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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.

What does being a parent mean?

Many parents can feel guilty, and this was emphasised in the The Play Report, referred to in my previous posting. Since its publication I’ve been interviewed and consulted about this aspect in particular. I think some parents do feel self-doubt about the way in which they bring up their children, and they also feel that they should spend a lot of time playing with them. The report showed that parents feel guilty that they are not spending enough time with their children, with nearly half, 45%, reporting that they feel they do not have enough time to spend playing with their children, and 55% feeling that they do not spend enough quality time with their children, with 3 out of 4 parents feeling they would like to have more time just to chill out with them. Cash rich and time poor parents feel a constant strain on their time, but I think it is interesting to put this into context. Parents today are actually spending more than four times the amount of time looking after their children than they were in 1975 according to a report from the Future Foundation in 2006. Other research has shown that in industrial societies, adults invest more time in children’s play, and generally aim to help their child’s educational ability.

Another aspect I’ve been asked about is whether t.v. has become the substitute ‘nanny’. I think that like adults, children sometimes need some light relief, and TV can provide this! Like anything to do with child rearing, some things are OK, but in moderation. It is simply not possible to play with your children all the time, you would each be very bored! So TV watching is OK – but of course not all the time!

I’ve also been frequently asked whether parents put too much pressure on themselves and their children when it comes to their child’s development. I think that many parents enter ‘parenthood’ in the same way they might tackle a new job. They plan, schedule, dictate in the same way they might at work, and this is probably a symptom of parents getting older. There is so much information, media interest, and ‘educational toys’ available that it can put pressure on responsible parents. There’s a sense that once a baby is born we have to rush out and buy educational dvd’s that they should be watching, that they should develop earlier than other children, that they should walk by 12 months and talk by 18 months. In reality each child will develop in different ways. I think parents need to be reassured, told to relax, you are doing a good job, engage emotionally with your children, try not to worry about it too much, try to keep your own concerns separate from the kids when you are with them – it will do you both good! Accept that each child will develop in a different way, and as long as parents are emotionally there for them and they know they are loved and cared for, they will develop resilience, and will grow to be healthy individuals.

The sponsors of the Playreport, IKEA, welcome debate about this and other aspects of children, family and play on their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/playreport.

The Meaning of Play

Time has been short recently. The Play Report has pre-occupied me for the last few months, together with another major study, children and their use of digital media. Ironic that both studies have involved children and their use of spare time, and both have left us at the agency with little time to spare. But we’ve also been left with a huge sense of satisfaction from working on such interesting studies with such inspired colleagues. The Play Report was commissioned by IKEA, where we have been working with a great team in Sweden. And The Digital Media study has been 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.

The Play Report is, we believe, the largest study ever done on play. 8,000 interviews with parents, and 3,000 interviews with children across 25 countries in 19 languages. Interviews were carried out on-line by our colleagues at Research Now who did an excellent job, as did my co-author Richard Somerville who did the analysis. The brainchild of IKEA, the Play Report looks at all aspects of children’s spare time, and perhaps more importantly explores what play actually means. IKEA has been innovative and imaginative in the way in which it has used the research, and has set up a Facebook site to explore ideas about play, as well as launching an Apple app.

We discovered some interesting findings. There is often great concern voiced about the amount of time children spend in front of screens, and as our other major study – Children and their use of Digital Media – has shown, this might be misleading. Playing with friends (30%) is the single favourite pastime of children interviewed for the Play Report, followed at a significantly lower level by playing with computer games (15%), and playing with mum and dad (10%). Over half of the children interviewed (53%) feel they are very good at making friends.

This last finding is immensely important. The Play Report shows that 9 out of 10 children said they would prefer to play with friends over watching TV – this is reassuring – playing with friends is an important part of child development – it allows them to develop social skills and interpret emotion in others, so playing is vital to child development. I believe that parents instinctively know how important it is for their children to have friends, and they also know how much easier it is if there are friends around to play so they can help to entertain each other! Children naturally gravitate towards each other – and this can be witnessed when families go on holiday and children begin very quickly to play together – even though they don’t know each other or even speak the same language.

