The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

The CMF Research Strategy – Listening to Kids


Children's Media Foundation Deputy Director, Colin Ward, outlines the strategy for the CMF research programme, "Listening to Kids"

What Do Children Need From Their Media Experiences? 

If a researcher asked me what sort of media content I wanted I’d probably ask for more high-quality adaptations of John le Carré, because he’s one of my favourite writers. Of course, if they listened to me and made lots more of those shows, as well as other similarly themed dramas, I would enjoy watching them for a while and then probably get bored with listening to ageing, world-weary spies reflecting on loyalty and the end of the empire. (I know… it’s hard to imagine).

Most people agree it’s great to watch stuff you already like but it’s also important to be introduced to stories that take you somewhere new and different. What we think we want is not always the same as what we actually want, and even that tends to miss out so many of the things we actually need. Usually we don’t even know what we need and we have to take some time to think about it so we can work it out.

That’s one reason why the CMF’s new research strategy is focused on finding out what children think about their media experiences at a deeper level. We don’t intend to simply ask them what they want; we hope to start a conversation and then listen to what they have to say so we can reach a better understanding of what they need.

One of the premises we hope to test is the widely-held belief that, for the children’s audience, the provision of diverse content is particularly important. First, it can be argued the children’s audience is more complex than the adult audience, given the wide differences in children’s developmental stages, which we can then layer over the standard demographics - personal interests, identity, ethnicity, etc. - that capture audience diversity. But over and above that, the CMF believes the creation of diverse content for children should be driven by a fundamental social goal; today’s 10-year olds are just eight years away from becoming full members of society, who will work, pay taxes and vote in elections, and it is our responsibility to ensure that when they eventually enter that world, they have benefitted from a wide range of media experiences, which have opened up their world and helped them to understand the culture and values of our complex society.

We have identified four overarching themes to inform our strategy;

Are children’s media experiences impacting on how they become engaged UK citizens? (The availability of UK-cultural content that explores our shared values and the extent to which the audience accesses that content)

Are children’s media experiences impacting on their educational development? (Availability of age-appropriate, factual and narrative-based content that develops knowledge and understanding and the extent to which the audience accesses that content)

Are children’s media experiences impacting on their wider knowledge and understanding of the UK? (Availability of UK-cultural content that explores our shared history and reflects the lives of the audience and how we live now and the extent to which the audience accesses that content)

Are children’s media experiences impacting on their aspirations for the future in terms of their life and work goals? (Availability of UK-cultural content that shows people like them - i.e. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ - and the extent to which the audience accesses that content)

Working out the precise methodology for the research will be extremely challenging because we want to ask children about ideas and experiences they don’t usually think about. As yet, we are not even entirely sure it is possible to come up with a set of meaningful questions that will engage them with these topics. But we must try and the CMF is looking to partner with other organisations on this work to find solutions, so please get in touch if you think you can help.

The Government is already formulating legislation that will “update the public broadcasting framework for the digital age and promote the production and distribution of distinctively British content”. And, unsurprisingly, in the 42-page Broadcasting White Paper published last April, there were only five references to children and two of them were in the context of food advertising and childhood obesity. The children’s audience is being ignored once again. Of course for anyone under the age of 18, the phrase ‘public broadcasting’ has very little meaning. The reality is that the children’s audience is a long way ahead of both Ofcom and the government and, in effect, the kids have already left the building. If we are to have any hope of reengaging them in the sort of shared media experiences that were part of the traditional PSB structures, the views of the children’s audience must inform that process of renewal. As an audience advocacy organisation, the CMF has a responsibility to make sure children’s voices are heard.

CMF Updates Research

One Response to “The CMF Research Strategy – Listening to Kids”

  • I’m depressed, but not surprised, that this outline only mentions 10-year-olds, when we know that babies are watching moving-image media from 3 months old. And the stress here seems to be on content, ignoring stylistic features. We can’t ask pre-verbal toddlers what they need, or want, but we can observe them. The first 3 years of life are incredibly important for all kinds of cultural as well as social learning and moving-image media are an important part of that. But this is also the period when parents are most anxious about “screen time”, often without knowing what the actual risks are supposed to be. I suspect that many if not most parents are inclined to look for material that seems “safe” and innocuous and will tend to seek “more of the same”. My research proposes a different way of considering toddlers’ viewing behaviour and points to the need for more material that is stylistically diverse and rewards the intense attention and re-viewings that toddlers will give it. See How Toddlers Learn the Secret Language of Movies (Palgrave 2022)

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)