The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

The Physical and the Virtual: Understanding children’s relationships with their media

Former Children's Commissioner, Anne Longfield, draws on her experience of working with children to explore the way their media experiences are changing out of all recognition.

I’m not a public service media expert but I do know about kids.  And right from the beginning of my six years as Children’s Commissioner, the digital world was something I looked at in depth, seeing it in the context of the whole of a child’s life.

Previous generations thought of the digital world as some kind of add on: remember the early days when you had to unplug a phone and put a cable into the wall? How long ago was that? 25 years?  If you go back 10 years, it became a bit more sophisticated, but there was still a sense of the digital world as something that you chose to engage with for a certain period of time and then you went back to your real life. Whereas for kids that have grown up in the last 10 years that separation is just nowhere in their perceptions. Now, even I see the digital world and the physical world as virtually merged into one, and certainly kids will always say they see it as the same thing.

All they have known is an existence where there is a physicality and a digital community or a series of digital communities, screens and environments that have the ability to merge.  And it is the kids themselves who are curating this.  Perhaps in quite a clunky way sometimes, but they’re the ones doing it: creating their own portfolios, their own collections of stuff that they like and want to watch or to be part of their world.  They have to go to different places to bring it together but they’re doing it.

The next stage in this merging of digital communities would be to consider how that process can be refined and indeed should it be refined? Perhaps we should be asking is it a good thing? But it seems that refining it is inevitable because children are doing it now.

In considering this next stage, is there a role for public service media or a regulator to offer leadership?  Who will look after the community or make sure that community is safe? What mechanisms need to be in place to ensure kids aren’t just left to spend their time in environments that no one knows about or without an element of safety or responsibility in there?

The moment smart phones became affordable; that’s the moment everything changed for kids.  Now they have one entry point for a whole range of viewing platforms.  But where does public service media sit in that?  It seems to me that for kids the traditional broadcast companies aren’t yet an integral part of their experience. I’ve been shocked by how many children have told me that they view very little in real time and they don’t watch mainstream TV channels.  They don’t even think about them. They don’t know what the BBC is and I think that will be a huge shock to a lot of adults.  We know that younger adults have wider viewing habits but it is children too. They say to me, ‘We don’t watch BBC’.  Then they’ll say, ‘Yes we know what it is but there is nothing there for us.’

If public service media is supposed to serve the public, it is worth remembering that children are 20% of the population.  Right now, children have to make the choice to go to public service media rather than public service media making the choice to go to the children’s audience. Children need to find their lives reflected in what they view.  Their needs need to be served.  They have a right to get a look in but at the moment they don’t believe that is happening. They feel underserved.

I think about the shows that shaped my life or my kids’ lives - I have a pet theory, untested, about Neighbours and the impact it had on kids’ culture. I was working directly with kids at that point and they all wanted to watch Neighbours after school.  My observations when this show was at its most popular, was the moment when kids first thought it normal to talk about their feelings. Neighbours was touchy-feely in that way and there was something about the language around feelings and emotions that became much more mainstream with kids. I have no idea if that theory plays out in any scientific analysis, but Neighbours was a massive part of children’s media experiences at that time. Sure, it’s not public service media, or even aimed at children, but it makes the point about the huge impact media experiences can have on children’s development.

The question now is if children aren’t watching real time TV, where are they getting those influences in terms of their media experiences? And are they influences that are positive?  Do they have a collective reference point or are they individualistic because each child is having to find their own? Are they being short-changed by that or is it actually a positive thing that we need to embrace and find a way to support?

Kids talk about influencers not in a particular place or platform, but as characters in their lives.  They don’t segment in the same way that adults do.  It’s either about what they like or what their friends are watching, and they will have their own catalogue of things they go to: some things will be very simple, like watching people drawing unicorns, or perhaps watching people watching things. I found 6–11-year-olds are really into how you make stuff . So these people become their influencers and this leaves adults with few reference points as to where their children are going or what they are doing. It seems like a strange new world in its own right and not an add on to our real, physical world.

And public service media is having to play catch up. Yes, it was so much easier when there were just a few channels, but for children now that idea is abhorrent.  ‘How could you even exist?  Were dinosaurs around at the time?’  We need to find mechanisms that help individuals to find meaningful ways to live in this new world, which children are currently navigating by themselves.

So how can public service media help? Kids really benefit from the validation they get from seeing themselves in stories.  In fiction they are able to explore and get the validation of their view of the world and also see that it isn’t just about them.  Children that are maybe a bit quirky, or feel they’re the odd one out or shy, or have a particular challenge in their life; there’s something reassuring in having that experience reflected to them through fiction. And I do think there is a role, just as we’ve had a renaissance in books over the last year in many ways, there is something here about programmes and fiction on screen: there’s a potential there to help, we just have to find it.

Playing out scenarios is how children come to terms with things and are able to share their worries. For example, putting masks on their dolls during the pandemic.  Children’s programmes in the past have done this brilliantly: dealing with issues like relationships or drugs. There is still a need for this sort of content.  At the moment there’s lots of discussion around relationships, sexual assault in school and societal attitudes towards women and girls: what is consent? What is a relationship? What is banter? There’s a real role there for public service media and clearly a need for those issues to be explored, but to do it in a clever a way is the prize.

And of course it needs to be joined up, across platforms but also to link in with schools as well. I doubt there is a secondary school in the land that doesn’t have some kind of review going on in terms of their response to at least reports of sexual assault.  I think there is a role for schools to proactively look at how they can support a much more positive understanding of the impact of an individual’s actions and be a positive force for change.

