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Kids as Consumers

There is little heard now about ‘Pester Power’ or the ‘Nag Factor’, but these were terms frequently used a few years back by marketers. Happening on a brochure from a very old conference about marketing to children, held in a southern European city, it is clear from this that the message appeared to be ‘how do we persuade kids to buy, or pester their parents to buy for them’. It is refreshing, and probably says a lot for the adoption of CSR by large organisations, that the emphasis now is on child wellbeing; how might we understand children and how might we protect children rather than how do we sell to them. Not that children today are regarded any less as consumers, but they are rightly viewed also as potentially vulnerable consumers with rights. Perhaps the industry has grown up. Certainly many of our clients now have children of their own, something that was not always the case a few years back when anything to do with kids was delegated to junior execs.

My experience is that clients today have a deep interest in and hunger for knowledge about their target market, be it child development, cultural differences, behaviour, or psychology. They are far more sophisticated and sensitive in the way they communicate with families and children, and are eager to learn about children’s world and children’s behaviour. ‘Learn how to maximise pester power and tips for encouraging kids to ask for your product’ (a true quote from that old conference brochure) is unlikely to be seen again.

Conferences, and myth busting about kids and digital

I attended an excellent conference yesterday at the British Library (yesterday was ‘Super Thursday’, the day booksellers rush out titles for Christmas). Organised by The Bookseller, the Children’s Conference looked at the digital landscape for children and considered how this is impacting on print media; the conference had a thoughtful and receptive audience as well as insightful co-speakers. I presented key findings from our Digital Family Kids and Youth research.

It is the season of conferences; last week was the ESOMAR Congress in Amsterdam, where I presented a paper co-written with Catriona Ferris from Unilever on the change in family life in emerging countries such as China and Brazil. In the hotel lift on the way to breakfast on Tuesday I met the conference cartoonist Mark Siermaczeski (crueltyfreecartoons.com) which resulted in a highly entertaining breakfast; he has since sent a cartoon – not bad drawn from memory.

There has been much discussion about the UNICEF Research carried out in the UK, Spain and Sweden, published 14 September. Being qualitative research it inevitably focused on relatively small samples of families (8 in each country) and groups of children (2 groups or depth interviews in 7 schools per country). The report pointed out that families in the UK appear to be more materialistic than in Spain or Sweden. The conference yesterday emphasised the reality of children’s lives today and the place of digital devices, and there was discussion about digital media replacing parental engagement. Parents do feel guilty about the amount of time and the quality of time they spend with their children, but our IKEA Play Report research, carried out with 11,000 parents and children in 25 countries, emphasised how common this is in many countries, and how children do indeed want their parents to spend more time with them. While our Play Report reflects much of what was in the UNICEF research, we did not find that the UK was particularly worse that Spain or Sweden in terms of parental time and feelings of guilt.

At yet another very good conference last week the third wave of the EU Kids Online research was launched at the LSE, London. Sonia Livingstone summed up the findings by questioning a number of myths that abound around children and digital. Included in these was the myth that children are meeting strangers online. This certainly backs up our research; most children are meeting their friends online, and as I have frequently argued, it is those children who are vulnerable in the off-line world who are most vulnerable in the online world. If parents do not have the ability, the time, or the inclination to engage with their children, this can leave their children more vulnerable to becoming lonely and isolated, which in turn might make them victims of unpleasant experiences online. There was a general call for adults – parents, teachers, social workers – to become better clued up about children’s online activity, a point emphasised at yesterday’s conference by Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration. Tamara described the work that eModeration does in monitoring websites, and made the point that many responsible social networking sites can do a great deal to protect children and moderate language and behaviour; this must be reassuring for parents.

What is poor parenting?

An American commentator said yesterday that a couple of months ago England was viewed as the land of Harry Potter and royal weddings, and now it is apparently the land of anarchy. He has a point. It is shocking to see bored and disillusioned children and teenagers behaving on our urban streets in a way that is more like Lord of the Flies than helpful, clever, Harry Potter. William Golding’s novel describes children stranded on a desert island and attempting to govern themselves with no adults around, painfully recording their decent into savagery.

