The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Research for Parents – Background Information

What do we mean by ‘media’?

In an increasingly connected digital world "media" can mean more than simply viewing. CMF's 'Research for Parents' takes account of children using a variety of devices for viewing, playing, communicating and socialising around content.

Why should I be concerned about the media my children consume?

Whether for play, learning, or communication, children’s experiences with media have significant implications for their future lives. There are uncertainties for parents about what this means in the long term. As we note in the response to Q1, not all parents lose sleep over their child’s patterns of media use and some may feel that perhaps they should be worrying more than they actually do. But the wide range of internet-connected devices and the fact that they’re getting smaller mean that it’s more difficult to keep an eye on what children are doing. Price reductions mean that children are increasingly likely to have sole use of their own tablet rather than share their parents’. When the only means of going online was using the family PC in the living room it was much easier to see what was going on than trying to keep tabs on use of smartphones and tablets at and away from home.

What age-range does the research cover?

The CMF concerns itself with media for children up to16, and Research for Parents uses the term ‘children’ to encompass preschoolers through to the early teenage years. Research by the media regulator Ofcom is used frequently here. That tends to relate to two categories: children who are three to four, and those who are between five and fifteen years old. Parents will have different concerns depending on the age range of their children and children’s use of digital media varies a lot depending on how old they are, whether they have older brothers and sisters, and their parents’ attitudes.

How was the research conducted?

The questions were sourced from a poll of over 600 parents. The top six topics were chosen and researchers reviewed the range of information available, selected the studies with the highest academic prominence and most relevance to the topic, and digested the information into a single report. There are brief bullet-point summaries and full reports on each question, with links to the original research studies where available.

Who conducted the research?

The questions were polled by Research Agency Dubit, based in Leeds and the reviews conducted by Professor Lydia Plowman at the Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University, in conjunction with Jonathan Hancock.

What are the general observations?

Research shows that most technologies have both positive and negative features: it’s easier to keep track of children if they have a mobile phone, but they can also run up huge bills; iPads can be really useful for keeping children occupied on long journeys, but parents are concerned about the apps that entice children into making purchases. Social media can reduce isolation and enable children to find groups who share their interests, but some sites can promote counter-cultural views or bullying.We need to be careful not to blame everything on digital media. They easily become a focus for more widespread concerns such as feeling that children get older too quickly these days, that there’s not enough time for play, or that there’s either too much pressure, or not enough, for children to perform academically.It’s important to remember that, in a family context, we can control the technologies – they don’t have to control us. In the same way that we have family expectations about homework, behaviour at meals, pocket money or bedtimes we can have family expectations about the use of digital media. Most parents will feel that these expectations are more likely to be fulfilled if they’re negotiated rather than imposed and so avoid creating a battleground. Some families will want to install filters that control the sites to which their children can get access but others may prefer to discuss the risks and challenges.

How comprehensive is Parent Portal?

There is a great deal of literature on children and media. We can’t guarantee that we’ve looked at everything. As the media landscape changes so rapidly we have focused on research published in the last five years or so, and a mix of academic and less academic reports. The purpose of CMF's Research for Parents is to provide summaries of some of the research and information that’s out there. We don’t make any claim to be completely systematic but we have tried to provide a more nuanced view of the issues than is available elsewhere.The focus here is on the situation in the UK but we have drawn on research from other countries, particularly the USA, where it should be noted that the media landscape and range of programming on offer to children is somewhat different from Europe.We have tried to get a balance between making reference to studies that are available to the public so that it’s possible to follow them up if desired and studies that may be more academic in style. Reports and articles in the first category usually have the benefit of being a bit more readable and easy to understand. However, studies that are reported in academic journals are usually subject to ‘peer review’. This means that their design and the conclusions that the authors come to are subject to scrutiny from other academics working in the same field and so they may be more reliable, although this is not guaranteed. The research examined is listed at the end of each section. Some titles are available to be downloaded.

Will 'Research for Parents' provide immediate answers?

We haven’t offered specific recommendations or guidelines here because hard and fast rules aren’t very helpful – everybody’s child and family is different. It’s useful to know what some of the issues are and where to go for more information but ultimately parents need to exercise their own judgement. It's difficult to write parent-friendly summaries of research without over-simplifying the findings. That’s something news stories can be guilty of too.In the end we decided to present a reasonably balanced view that will help parents make up their own minds based on different perspectives. These reviews represent a spectrum of opinion rather than an argument with two sides.  But some readers will probably feel that we’ve come down too heavily on one side or the other.

Can we trust the research?

Press reports sometimes refer to ‘research’ as if it's all equally trustworthy. There are several main types of research in the area of children and media: surveys, experiments, real life studies and systematic reviews. For all of them, the answers provided will depend to some extent on the number of participants, how they were chosen, the information provided to them by the authors, and many other factors.Whatever form of research is being reported, we need to look beyond the headlines as well as being careful about making a link between one context and another. For instance, one study describes how bombarding newborn mice with noise and flashing lights for six hours a day leads to hyperactivity, poor memory and learning problems. The authors link this to babies, saying that exposing them to television could lead to over-stimulation and lack of attention. It is only right at the end of the report that the authors say that they don’t really know the extent to which the results on mice can be transferred to humans.When reading any accounts of research it’s important to check who’s sponsored the project and what’s the motive for conducting it, as this can influence the results and how they’re reported.
More CMF tips on "reading" research.

How can I find out more?

Up-to-date discussions on the issues raised in the 'Research for Parents' pages and other children's media topics can be followed in our Academic Research Blog, where the UK's key researchers in the field of children's media, and media literacy, debate and discuss. 

Publications

The International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) is a good source of publications translated into English.
Children and Television: a Global Perspective by Dafna Lemish PhD (Malden, MA: Blackwell 2007)

Children, Media and Culture by Prof. Maire Messenger Davies (Open University Press 2010)