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Young children’s engagement with television: asking better questions

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Fiona Scott is a mixed methods researcher with an interest in early childhood education, media and psychology. She is currently working on an ESRC White Rose PhD at The University of Sheffield, focusing on young children’s engagement with television and related media in the digital age. The project is an industry collaboration with CBeebies and will examine the relationship between television and the lives and experiences of very young children. She has previously worked in both academic and commercial research roles, covering diverse topics such as investigating public attitudes to energy issues, engaging arts and cultural audiences and evaluating learning programmes.

Having worked in a wide range of research contexts, I’ve been lucky enough to see a real spectrum of approaches to answering research questions. It’s become increasingly important to me that, as researchers, we are asking the right questions. One of my favourite research anecdotes concerns the market research team of an instant noodle snack-food brand trying to solve the problem of why their product was failing so miserably in Italy. Numerous focus groups had tackled perceptions of the brand with the locals, tested various price points and even given the Italians the chance to sample the instant snacks. After asking every conceivable question, the researchers were stumped to find that there was general enthusiasm for the product. So why would nobody buy it?

It wasn’t until later that the researchers stumbled across the fact that they don’t really have kettles in Italy. Kettles are for making tea. They don’t really make tea in Italy, so there are no kettles and, in turn, there is no demand for instant noodles.

Watching ‘traditional’ television is still the dominant media activity for children (Ofcom, 2012). And yet, in some ways, we actually still have very little evidence about how 3 and 4 year olds engage with television, what meaning they make from it and how it contributes to their world-view. A lot of research to date has been carried out by children’s doctors and psychologists, who have adopted a positivistic approach focusing on the negative ‘effects’ of television. My contention is that this corpus of existing research is as much reflective of the ‘questions’ as it is about the ‘answers', and we’re not going to learn something new without changing what or how we ask.

Research Questions

My current project, which is a collaboration between the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds and CBeebies, aims to understand how real 3-6 year olds engage with television and other forms of digital media in their homes every day, merging a critical psychological approach with an awareness of wider developments in cultural, media and new literacy studies. It will also consider in particular the experiences of families living in more deprived communities in the UK, something that we currently know little about. It will be an exploration of children and their relationship and interactions with television - how television is embedded in everyday family life and how children make meaning from the television they view and media they engage with. I believe that a social phenomenon (which engagement with television and other media most certainly is) is most usefully observed in a context that is as close as possible to the context in which it naturally occurs. This is why I plan to adopt a longitudinal, ethnographic approach in which I will observe, and interact with, children in the home environment. The second phase of my fieldwork, which I will discuss in more depth in my next entry, will involve in-depth, qualitative visits to family homes over a period of nine months. In many senses, I will not be ‘setting the agenda’ in the conventional sense at all and my observations are likely to give rise to as many new questions as they answer.

At the moment, however, I’m on the cusp of launching the first phase of my study, a survey sent to parents with children aged 3-6 (a link to which will be released via the CMF newsletter shortly). The findings of this survey will hopefully provide an up-to-date snapshot of how young children in the UK are engaging with television and related media now. Using a quantitative survey means I will very definitely be asking set questions, leaving me open to criticism that I am leaning back on the same positivistic methods I am myself lampooning. If I am going to use a predetermined format in my questioning, it becomes all the more important to ask the questions that actually enable parents to accurately reflect their experiences. To this end, I’m going to attempt to ask ‘better questions’ in three practical ways:

  • Firstly, I will only ask questions that I believe can be answered using quantitative methods (the what, where, when questions, not the how and whys). Certainly, quantitative methods can confidently ascertain how many households within a particular sample have a Freeview television in them. They can also ascertain where a person, if pushed, would choose to represent his or her satisfaction with Freeview television on a nominal scale. They cannot, however, truly ascertain how a person feels about Freeview television, how it makes them feel about themselves or their social relationships or why he or she opted for a Freeview rather than a Satellite Cable television in the first place.
  • Secondly, I have been consulting with both the Children’s Media Foundation and CBeebies’ own Audiences team over my survey design, paying attention to changes in how children watch now. Whilst I began by saying that watching ‘traditional’ television is still the dominant media activity for children, it is also true that they’re watching it in different spaces (in the bedroom, on the bus), on different devices (tablet, smartphone, laptop) and in different ways (‘catch-up’, ‘on-demand’, short clip form, e.g. YouTube and Vine). These options and more are reflected in the design of the questionnaire.
  • Finally, I will also be ‘think-aloud’ testing the questionnaire with a smaller group of parents. A technique now frequently appearing in psychological studies (French & Hevey, 2008; Gardner & Tang, 2013), the think-aloud (or protocol analysis) approach gives a researcher an in-depth insight into how their research tool (in this case, a questionnaire) is perceived and interpreted by a representative sample of pilot participants. By granting the researcher an insight into the world of the participant, the method highlights interpretative and comprehension differences between the perceptions of the researcher and the researched. In short, is your participant answering the same question you think you’re asking?


French, D. P., & Hevey, D. (2008). What do people think about when answering questionnaires to assess unrealistic optimism about skin cancer? A think aloud study. Psychology, Health and Medicine, 13(1), 63-74.

Gardner, B., & Tang, V. (2014). Reflecting on non‐reflective action: An exploratory think‐aloud study of self‐report habit measures. British Journal of Health Psychology, 19(2), 258-273.

Ofcom (2012). Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report.

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