I was also particularly struck by the way in which parents find out information. We asked parents who they trusted the most for information and advice on parenting, and it was interesting that parents rely on their own parents, ie the children’s grandparents most for information and advice (55%), this was followed by friends (50%), and then books and magazines (48%). Websites and blogs accounted for 38% – I would have expected that to be higher, and it is rather reassuring that despite the wealth of information available, good old fashioned advice from their own mum, or dad, is the most trusted.

Details of the Play Report can be found at www.facebook.com/playreport.

Winnie the Pooh, the Big Thinker

Taking part in the Big Thinkers debate at the annual Market Research Society conference last week I proposed Winnie the Pooh (known to his friends as Pooh Bear) as having a Big Influence on the way in which we conduct research. My fellow discussants and I each had 6 minutes to argue our case.

Now this may appear to have been a strange choice for a Big Thinker. Some say, and indeed he says of himself, that Winnie the Pooh is a bear of Very Little Brain. But I argued that he is deeply philosophical, and has indeed had a profound effect on the way that research has been conducted over the last 50 years or so. The two works of fiction to which I referred in my argument were Winnie the Pooh, and House at Pooh Corner, published in 1926 and 1928 respectively, some 80 years ago. Let me explain the epistemology that lied behind my argument. Epistemology deals with the theory of knowledge, especially the critical study of its validity, methods and scope, and we know that there are two fundamental epistemologies – that of positivism – ie quantitative research – and constructivism – ie qualitative research, and it is the latter on which I focused.

Now if I had had more time I could have put forward a variety of arguments that show just how in touch Winnie the Pooh is with contemporary issues – there are many, many analogies, for example pooh sticks and the demise of the global banking system, or the obesity crisis, and I’m thinking here of course of eating too much honey and getting stuck at Rabbit’s for a week.

Much of the contemporary thinking about the way in which we carry out and interpret qualitative research, I argued, falls into post-modern thinking and philosophy, and they apply to both research methodology, and analysis. I used the example of Pooh visiting Rabbit: ‘He was humming this hum to himself, and walking gaily along, wondering what everybody else was doing, and what it felt like, being somebody else.’ (Winnie the Pooh, p28). Like a good qualitative researcher, Pooh Bear puts himself in the place of the other, in order to understand. He is non-judgemental, makes no assumptions, accepts others’ foibles, and perseveres in his endeavour to understand.

I suggested that this could also apply to Ethnography, something we heard a lot about at the conference. Ethnography derived from Anthropology (the study of people in their native cultures), and it made its way into Sociology in the 1930’s/1940’s under the Chicago School, and in the UK in 1964 the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was founded to observe subcultures. The essence of ethnography is that routine and normal aspects of everyday life are regarded as worthy of consideration as research data – the mundane and ordinary are as equally valid as the big events that occur. Special emphasis is given in ethnography to the way the people being studied see their world – quite distinct from the researcher’s analysis of what is being observed. When Pooh and Piglet visit Rabbit, and he asks them why they have come, they reply “We’ve come to wish you a Very Happy Thursday”. Rabbit (whose life was made up of Important Things) questions what is so special about Thursdays, and is rather unimpressed when they explain. Later Pooh and Piglet discuss how clever Rabbit is, and after a silence, Pooh says. “I suppose …that that’s why he never understands anything.” (The House at Pooh Corner, p216).

Ethnography offers us insight through thick description. It accepts what is, not what may be, and it allows for interpretation through the eyes of the participants. A skilled ethnographer has the ability to understand, learn from, and appreciate whatever happens in everyday life. A key to well executed research, is not to over complicate, and to appreciate the here and now, and Winnie the Pooh, I argued, is a superb example of just that.

Unfortunately Pooh Bear was beaten by Charles Dickens (we had to suggest fictional or historical figures). Oh well, perhaps the judges were just too clever, and therefore did not understand. But I was given immense help by my fellow researcher, Martyn Richards (he is also a trained actor) who read quotes to the audience from both books superbly. Thank you Martyn, I owe you some Honey.

Children – the subject of research

Attending the launch of The Children’s Society report on Understanding Children’s Well-being at Westminster Hall on Wednesday reminded me just how much children are becoming used to being asked their opinion. Schools are particularly using research; just recently I have been carrying out pupil perception groups in school, asking 5-11 year olds everything from what they think of school lunches to what are their favourite things about school, and what they would like teachers to do to make lessons better for them. The annual TellUs survey, now run by the DCSF, has been asking children about their lives in and out of school since 2007, and children complete this questionnaire each summer.