Children need boundaries, and they need adults around them who will guide them, care for them and listen to them. In the aftermath of 3 days of unbounded behaviour it is easy to imagine that all children can behave like savages. Of course this is not true, any more than saying that all parents are bad. In our research we have been into many family homes where there is little in the way of material goods and even less in the way of family income, but where the warmth and love given to children by parents and grandparents is moving and impressive. Equally we’ve been into homes of prosperous families where there is no shortage of material wealth but little time for interaction with children. But most parents want to do the best for their children, and most bring them up in the best way they can. Parents do need support and they do need friendly (not prescriptive) advice; being a parent is tough, especially when children reach adolescence, and that is irrespective of social class or race.

Many studies have been carried out on resilience, considering why some children seem to survive difficult and deprived childhoods, emerging as healthy and successful adults and others are sucked into a black hole of truancy, petty theft, and drug abuse. The common factor seems to be that that there has been one person, or a group of people, to whom the child can turn for support and understanding. This can be a relative or someone in the community: for example a grandparent, a neighbour, a priest, or a teacher; someone who has taken sufficient interest in that child to make them feel worthwhile, and to build their self-esteem. Friends are important to children and especially to adolescents, but they can be a negative as well as a positive influence. Without a sense of confidence and self-esteem adolescents can be deeply influenced by their peers, and at its worst drawn into a world of gang culture and subversive behaviour.

Parents who can’t cope, who might be depressed or addicted to drugs or alcohol, are clearly not likely to be able to be a positive influence on their children. These children are then very vulnerable. Poor parenting is much more than not knowing where your child is, or what they are doing, it is about not having the time or emotional resource to be fully engaged with that child. But it should also be remembered that most of the time most parents are, in paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s phrase, ‘good enough’.

5 a day – tips on parenting – helpful or prescriptive?

Giving tips on parenting is always a difficult area, but the news that the Coalition Government is thinking of rolling out a national campaign to help under-performing children was bound to prompt criticism (see The Telegraph as an example). This has been based on the Lib-Dem’s think tank ‘The CentreForum’s report’ which suggests a ‘5-a-day’ guideline to effective parenting. It might be the name that is unfortunate. There have been many comments over the last week since the guidelines were issued that ‘5 a day’ refers to the ‘unsuccessful’ campaign that encourages children to eat fruit and vegetables. But I would question this; I don’t think we’ve interviewed a school-aged child who does not understand what ‘5-a-day’ in terms of eating fruit and vegetables is about – often prompted by their school being part of the Healthy Schools initiative. Children are frequently telling their parents about healthy eating.

CentreForum’s five guidelines are: Read to your child for 15 minutes; Play with your child on the floor for 10 minutes; Talk with your child for 20 minutes with the television off; Adopt positive attitudes towards your child and praise them frequently; Give your child a nutritious diet. Twitter, Netmums and Mumsnet have all registered disquiet about ‘directing’ parents about parenting but perhaps the report deserves a closer look.

The full report ‘Parenting Matters: Early Years and Social Mobility’ by Chris Paterson at the Centre Forum is very good. The report states ‘It is now firmly established that the single most important factor influencing child intellectual and social development is the quality of parenting and care that a child receives and the quality and conduciveness of the Home Learning Environment (“HLE”) that this creates. ‘(page 12). It goes on to look in depth at early brain formation, and points out the vital need for early interaction and bonding between child and parent or care giver: ‘when strong, frequent, or prolonged exposure to adverse experiences – such as extreme poverty, abuse or neglect – are experienced in early life without adult support, the stress caused can become literally toxic to the developing brain architecture.’ (page 20). This point is made by Sue Gerhardt in her book ‘Why Love Matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain’, based on research in neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis and biochemistry.

Issuing such guidelines in the summer school holidays may be a sound move, but in our most recent research with mums over the last week we have found that many find themselves enervated, and there’s still another 4 weeks to go before children return to playschool and school. The weather hasn’t been great, and for many families money is short; there is uncertainty about their financial future, and holidays away from home have not been possible, so not surprisingly there is trepidation about what to do with the kids in the holidays. Grandparents can play a part in helping with childcare and with ideas for entertaining the kids, but many families are now removed from family support, and mums we talk to do not necessarily turn to their parents for guidance. It is interesting to note that our research for the Ikea Playreport (the largest international study ever done on play) indicated that two-thirds of parents would seek information on parenting from the media (including websites, blogs and TV), but the most trusted source would be their parents (30%) followed by health professionals (17%). However other research has shown us that some parents can find social networking sites for mums in particular a bit daunting and patronising; having advice and support online or anywhere would help, but does it have to be quite so prescriptive?

