Ofcom Children’s Media Lives

It’s hard to believe the difference even just a year can make in children’s media habits.

We’ve been conducting a longitudinal research project with media regulator Ofcom for the past four years. It follows, where possible, the same 18 children, tracking their digital and media behaviours as they age and tastes and trends change around them.

Last year, WhatsApp took the lead in most popular social platform amongst our sample – signifying a surge in social messaging in large group chats. Now the baton is being held firmly by Snap Chat, where quick fire selfie videos and images are the new favourite communication method for young people.

But what do these changing trends mean for children today?

In our interviews, we discovered not only which platforms children were using but why and the effects they were having on their day to day lives.

Access to smartphones and the internet gives young people an unprecedented wealth of resources, entertainment and information – but with this unlimited access it becomes difficult to monitor what children are consuming and how much of it. This is further fuelled by the design of apps, streaming and social media platforms aimed at young people.

Often the children reported that they found it difficult to stop scrolling, sharing or watching. Features imbedded into many apps such as auto-play on YouTube and Netflix, infinite scroll on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the game-like design of Snapchat, are all intended to hold attention.

“I feel an urge to do it [send Snapstreaks]. I would be annoyed and a bit angry if I lost them.” Peter, 12

Snapstreaks were by far the most prevalent new trend we found this year, and were a perfect example of how apps hook people to keep on using the platform. Stemming from a feature of snapchat which records how many days two people have been consecutively been in touch, the length of your snap streak is signified by a number next to your friend’s name and emoji ‘rewards’ for the amount of days you have kept it going. The game like nature of snapstreaks had caught on with many of the children we interviewed and most admitted to being or having been involved in a streak.

“I wouldn’t try to start one [a snapstreak], but once it starts I get compelled to keep it going. Streaks become important at about 35 [days] and once it hits 50 it’s a big deal. If I lost them all, I would be kind of annoyed, but I’d get over it.” Bridget, 18

With the media landscape changing so rapidly, it is hard to keep on top of new trends – and as researchers we are increasingly relying on young people to show us what is new. Whilst digital & social media offers great opportunities to boost people’s offline activities, we have noticed some cause for concern in some of the addictive or compulsive behaviours we are seeing – in both children and adults alike. Despite the hype around millennials and a generation of digital natives, little is known about the long-term effects these technologies may be having on our behaviours – or the behaviours of the next generation.

We intend to explore this topic further in a new, self-funded study – using the latest methods and powerful film and photography we will follow the lives of 10 people over the course of a year. This piece of research will illustrate in detail how technology is being used, and the unexpected effects it has on people’s lives. Read more about our project here.