The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Research And Parenting

The press can turn almost anything in to a scare story – but the CMF believes the time has come to rescue Academic Research from their sensationalist clutches…
Colin Ward (CMF Executive member for Research) reports...

Every so often there’s a minor media storm centred on the publication of ‘new’ research into children’s media. More often than not the research isn’t new at all, but why let that get in the way of a good story. The storm is stirred up by a journalist scan-reading the executive summary and descending gleefully on any suggestion that media consumption could have a negative impact on children’s lives. Let’s face it, bad news sells.

Parents are told by the press, at regular intervals, that children’s screen-based media ‘can be harmful’ and is ‘potentially responsible’ for everything from childhood obesity to social isolation. Journalists select carefully from a study and claim it provides ‘proof’ that changing media habits are ‘causing’ a drop in literacy skills, which is ‘putting at risk’ children’s future life chances. All the ills of the world are blamed on screen-based media, without any acknowledgement of the extraordinary variety of content children experience or the subtle effects of media interactions.

But despite the steady stream of negative coverage in the press, parents remain fairly positive about children’s media. It’s the journalists who seem addicted to portraying TV, social media and video games as the pantomime villains, even though this narrative doesn’t actually ring true for the majority of families. Parents watch their children engaging with, and learning from, media content. They see them using digital stories as a starting point for all kinds of activities, interests and creative stimuli. As a result, parents treat the negative press reports with a degree of scepticism. They prefer to make up their own minds. But they don’t always have the time to dig deeper into the research that’s available to help them to do that.

Which is where the CMF comes in. Over the summer, the CMF worked with Leeds-based research agency, Dubit, to identify the key questions about children and media about which parents would like better information. Some of the issues raised by our panel related to the impact of media on children’s development, but there were also questions around the quality and range of children’s media available.

Our next task is to connect parents with research that will help them understand these issues. The CMF has commissioned  Professor Lydia Plowman at the University of Edinburgh to supervise a research project that will identify the most respected research papers available on these key issues. Our objective is to make the results of the research available on the CMF website. In some cases it may be possible to link to the full paper or publish an extract, but if copyright makes that impossible, we will provide a balanced summary of the methodology and the main conclusions.

Our other objective is to help parents understand how academic research works. For example, we are particularly keen to highlight the difference between finding a correlation of factors - for example a correlation between very high levels of TV viewing and childhood obesity - and establishing a causal relationship between those factors.

The hope is that we can shed some light on excellent research that already exists and bring that into the public debate. Over the next ten years, the role of media content in children’s lives is likely to increase in significance. If we want the children’s audience to enjoy a wide range of high-quality content from the UK and overseas, and parents to feel confident about them doing so, we need to change the dominant narrative around children’s media.

We’ll be announcing the launch of our Research portal in the New Year.  Finally - reasonable and balanced information for parents (and the press if they care to read it) is at hand!

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)