What media young people consume – and the technology they use to consume it – is a topic of interest to a wide range of publishers, advertisers, regulators, parents and educators.

Each of these different groups has their own reasons for wanting to understand this demographic, so no doubt they’ll be closely examining two new studies focusing on children’s media use.

The first, which was released in early November by the US non-profit Common Sense Media, looks at the media habits and preferences of American 8-18 year olds. The second, which emerged a few weeks later from the UK communications regulator Ofcom, provides data into the media use, attitudes and understanding of UK children and young people aged 5-15, as well as media access enjoyed by young children aged 3-4.

Although each study is unique, making direct contrasts impossible, many of the topics they investigated are similar. Here are six key thematic based conclusions worth sharing.

1.     Media usage is substantial

American teenagers aged 13-18 consume an average of nine hours of entertainment media per day. This figure drops to six hours a day among US tweens (children aged 8-12). These figures, the researchers remark “does not include media consumption for school and homework.” Presumably when these learning activities are factored in, then usage increases further still.

Ofcom’s report takes a slightly different perspective, examining weekly media consumption habits, rather than daily use. Across TV and online media, 8-11s spend 25.9 hours a week engaging in media activities; split across TV (14.8 hours) and online (11.1).

Interestingly, “12-15s [are] now spending more time online than watching TV” they note. Within this older cohort, TV accounts for 15.5 hours a week of their time, with online activities accounting for 18.8 hours a week.

Across both groups, Ofcom’s longitudinal research has charted changes over time, revealing (see Figure 1  below) how the time spent online by these groups has more than doubled since their first Children’s Media Literacy survey in 2005.

Much of this is driven by increased internet access. In 2005, this was found in around two thirds of homes. By 2015, this figure was over 90%, with the growth in connections matched by the growth in everyday digital devices which households could use to go online.


2.     Mobile devices dominate consumption habits

Ofcom notes how for children in internet enabled homes “tablets and mobile phones are now more popular than desktop computers for online access.”

Their data also found that the number of children with a TV in their bedroom has also declined in the past decade, perhaps as a result of the number of devices with which TV – and TV like – content can be watched.

Tablets are a key driver for this, particularly with younger UK audiences. Ofcom reports that “one in seven 3-4s (15%) and two in five 5-15s (40%) now own their own tablet.”

This ownership drops off as children grow up. Older children are more likely to own a smartphone, with 69% of 12-15s doing so (compared to 24% of 8-11s). Only 8% of this older age group has a “dumb phone,” comparable with the 11% of younger users.

A similar picture emerges across the pond, with 67% of teens owning their own smartphone and 24% of tweens. Again the younger demographic dominates tablet ownership. 53% of American tweens have their own tablet, compared to 37% of US teens.

Given such high levels of device ownership, it’s not surprising that in the States, “mobile devices now account for 41% of all screen time among tweens and 46% among teens.” For US teens, the smartphone is the leading portal device for TV and video viewing.


3.     Media preferences led by TV and music, not social

As you would expect, many children consume a wide variety of media. Their daily habits include traditional practices such as watching TV, listening to music, interacting on social media and playing video games. They typically do this across a broad range of media devices.

However, if you expect this young cohort to be slaves to social, you’d be wrong.

“The diversity of media use patterns among youth is astounding,” said US report author Vicky Rideout, in a press release accompanying the research, “but it’s interesting to see that through it all TV and music continue to be the media of choice – and that social networking lags significantly behind.”

Two-thirds of US teens (66%) listen to music every day, with just 58% watching TV. In contrast, just under half – 45% – of US teens use social media on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, Ofcom’s data reveals that although three-quarters of 12-15s who go online have a social media profile, this still means that a quarter do not.

Among US tweens TV consumption is also less than perhaps might be expected. Although it’s the media activity they engage in most often, just under two third (62%) watch it “every day”.

For UK teens, content consumption “is increasingly curated by digital intermediaries,” with 12-15s saying for the first time in Ofcom’s 2015 study that they prefer to watch YouTube videos to TV programmes 29% versus 25%).

The absence of the traditional TV experience is also evident in the US, even though TV-like content remains very popular with children.

