Split screening and blurred lines: what’s new in the children’s media landscape

2nd May 2023 19:54

Written by Research Director, Helen Menzies

Each year, the communications regulator Ofcom publishes a report examining media use, attitudes and understanding among children aged 3-17.  The ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes’ report is an invaluable tool for policymakers and those working in the media industry as it allows us to see how the children’s media landscape is changing year on year.  I find it particularly useful for the work we do at DJS Research with children and young people as it helps to place our own research in a wider context.  That might be the research we do for media organisations, but also a whole range of other sectors and topics such as children’s mental health.

Dramatic and stimulating video grabs attention

One of the things that particularly interested me about this year’s report is the type of content that children and young people are drawn to.  The qualitative element to the research reveals an increased appetite for ‘dramatic’ content and explains that “gossip, conflict, extreme challenges, high stakes and often large sums of money were key features.”   Furthermore, the type of videos being watched online by the children in the research are described as “heavily edited to be very fast-paced, jumpy and stimulating.”   Children are faced with so much choice and these types of videos are helping content-creators to stand out.

We know that children and young people prefer short-form videos and they can often be found multi-screening (e.g. watching a TV set and looking at a phone or tablet) but the report also highlights a new trend in ‘split-screening’.  This is where “two short-form videos have been edited to play on a single screen, stacked on top of one another.”   Sometimes the two videos are related, for example an influencer commenting on or reacting to another video, but sometimes they appear unrelated.

Fact vs. Fiction

Both the qualitative and quantitative elements of the research explore the role of social media in detail, and how it is often used as a key source of information and news.  Ofcom’s News Consumption Survey found that almost three in ten children aged 12-15 used TikTok as a news source in 2022 (28%), up from 22% in 2021.     However, children are not always able to distinguish between fact and fiction.  Ofcom asked children aged 12-17 to review two social media posts – one real and one fake, and the results are cause for concern:

“Twenty-three per cent of children aged 12-17 who had claimed to be confident in their ability to differentiate between real and fake online, failed to identify the profile as fake. Although this proportion was down from 27% in 2021, it still means that nearly a quarter were overconfident in their ability, and in a position of potential vulnerability.”

Professional vs. personal spaces

YouTube continues to be the most used online platform among 3-17 year olds (88%), followed by WhatsApp (55%), Tik Tok (53%), Snapchat (46%), Instagram (41%) and Facebook (34%).  There are, of course, differences by age, although YouTube has a similar reach across all age groups.

The increasingly professionalised content on TikTok and Instagram feeds means fewer kids are likely to post content themselves on these platforms – perhaps as a result of feeling more self-conscious or unable to compete with the highly polished content they see.  A few years ago, we were more likely to see children creating their own content on these apps but now it appears to be a more passive experience. 

The qualitative research suggests children are making a clearer distinction between apps where they predominately consume more professional content (TikTok and Instagram) vs those for peer-to-peer interaction e.g., Snapchat and WhatsApp.   On the one hand it’s good to see children being more self-aware with regards to what they post in public, but it’s hard to feel positive about children spending time on apps that make them feel self-conscious rather than creative.   What particularly worries me (not least of all as a parent) is the move of peer-to-peer interaction into more private spaces.   The research highlights that children do not always know everyone in their group chats and there is no moderation of what they might be exposed to.

The importance of research

Conducting research with children and young people is so important - it’s the only way we can really understand how they are spending their time online and how they feel about it.  The children’s media landscape is constantly evolving and I love testing content for clients and talking about the fun stuff, but I also really value being part of the conversation to keep the next generation safe online.

If you’d like to chat more about research with children and young people please contact Helen Menzies, Research Director, at hmenzies@djsresearch.com


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