‘Too fast, too soon’ : becoming a teenager too early

More evidence emerges of children’s (unhealthy?) engagement with digital. Research released today from charities Family Lives and Drinkaware shows that 87% of parents think children are experiencing ‘teenage’ issues before their teens. We know from our recent research for The Bailey Review on behalf of Credos that parents are very worried that their children are exposed to media content that is too old for them, but feel helpless to stop it.

We have long been aware that children are lying about their age online so that they can gain access to social networking sites. In my 3 year ethnographic research with 10-14 year olds I reported in 2009 the issue of children signing up to social networking sites as young as 10, often claiming that they were 16 as this was the age they thought they had to be to sign up. My research showed that children were exposed to unsuitable advertising such as gambling sites and ads for weight loss, simply because they had claimed they were older. Today’s Family Lives and Drinkaware research shows worryingly that more than a quarter (28%) of 10-12 year olds see and read alcohol-related posts on social networking sites, over a third (37%) of 13-15 year olds see photos of their friends drunk on social networking sites and 12% of 10-12 year olds and 25% of 13-15 year olds say they have seen sexually explicit images on the internet.

I have long argued that parents are not aware of what their children are doing online, and that as in all aspects of parenting children need boundaries and their digital time should be discussed and limited. Early adolescents (10-14 year olds) will always push boundaries, try the unknown, experiment, as David Squire and I showed in our recent paper for the Children’s Media Conference. Most children are sensible, have friends who support them and parents who listen to them. For example the Family Lives and Drinkaware research indicates that three-quarters (73%) of 10-17 year olds would choose to speak to their parents first about issues they are encountering. Most children benefit from the friendship and support they receive through their social networking encounters with friends. It is those children who are isolated, find difficulty in making friends, lack parental engagement (for example through parental issues with mental health, alcohol or drugs) that are most vulnerable both off-line and online.

A happy medium needs to be sought. Children should not be discouraged from using digital media, but they need clear rules. To empower parents both Family Lives and Drinkaware have great advice on their websites, and have produced a Top Tips list. This includes advice on technology, alcohol, and parenting. On technology they advise parents to:

 Familiarise yourself with how computer and mobile technology works. Don’t worry if your child knows more about technology than you – be honest and spend time together looking at online security and privacy functions.

 Keep the computer in a room used by all the family, monitor how much time your child spends on the computer and encourage them to openly talk about what they’re looking at online.

In my last post I wrote about internet service provider Talk Talk which now offers a network-level security service Home Safe and in particular Child Safe which enables parents to restrict sites as well as time children can access the internet. Children can gain from their engagement with digital, but they also need protection.

Mind the Gap and Facebook Stole My Childhood

Many of us working with children and young people will be in Sheffield this week at the The Children’s Media Conference. I’m talking there alongside children’s digital whizz David Squire from DESQ about meeting the media needs of early adolescents. Our session Mind the Gap will be on Thursday at 2-3pm and again on Friday at 12.45 – 1.30 pm. In this David and I explore who early adolescents (10-14 14 year olds) are and what they need, and why we think there is a gap in media provision for this age group. Our paper outlining our thoughts is now available.

I’ll also be taking part in the panel discussion Facebook Stole My Childhood chaired by Jo Twist, Commissioning Editor for Education, Channel 4. This session takes place on Thursday at 3.30-4.30 pm. While my research has shown that there can be dangers for children on-line, including exposure to inappropriate content, cyberbullying and on-line predators, overall children can benefit from their digital social networking.

As the Bailey Review published last month pointed out, children do need to be protected in their digital world, just as they do in the real world. It is a welcome move therefore that internet service provider Talk Talk has enabled its customers to use a network-level security service which is designed in particular to help parents protect their children from harmful content on the Internet such as viruses. Unlike anti-virus or parental control software on individual machines, this tool protects anyone using the same Internet connection, and thus helps to block inappropriate content even if it’s being browsed from a games console, mobile phone or tablet. Its KidsSafe parental controls allows the account-holder to block porn, violence, and other content. There is also a Homework Time option that allows parents/carers to block sites such as Facebook at certain times. It is an interesting move and one no doubt that will be soon followed by other service providers.