“Only half (50 percent) of all TV- and video-viewing time consists of watching TV programming on a TV set at the time it is broadcast,” the Common Sense Media report found. In contrast, 8% of viewing is time-shifted, 22% of TV and video viewing is on platforms like YouTube and 14% involves TV viewing on other devices (see Figure 6 above).

4.     Active Vs Passive consumption

It’s never been so easy to create content; with smartphones, apps and online platforms such as Tumblr making it increasingly easy for anyone to publish their own material online.

Despite this, the evidence from both of these reports suggests that media habits – even with digital natives – are dominated by consumption rather than creation.

In the US, for example, 39% of digital screen time (computers, tablets, and smartphones) among teens is identified as passive consumption (watching, listening, or reading). Interactive media – more “lean in” activities such as playing games and browsing the web – accounts for 25% of their digital screen time, on a par (26%) with time spent on communication media (e.g. social networks and video-calls). Just 3% of this time is given to to content creation; including writing, coding, making digital art or music.

Ofcom notes a similar percentage (3%) of internet users who “say they have written code to create an app or games.” More widely they also comment that only “1% have signed an online petition and 1% have expressed their social or political views online.”

5.     Gender differences

Both studies identify a number of gender differences to media habits and attitudes, with this often being most pronounced in the realm of games, gaming and games devices.

As the US study observes: teen boys average 56 minutes a day playing video games, compared to girls’ 7 minutes and teen girls spend 40 minutes more a day than boys on social media (1:32 vs. 52 minutes).”

Ofcom meanwhile highlights that “boys spend more time than girls gaming in a typical week; across all 5-15s (11.6 vs. 7.5 hours).” They’re also “more likely than girls to mostly use a games console (11% vs. 1%)” to go online. And although gaming levels enjoy some parity between boys and girls aged 3-4 and 5-7, a gaming gap opens up once you get outside of these age groups.

Nonetheless, Ofcom’s data (see Figure 35) shows just how popular gaming is across the age spectrum. Even 3-4 year olds in the UK are spending six hours a week on games. That weekly duration more than doubles by the time they reach their early teens.


6.     Concerns

Both studies explore some of the challenges posed by children’s media use.

Ofcom’s media literacy focus includes an analysis of children’s critical understanding on topics such as truthfulness, trust and relationships with people online.

In contrast, Common Sense Media’s study underlines some of the major differences in media use patterns seen across socio-economic and racial/ethnic lines. These differences are stark in terms of access to technology and its usage.

“… 54 percent of lower-income teens (whose families make less than $35,000 a year) have a laptop in the home, compared with 92 percent of higher-income teens ($100,000 a year or more).”

They also found that despite lower access levels, lower-income teens average more than two hours and 25 minutes a day using screens compared to teens in higher-income families (8:07 hours vs. 5:42 hours).

Although the activities these demographics do are pretty similar, the time spent doing them can vary considerably. Similar variances are also seen across the media experiences of black, Hispanic and white teens.

It’s an area that the authors note “is certainly noteworthy and deserves much deeper examination and discussion.”

Final Thoughts

Children’s media usage is complex and varied; but it is rooted in a breadth of activity that is enabled by access to a gamut of digital devices.

As a result, the battle for media attention is not unique to adults. Children too have many competing media demands. The scope of their consumption – coupled with a plurality of interests – reveals a whole new battleground for media companies. Engaging them with your brand and content at an early age, and in variety of contexts, may become increasingly important if you’re to retain their interest (and loyalty).

The mainstream media consumers of tomorrow are already mimicking the behaviours of many older age groups. Their consumption is mobile, non-linear and substantial. Seeing what they do next as they move into older age brackets, and develop financial means and independence, is going to be fascinating to see play out.

Damian Radcliffe (@damianradcliffe) is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and a former guest editor of TheMediaBriefing. 

Before moving to the USA he led new creative and research initiatives at the BBC, Ofcom (the UK Communications Regulator), Volunteering Matters – a UK NGO – The Local Radio Company and Qatar’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ictQATAR). 

Damian is also an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).