While children are becoming familiar with research, how it is done is an important aspect to consider. It was the subject of the conference I chaired this week at the Market Research Society’s Children’s Conference in London. The ethics around research with children was a hot topic of debate. The debate ranged from when is a child no longer a child (The UN says 18, legally a child is defined as under 18 in the UK, in the US for research purposes a child is defined as 13, in the UK 16), to when and if it is appropriate to give a child a gift for taking part in research, and when might this be deemed to be coercion. The children’s research world is relatively small, and it was good to spend a day with so many deep thinking and responsible researchers. I have received many emails since the event telling me how much delegates enjoyed the day, and how thought-provoking they found it.

The Children’s Society’s Understanding Children’s Well-being research referred to earlier had been carried out in schools by Ipsos MORI April-July 2008 and included nearly 7,000 children in Year 6 in primary school and Years 8 and 10 in secondary schools, in other words children aged 10, 13, and 15. In many ways it is quite encouraging, with the majority of children scoring a level of well-being at 7.7 out of a scale from 0 to 10, although questions from the audience pointed out the difficulty of assessing well-being. But the authors make the point that it is subjective well-being. It is estimated by the researchers that 7-10% of children could be said to have low levels of well-being. It is interesting to note that subjective well-being appears to decline somewhat with age, and this is especially the case for girls. In this country around 1 in 4 families are headed by a lone parent, but the research did not find a link between well-being and family structure. The research confirms previous research that colleagues and I carried out at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge (funded by the Nuffield Foundation on Adolescent Well-being and Schools, headed by Professor John Grey) that indicates that the quality of relationships and change in life events such as school transition has the most impact on children’s level of well-being. An important message for us all is that given that UK children are rated lowest in developed countries on levels of well-being (UNICEF 2007), we need to be constantly asking questions, of children, and of ourselves as researchers, to find ways of improving this abysmal rating.

More of a tweet than a blog

In final throws of submitting my PhD. Three years in the making it will be like handing over a child, hoping that its custodians will understand and appreciate it as much as I do!

This month we are dealing with sensitive issues, talking to teenagers about sexual health, and to children and young people with behavioural difficulties. We are also mid-way through a very large study on play, also a sensitive issue it seems as parents feel guilt about not spending enough time with their children. The Family Kids and Youth team have been amazing and supportive, so thank you to them for carrying on despite my preoccupation, and especially thank you to Julia Macpherson.

Running before you can walk (or using the App Store before you can read)

No postings last month as I’ve been completing the final section of my PhD thesis. Now, happily, I’m editing so life is a bit back to normal, and I’m hoping to submit next month. I also managed to go to Italy; the thesis came with me and I was able to do a bit of editing, but somehow sun, food, wine and Italy do not fit in with thesis editing …

With me for part of my time in Italy were 6 year old Stanley and 4 year old Woody. The subject of my PhD is children’s engagement with digital technology and it was ironic to be reminded of just how intuitive even young children are when it comes to using digital media. Woody, 4, asked if he could play a game on my iPhone, and I absentmindedly said of course. A few minutes later he was back complaining that the game he wanted was not on the phone. ‘But don’t worry’, he said, ‘I’ll go onto the Apps Store and get it’. Still somewhat vague (I was swimming at the time), I said that was fine. Out of the pool, Woody handed me the phone, ‘can you put your password in’ he said, which I obediently did, and a few minutes later he was happily playing ‘Sonic Hedgehog’ level 2, which when challenged I found quite difficult to complete. Later that day I received an email receipt from the Apple Store for £3.49, thanking me for my custom and for purchasing Sonic the Hedgehog.

Woody had managed to purchase this from the ‘App Store’ on my iPhone completely unaided, and yet he does not yet read. In fact he was a bit worried about reading. Due to start school for the first time last week he had asked whether he had to read when he started school. ‘Not on your first day’, his 6 year old brother Stanley helpfully told him. As someone who has been studying and writing about child psychosocial development over the last few years, it never ceases to amaze me how adept children are at using the technology that we may all take for granted, but which to them is completely second nature.

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