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“They’ll watch TV on anything”: Children’s ‘messy’ media use and blurring boundaries between media devices and practices

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Dr Ksenia Frolova is a Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University. She has recently completed her PhD at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral project was an audience study that has examined the use of media technology in the context of contemporary parenting in the UK. Ksenia’s research interests include digital television, media audiences, social media, media technology, gender politics and feminist theory.

This blog post is part of my PhD research into parents and children’s media use in the home. In this research, I was primarily interested in the experiences of contemporary parenting with regards to media and media technology. In the process, it uncovered various issues around children’s media use in the home and parents’ understanding and mediation of it, some of which are being presented here. This post is also connected to Ashley Woodfall and Colin Ward’s December post on Ofcom Research On Children’s Media Habits and the Dangers of Calling TV, TV. In that post Ashley and Colin raised a number of vitally important questions for both academic and policy understanding of children’s engagement with contemporary media, and I wanted to offer a few insights from my research to start answering them at least to a certain degree (that is I do not want to make a claim that my relatively small sampled qualitative study could be or should be generalised to all parents and all children living in the UK). Thus the particular questions that this blog post aims to address are: In the condition of constant claims that “online overtakes television as children’s top pastime”, how can we understand and conceptualise children’s actual everyday experience of TV and other media? Even more importantly, how do parents understand and conceptualise this experience, and how do they control and manage it, leading to a certain perception of television and other media in the home and specific rules around their use?

To start with, I want to offer a quick overview of the everyday practices of television viewing in the homes that I have studied. As such, in the families that I have interviewed, children’s television viewing was not limited to the television set, but also occurred on other devices, such as PCs, tablets, mobile phones and other portable devices capable of playing video content (also see Marshall, 2009). And the choice of content was not limited to live television broadcast or full length television programmes, but also included shorter video clips found on YouTube, which nevertheless were still referred to as ‘watching television’ by both parents and children. Parents thus often described their children as being at ease with all media technology, often choosing alternative devices to watch diverse television content, the trend that could be observed across all year groups. As Brian, a father of two teenagers, has mentioned, ‘My kids watch more on IPad and YouTube’ (45-54 years old, Bristol, two children aged 14 and 17). Similarly, as William, a father of two young children, shared: ‘The kids are completely taken to technology and they’ll watch TV on your phone or my phone if they are allowed to… They’ll watch it on anything’ (35-44 years old, Norfolk, two children aged 5 and 2).

The fact that children are using multiple media devices in the home for a variety of purposes, experimenting with devices, applications, services and content, often results in the boundaries between different media devices used in the home, as well as different media practices, becoming increasingly blurred (also see Buckingham, 2013). For instance, while I was interviewing Annabelle and Nick (25-34 years old, Norfolk, two children aged 3 and 6 months), they gave their 3-year-old son an iPad to watch some cartoons via YouTube to keep him occupied. However, in an hour that I have spent in their home, he was not simply watching cartoons, holding the device still and sitting in one place, but rather moving around the room with the device, interacting with it, jumping from one media activity to another: leaving the YouTube app and playing a game, then going back to YouTube, and then moving on to other applications, up until the point when little Max returned the iPad to his mother saying ‘he lost interest in the iPad’ (not in ‘watching cartoons’ or ‘playing games’, but ‘in the iPad’). It would therefore be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to isolate the television viewing activity from Max’s overall engagement with the media device. In this particular context, television viewing becomes a complicated, messy, multimedia and multidimensional experience, particularly for the very young, who have shorter attention spans, and who are not afraid of experimenting with applications and content, ‘packing more fragmented activities’ (Haddon, 2013:91) into what used to be a relatively static and ‘self-sufficient’ media experience of watching television.

Once again, as this example shows, when it comes to children’s use of media in the contemporary home, instead of observing the displacement of older media technologies by newer ones, what can be seen instead is convergence , ‘a blurring of boundaries, a coming together of previously distinct technologies, cultural forms and practices’ (Buckingham, 2009:129; Jenkins, 2006). Although previous research has argued that children’s convergent media practices are mainly the result of changes in media technology (Buckingham, 2009:129), I want to argue that the practices of contemporary parenting also play an important role in this process, as parents are the ones who encourage such media activities, as they introduce their children to media technology, its various functions and different media practices. For instance, parents’ everyday multitasking practices can be seen as potentially influencing the ways, in which children use television and other media in the home. Growing up in a media multitasking environment has implications on how children understand and approach their own media use, easily ‘jumping’ from one media activity to the next, as the example of Max has demonstrated.

Such convergence of children’s media use - the blurring of boundaries between media devices and media practices – was also encouraged by the ways, in which parents approached children’s media use in the home, and the rules that they established in relation to it. A common way for parents to make sense of and manage children’s media use in the families that I have interviewed was to approach children’s media use as one experience and one big activity. As such, Megan and William raised an issue of seeing no logic in timing and limiting children’s media activities, such as watching television or playing games, separately, as children might not want to watch television for the entire half an hour, for instance. Similarly, they saw no point in limiting children’s time spent using media devices, such as the television set, laptop, tablet and smartphone, separately, as one day their children might only be using the Smart TV, and another day do all their media activities on a tablet. Instead, they talked about ‘screen time’, and timing, allowing or limiting the use of ‘screens’. For Megan and William this was a much more logical way to make sense of and approach children’s media use, with media devices becoming multi-purposeful, and media practices becoming fluid and not bound to one particular media technology, making it difficult to identify or set boundaries between devices and media activities conducted on them. And such approach had a direct impact on how children themselves understood media use, and how they approached it, being enabled to ‘jump’ from one media activity to another at their convenience.

To conclude, this blog post has demonstrated that children’s media use in general, and television use in particular, are becoming increasingly complex, and revealed the role that parents play in this process. It emphasised that just as it is important to study how children watch television or use media technology in the context of the home, it is equally important to examine how parents understand and approach children’s media use, as this has direct implications on how media, media technologies and their functions end up being experienced and perceived by both parents and children. It also highlighted the fact that trying to separate contemporary everyday media use of both adults and children into separate ‘segments’ is problematic, as media use is becoming increasingly ‘messy’ and convergent.

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