Concern continues to mount about children’s access to online content, and as I wrote last month our new research Digital Kids and Youth will explore many of these issues.

The Bailey Review – The Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood

In Family Kids and Youth’s research carried out for the Bailey Review on behalf of Credos – the independent research arm of the Advertising Association) parental fears centred on their child’s future: their education, their future job prospects, and social concerns such as drugs and violence. This seemed to override concerns about advertising and marketing to children, although clearly this was an issue for some parents. Parents did express unease about the lack of control they feel they have over the media content their children consume. But the nature of children’s digital world means that children are exposed to far more adult content than ever before, and parents can feel powerless to prevent this. An important message from parents was that they did not want to live in a ‘nanny state’, with government telling them what to do. They wanted and expected advertisers, marketers, broadcasters and internet providers to be highly sensitive to the issue, but they felt that the responsibility for controlling what their children consumed in terms of media messages was ultimately theirs as parents. Reg Bailey’s review is due out tomorrow, and early reports suggest that he has recognised very well the dilemma parents are facing.

In earlier research I carried out at Cambridge, I found that in many ways children want to keep their digital world separate and even secret from their parents, particularly in early adolescence when children naturally begin to seek autonomy and a sense of identity. I had several examples of children setting up separate Facebook accounts, one for their friends, and another for parents and family to access. While parents were concerned about their child’s use of digital media they could often misjudge the way they felt they were controlling it. One single mum for example did not allow her 13 year old to have a Facebook account for fear he would be approached by ‘strangers’. This meant that the child missed out on many of the social arrangements that were made by friends at school. Meanwhile he was happily playing and communicating with people he did not know on Xbox LIVE, which his mother was not aware of, simply because she did not understand the technology.

Reports suggest that Reg Bailey is calling on Ofcom to monitor parents’ view of media content, and this seems eminently sensible. And the Advertising Association’s report for this review suggests that more should be done to promote Media Smart, the excellent media literacy programme targeted to children through schools. At Family Kids and Youth we believe that there is also a need to continue to find out what it is that children are actually doing with digital media, especially as more and new means of accessing media is available on an almost weekly basis. For this reason Family Kids and Youth is launching Digital Kids and Youth, a monthly round of ethnography and focus groups with children and adolescents, monitoring their use of digital media. We will report every 4 months, and are delighted to have industry partners to help us with this.

Children are people too

The research I carried out for my doctorate at Cambridge highlighted the naivety and trust children have in what is completely natural for them – communicating on-line. Our recent research has shown just how vulnerable young children might be. We have observed 5 year olds talking to ‘friends’ online. While this may be completely innocent what is a concern is that frequently parents are unaware of what their children are doing. This is not neglect or a lack of concern on the part of parents. It is simply a lack of understanding about what new digital technology is able to do. Accessing others to play with them on-line through their DSi, Wii, X-box live (the list is now extensive) is something children relish and welcome. There is a huge gap in informing parents about what technology is out there and what it is potentially capable of. Parents might understand the first but not fully appreciate the second. Children, of course, need protecting, but parents need informing.

Kids and Youth Conference – Part 1

The MRS conference held last week in London took us on a journey from small children engaging with the DUKTIG range at IKEA, through the story of today’s digital kids, questions about ethics, and onto the raw and challenging world of teenage street drinkers in Tower Hamlets. Unfortunately Saher Sidhom from Great Works was unable to Chair as planned because his father was taken seriously ill. I was asked to step in at the last minute and with the support of the MRS team we managed to get through the agenda without too much delay. We missed having Saher there, and I’m happy to report that his father appears to be making a recovery, and we send them both our good wishes.