The BBC already has a very strong relationship with schools, so there is an opening there for something that could go to the next level in terms of agility across different problems.  To tackle these issues in a way that isn’t clunky but fun and meaningful and engaging. Those are the great strengths of drama. Can you imagine how grateful parents would be if a public service media provider could pull that off?  But kids need to be able to find that content. Public service content makers need to understand how kids piece things together and utilise that.

Setting aside the online safety element, right now, I see danger in two ways and both to do with the volume of content.  Kids tell me they worry that the range of content that comes to them is getting narrower and narrower.  The algorithms figure what they like and take them to more of the same. My worry is that their view of the world at a very young age starts to become very narrow. We all do it; I set my news update to never send any sport and I can forget sport even exists, and it’s a pleasant place to be for me. But if you are a child and you get a really narrow procurement of news or views or ideas,  you don’t have the breadth of experience in life to remember there are other things going on.

The other concern is that there’s just so much quantity of media, they get swamped by the enormity of the content and end up swimming around in a lot stuff which will be of poor quality, struggling to find stuff they actually like.

So there is that weird paradox of the two things; either really narrow stuff which is lessening the world view or just the sheer volume of stuff that keeps coming and kids struggle to find their way through.  This seems to demand a better way.  Again, maybe there is a role here for public service media to actually take that leadership role and provide some mechanisms for children to be able to curate their world in a more child appropriate way, but also in a way that gets over those hurdles.  That enables children to keep that overview but not have to wade through so much content that it is just mind-numbing.

The last year has been interesting in terms of digital usage. For all of us our screens have taken on a different meaning and different status in our lives and whereas parents previously would have worried about children spending too much time on screens, over the last year a lot of the rules that were there before have been relaxed enormously.  I guess what comes out of the last year is where does that leave us?  It’s almost been like a live lab test.  Where are kids in their various communities?  How have they found their way through?  They’ve spent so much time online, are they managing it themselves now, because they’ve had enough? Are they bored with screens because the novelty has gone and seeing a person face to face is much more appealing? Or have they now got so much content that they are lost in it?  Do they need to be able to recreate their ability to function in the physical world?

There is an opportunity to see what’s happened over this year, but to also reset a little as we go forward: how do we manage this duality of existence.

I really welcome the fact schools are spending more time talking about wellbeing and mental health and I hope that will continue. But in children’s broader lives too, the whole move back into whatever the next stage of normality is for kids will be really crucial. Parents that are furloughed going back to work, kids back in school, entertainment opening up in places, more people about: there’s a danger that some children might, through no fault of their family, have a period where there are big changes going on in their life and adults are too busy to see what that might mean for them.  And in that situation, reliance and engagement in a digital environment might not be a positive experience. Absolutely there should be regulation to protect children online, but positive public service media can also play a preventative role here, building children’s resilience against harmful experiences in these anxious times.

Children need age-appropriate content but they could also be celebrated more in mainstream content.  We have moved on from ‘children should be seen and not heard’ but they still aren’t celebrated at the heart of our communities in the way some other countries do. If you go to Norway, it’s very clear that children are a high priority.  It has struck me over the pandemic:  in Norway and in several other countries, New Zealand for example, there were public service broadcasts very early on about the pandemic specifically for kids. Reassuring messages from the prime minister in those countries and I was keen to get something here but it was just too difficult for people.  There’s a job to be done here to give more of a role for children’s characters and presenters within mainstream programmes, as well as specialist programmes for children.

You can’t compartmentalise children’s education from their play and their media is part of everything.  It’s all one and the same.  Whichever environment they’re in, or whichever phase of digital development we’re in, children’s needs are just the same.  And now because they don’t see the joins, it’s even more important that adults understand the digital world is not just a peripheral part of existence.  Kids have had global, multimillion pound companies dominating their life for the last few years. We all have.  And it’s like everyone has been blinded by the light of what they can do for you: get your shopping fast, speak to your friends… and it’s all amazing.  But the balance of power between the users and the suppliers in this case isn’t in the right place. The seesaw is way down on the multibillion pound companies that are feeding us this stuff.  We need to get a better balance and I think the acceptance of that is part of a maturing digital world.  Platforms and companies need to accept that with this position they have in people’s lives comes responsibility. If they lose their users’ trust, they lose everything.  They’ll only keep that trust if they show they’re acting responsibility.

And of course trust is something that the traditional public service broadcasters have had, but now they are playing catch up.  It is in their self interest to do more for children. This is their future audience. Yet 80% of that 12-14-year-old audience say they have no experience of the BBC.  If you want to engage kids, you have to go where they are, and on their terms rather than trying to get them to fit in to your way of doing things.  You cannot force them into an adult infrastructure.  To engage with them, engage how they engage.  Go where they are and fit in with their lives. And ask children and co-create with them.

That can’t just be about meeting the needs of children today, because their world is changing so much that, actually, it needs to be a constant collaboration with them.  Maybe part of that mechanism is how can they be active participants, shaping what they actually view in a more dynamic way. I can imagine that is difficult for public service media ,where there is a strong emphasis on responsibility, on control and reassurance.  Finding a way that doesn’t dilute those values but enables children to have a collaborative and engaged role in their media is an enormous challenge and I don’t have the answer. But I do believe that is what children want and if the review into the future of public service media is to meet the needs of the children’s audience, we need to start thinking what the answer might be.


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By Anne Longfield OBE

Anne Longfield has spent the last three decades working to improve the life chances of children, particularly the most vulnerable. From March 2015 to February 2021, she was Children’s Commissioner for England and previously led a national children’s charity.

Anne remains a passionate champion for children, influencing and shaping the national debate and policy agenda for children and their families. She spent many years campaigning for better childcare, often at a time when many saw the issue as obscure or niche.

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