November saw the launch of Ofcom’s annual report on Children’s and Parent’s Media Use and Attitudes – a statistical snap shot of who is watching what, when they are watching, and for how long. The report offers more than just viewing statistics however and paints a detailed picture of families’ media habits and attitudes.
Ofcom promotes the report as a ‘reference for industry, stakeholders and consumers’ that provides ‘context to the work Ofcom undertakes in furthering the interests of consumers and citizens’. It forms part of a wider research effort by Ofcom to provide information on exactly how children and parents are responding to the rapidly changing media landscape and how those changes may be impacting on children’s lives.
But there is a problem with these reports; very few people have the time to read the detail and instead we tend to grab hold of superficial and dramatically presented findings. It doesn’t help when Ofcom’s own media department encourages the headline writers down a particular path. Notably here, Ofcom’s press release was headed, “Online overtakes TV as kids’ top pastime”, with the report boldly and authoritatively stating that those aged 5-15 are ‘spending around 15 hours each week online – overtaking time spent watching a TV set for the first time’.
A number of mainstream news organisations picking up on Ofcom’s ‘Online overtakes TV’ positioning. Yet this headline is deeply misleading - and a closer reading of the report clearly highlights that Ofcom are fully aware of the ways in which children are readily engaging with ‘TV like’ content online. For example, YouTube is presented in opposition to TV within the findings, yet Ofcom acknowledge within ‘muted’ parts of the report that children are using YouTube to access ‘TV like’ content. Yet this richer and subtler understanding was at best underplayed, or at worse, misrepresented by the Ofcom press office.
Ofcom’s narrative lead could seem innocent in some ways, but there are very significant issues at play here, particularly when Online over TV rhetoric feeds, as it does, in to the debates and discussions that surround Children’s media policy and funding.
There is of course much and understandable confusion as to how to classify a child’s engagement with media. How do we address the ways in which children connect with Netflix, Google Play or the BBC iPlayer for example? (All of which according to Ofcom, are not TV when accessed online!). The answer might be to not even try to pin understanding to platforms, and here we should be looking instead to what children are actually doing with media. To centre understanding around children’s lived experience (Woodfall & Zezulkova, 2016), not around the ways in which the policy/research community might recognise things. After all, a child cares not so much for the platform they connect to their favoured characters and stories thorough, but more so for the characters and stories themselves. And here we should also hold tight to the idea that children use media for their own purposes - be that social, representation and so forth.
How do we then define TV then? How do we separate it from online? Well we don’t. TV is, and long has been, a complex and fluid construct with the term TV itself having (long?) lost validity as a way of addressing media. Unless that is we remind ourselves each time we wield the word TV what version/ interpretation/ perspective on TV we mean: TV as technological platform/set? TV as form/content? TV as industrial practice? TV as audience expectation? (TV as myth? TV as identity work? It goes on).
Children are clearly still watching the TV set; indeed, research is telling us that the TV set remains a focus for family life. Children however are also taking TV with them wherever they go. Within their media porous lives, rich with media interactions, big and small, social and more personal, static and mobile, children are engaging/using media in fluid, cross-cutting and complex ways.
Here it is probably worth reminding ourselves that the TV set itself has become a multi-function device for many. Distinctions between media accessing technologies are as much down to a matter of screen size, mobility, and interface as anything else. With similar/the same content being accessible on all screens regardless of whether Ofcom might define those screens TV or not. It is perhaps worth noting at this point that part of Ofcom’s rationale for holding on to their current definitions of what is, and isn’t TV (as one of their team explained at the report’s launch), is that they want to hold on to the longitudinal/tracker validity of their data. Yet trying to use platforms as a constant, as they were understood in 2006, to address children’s media engagement, in 2016, seems misguided.
Whatever approach we take to understanding children’s media engagement, and media engagement more widely, we should remain cautious of the ways in which these perspectives and understandings have the potential to skew debate in quite problematic ways. This is particularly significant for an organisation like Ofcom, who not only conduct the (misrepresented?) research that informs debate here, but are also strongly implicated in shaping policy.
An edited version of this post was included in the Children’s Media Foundation December Newsletter