different, interesting and exciting partners,” Anna told the PMA.

But how can these partners, such as the BBC and other publics broadcasters, support these initiatives? Anna argues that there is a lot that can be done, especially with consistent and long-term interventions that can engage with the adult-support network and those people who have an ongoing relationship with younger groups.

“Partners like the BBC that have a broad reach can really do a lot to support that adult support network in terms of engaging young people and creating trustworthy and useful resources in both formal and informal settings,” Anna said.

This also applies to the content available to them, regardless of the platform. “If we had more resources and more children’s content and adults’ content actually looking and deconstructing how news is made, how a lot of things are made, we would go a long way to supporting young people’s understanding and how to use online resources,” she said.

If you want to find out more, you can listen to the audio interview where Anna tells us more about digital skills development and our preconceptions about them, why they are important, Carnegie UK’s collaboration with the BBC, the necessity to engage different stakeholders, and their hopes for the future.

Moving forward: asking the right questions

But what does it actually mean that children spend more time watching content on a device? What can we draw from Ofcom’s finding? For Jeanette Steemers, Professor of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, it’s all about the importance of asking the right questions, about finding out what children are actually watching and how they value public service media content.

Jeanette told the PMA that even if Ofcom undertake a lot of research, the research need to ask the right questions. “Nobody really knows what children are watching across devices and platforms and watching is still a big activity,” she said.  “We don’t know enough about whether they are watching public service content and what they are watching and how much. It’s easy to conflate ‘being online’ with not watching, but actually online children are watching a great deal on the iPlayer or YouTube kids, but we don’t know enough about what they are watching and why.”

For Jeanette, it’s not just about finding out how many children have and access content via the iPad, it’s about how they value that content and what kind of content they actually engage with the most, especially if it’s content from public service broadcasters.

“There needs to be more research into the value of public service content,” she argues. “It’s not just about numbers, it’s also about finding out how kids value that public service content, how they access it, and how much they are viewing or using, particularly if this is not traditional AV content. Although it’s important to know how many children have iPads, there needs to be more about what they are watching or accessing on tablets or mobiles, what kind of content they like and value, what kind of content they are looking for.”

"It’s about asking the right questions about the audience and the value of content. There needs to be less about how many children have iPads and more about what they are watching on the iPads, what kind of programmes they like, what kind of content they are looking for."

Jeanette Steemers, King's College London

Opportunities for public broadcasters, like the BBC in the UK and beyond, are many according to Jeanette, but they all depend on resources and funding. She brings the example of NRK in Norway and their multi platform series Skam, which became a huge success across Scandinavia, engaging young audiences in the region. “The reason it was successful is because it feels authentic to the audience,” Jeanette argues. “But it still costs a lot more money that many public broadcasters can afford, because Scandinavian PSBs are well funded compared to many others, for example in Eastern and Central Europe.” However, the strength of a public broadcaster like NRK lies in recognising the importance of engaging their audience. “They [NRK] recognise that if they don’t reach out to younger audiences then they will not have an audience in future, paying for public service broadcasting,” said Jeanette.

Where could public broadcasting thrive when it comes to providing good quality children content? According to Jeanette, it’s in pre-school programming. But even that often relies heavily on resources, funding and especially political pressures, which are mounting across the globe. “This is evident in wealthier countries like Australia, the UK and even the US,” says Jeanette. “But it’s particularly acute across Africa and the Arab world – where children and young people do not often see themselves represented on screen even before you can consider them as digital natives.”

The event and interviews highlight that there are plenty of opportunities for media houses and public broadcasters to create spaces in which their content is engaging and better understood. The digital world, as we know, certainly brings a wide range of challenges but also an equal amount of opportunities. For public broadcasters to become increasingly multi-platform they need to test and venture into new terrains and grow in a way that can make their content more accessible, available and enjoyed, particularly among children.

Ultimately, with the resources available, now more than ever is the time to truly listen to children’s needs and provide content that benefits them and makes them feel truly represented and reflected. The research presented at the Ofcom event highlights important aspects of children’s media consumption but also sheds light into the unknown. What do children watch? Why are they interested in certain programmes rather than others? And, what are these programmes? So, it is important for public broadcasters to become more aware of the breadth of their role and work to serve a community of young people that needs to be informed and represented. But it is also equally important to ask the right questions in order to find the best ways to move forward.