Maria Elander, who with the title of Head of Children’s School at IKEA, must surely have the best job going, has just returned from a two-week trip to Asia where she has been teaching but also observing the challenges of family life. Maria spoke about the history of IKEA, and how children have always been regarded by the company as the ‘most important people in the world’. She explained how staff and suppliers are trained in child development and safety, and how this impacts on the high standards IKEA sets for its children’s department. Maria was followed by Marc Goodchild from the BBC and me, speaking about our collaborative work on digital kids. We began looking at 10-14 year olds, but realised eighteen months ago that to gain a true picture of what children are doing, especially in terms of social networking, we needed to go a lot younger, and the study this year has looked at 5-10 year olds. The study has used ethnography in the homes of children aged 5-14 years throughout, and we have had the luxury of time to make repeat visits to the families. The report for this stage of the research will be available in the New Year.

Professor David Buckingham, Director of the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media at the University of London gave, as always, an eloquent and thoughtful talk, touching this time on his report “The Impact of the Commercial World on Children’s Wellbeing” (December, 2009). David argued that there has to be a ‘middle ground’. It is recognised that children are exposed to a wide range of media, much of it adult (e.g. reality TV) and we must be cautious but pragmatic in our approach to ensure that we put children’s wellbeing at the forefront of what we do. David’s report is available to download here: http://www.adassoc.org.uk/tasks/sites/aa/assets/File/Childrens_Wellbeing_all.pdf.

The subject of the commercialisation of childhood is one that is rightly debated regularly, and was taken up once again in the afternoon by Sue Eustace from the Advertising Association, and Peter Robinson from Dubit. Sue announced the launch of ‘Check’, a website sponsored by the Advertising Association which gives useful information about the collective rules and regulations that apply to research, advertising and marketing to children. See: www.check.uk.com.

Snow and ice and client commitments mean I have to pause here but I will continue to write about the conference in my next posting. The conference programme can be found by scrolling down at: http://www.mrs.org.uk/conference/index.htm.

The Good News about under 15’s and their use of Digital Media

Another preoccupation for us over the last few months has been The Digital Media Study, carried out by Family Kids and Youth, and informed and helped by Marc Goodchild, Head of Children’s Interactive at the BBC, and Andrew Harrison, CEO Europe of Bestbuy and The Carphone Warehouse.

We are currently sifting through 6 months of ethnographic work that has included observation and filming of children aged 5-10 using digital media, sessions in-home, diary keeping, and observation and filming during the summer school holidays. All this is to be added to my previous doctoral study carried out at Cambridge University which was a 2-year ethnographic study with 10-14 year olds and their use of digital media. Our presentation on children and early adolescents’ emotional engagement with digital media will take place at the ESOMAR Congress in Athens in the main hall on Tuesday 14 September at 3.00 pm (see http://www.esomar.org/index.php/events-congress-2010-programme.html). The main report will be available in November. Marc Goodchild and I are also taking part in a BAFTA debate on Monday 6 September entitled The Good News about Social Media and the under 12’s held at their London HQ ,195 Piccadilly at 6.30pm.

Essentially, our message is good news. Children, we have found, are benefiting from their engagement with digital technology. Parents, as we found out in the Play Report (see previous postings), do express a concern about the time children spend with screen based media. Much of this might be parents’ concern that they are not actively engaged with their children when they use technology, although of course they could be. And we have found that many parents simply do not understand the technology their children are using, and are surprisingly reluctant to find out about it. So instead of engaging with their children, they tend to either ban it altogether, which could have social consequences for children (missing out on what other kids are up to), or they let their children get on with it. Both could potentially be harmful. There is a case for parents to become more engaged with what their children are doing online, partly to check that they are coming to no harm and that they are learning safe surfing lessons, and partly because otherwise a generational digital divide is created, one in which children and young people understand digital technology better than parents.

We have found that children can learn much from using digital technology, and that’s not just the ability to become familiar with the devices, but also allowing them to develop other skills such a numeracy and literacy. Many schools in developed countries recognise this, and are now using interactive whiteboards and computer technology in teaching. Children like to be allowed to find out things for themselves, and digital technology, the Internet and especially Google gives them huge opportunities to do just this – with the rider, always, that they understand how to stay safe. Never revealing personal information, never engaging in conversations with strangers, always reporting anything they feel unsure or unsafe about, even if it turns out to be perfectly innocent, should be a mantra for every child using digital technology. Children are having fun online, they are engaging in social interaction, and they are finding things out for themselves.

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