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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,

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

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.

Asking teenagers to write about their media consumption

There has been much written about Matthew Robson (aged 15 years and 7 months) this week. Matthew has produced a report about teenagers’ media habits, and apparently it has created enormous interest from international fund managers and analysts. His supervisors have described the report as ‘one of the clearest and most thought-provoking insights we have seen’. The 15 year old was lucky enough (and brave enough) to accept an internship at Morgan Stanley where the US investment bank’s team of media and internet researchers set him the mission of reporting on how teenagers use digital media. The Times (14.7.09:4) described his new found fame as in part luck, ’It was not just what Matthew knew, but whom he knew, or rather, whom his dog, Rudolph, knew.’. Apparently Matthew’s mum had been walking Rudolph, and had met Patrick Wellington, a senior financial analyst at the bank, who was also walking his dog; Matthew’s internship was secured.

Needless to say I am pleased that Matthew’s findings reflect findings from my own research with younger children (10-14 year olds), some of which I presented at the Showcomotion conference last week . Having spent the last three years on the research, and about to publish, it would be distressing to find that a 15 year old had usurped me!

Matthew states that ‘teenagers don’t twitter’, and I have certainly found this to be the case. When Twitter first entered my consciousness a couple of years ago, I assumed that this would be the next social networking site to be embraced by young teenagers, as I have watched young people over a three year period move from MSN to Piczo to Bebo, then My Space, and finally settling on Facebook. The Twitter perspective however is not one that young teenagers fully comprehend. After all unlike adults who find ‘twittering’ an on-going commentary of their lives amusing and sometimes compulsive, most young people have been using IM (instant messaging) since they were 10 years old, and SMS since they got their first mobile phone at 11, so for them there is nothing new in this. And with Facebook Chat now available they can be talking to each other live, uploading pictures, playing games and putting comments on each other’s walls all at the same time. A short message in less than 140 characters is not really their thing.

Matthew has done a great job in summarising teenagers’ views on media, but it may be that those of us who know teenagers well have not found Matthew’s report that surprising. What is perhaps more surprising is that the report has come as such a revelation to the investment bankers who after all must be responsible for funding some of the most prominent media providers. Time Magazine’s Dan Fletcher, while describing Matthew’s efforts as ‘impressive’ concludes that ‘Those at Morgan Stanley need to spend a bit more time with their kids. … Ultimately, Robson’s report does more to reveal how out of touch some in the business world are than to shed light on anything new about teenagers and the media.’ (15.7.09). Or as another blog commentator has said ‘What is shocking about this article is the relative “shock” created for these “executives” – – – – TWITTER – ummm, yeah – – – anyone with adolescent kids’ll tell you that they DON’T . . . . This 15 year old is master of the obvious. Those that need attention are the ones that are expressing surprise at his statements.’

Are social networking sites harmful to children?

It is perhaps difficult to believe that the term ‘social networking site’ (SNS) was not widely recognised back in 2004 when teenagers in the US first discovered MySpace (see boyd & Ellison, 2007). With the ‘open’ nature of social networking using digital technology, concern about children’s safety remains paramount to commentators and child experts. While there are many positive aspects of children using social networking sites, dangers undoubtedly exist – not just infiltration by online predators but also the possibility of cyberbullying. While children are open about their lives and want to share their worlds, they could potentially be putting themselves at risk, causing them emotional distress. My doctoral research carried out over the last three years however has indicated that most children are careful about who they speak to online, and are aware of the dangers.

Young adolescents, that is 10 -14 years olds, have only begun to use SNSs with such enthusiasm in the last three years, with the start age becoming ever younger, despite an age restriction of 13 plus. In the past decade there has been immense interest in looking at children’s use of the internet, indeed my colleagues and I at NOP (GfK NOP) carried out ‘ research’ 1999 – 2002, a six-monthly quantitative and qualitative study that measured and sought to understand the way in which children aged 7 – 16 were using the internet. The notion of looking at young people’s social networking sites such as Bebo, Facebook, Piczo in the last year or two has generated several large research studies. Many parents, perhaps prompted by media headlines that point out the ‘dark side’ of such sites are fearful of their children’s use of SNSs. Mizuko Ito and her team in the US have considered this in their comprehensive Digital Youth Project (2008). Ito argues that while adults may worry that their children are becoming social isolates, ‘what’s interesting .. . with the internet and gaming is that most of these activities are being conducted in a social context, even though the kids may not be physically together.’ Similarly the excellent EU Kids Online research that Sonia Livingstone has co-ordinated with colleagues at the LSE has concluded that concerns about the ‘darks side’ of the internet need to be balanced with a recognition that children also gain a great deal in their use of digital technology.

From my ethnographic study carried out over the last three years, my sense is that while most children in my research appear to be very sensitive and wise about their use of social networking sites, there is some concern for those children who are more vulnerable. It might be that the same children who are vulnerable to predators in the off-line world are the same as those children who are vulnerable in the on-line world. I will be exploring this more on Thursday when I’m speaking at the Cambridge (Faculty of Education) Bullying Conference , ( and on Friday when I’m speaking at the Showcomotion Conference ( .

Observing Children at Home and Positive Psychology in School

Children and young people behave very differently at home than the way they do at school. The recent half term holidays meant we were all very busy; between us we visited over 25 homes and grandparents’ homes, looked into fridges, were shown contents of wardrobes, took photos of favourite digital equipment, attended cricket matches and swimming lessons, and Amanda even went to a birthday party. We were all completely exhausted by the end of the week, but agreed that the insight we gained into children’s lives, their friendships, their activities and hobbies, was well worth it.

The children and young people we meet in our research are mostly happy and carefree. But there is of alarm expressed about the fact that children in the UK and the US are at the bottom of the league table of developed countries in the Unicef report on children’s wellbeing (2007). Australia was not part of the report, but has similar concerns about the wellbeing of its children. This week I went to a seminar at Cambridge that looked at children and positive psychology run by Professor Felicia Huppert, the Director of the Wellbeing Institute at the University of Cambridge. Charlie Scudamore, deputy head of Geelong Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia was speaking. Geelong is one of the oldest fee paying schools in Australia, founded in 1855. The school has recently opened its $16 million Handbury Centre for Wellbeing (named after Helen Handbury, philanthropist and sister of Rupert Murdoch), and a major ethos of the centre is what Scudamore describes as ‘positive education’, a whole school approach to teaching and learning.

A concern for the general wellbeing of its pupils alerted Geelong Grammar to the notion of positive psychology after a visit in 2006 from Martin Seligman, considered to be the father of the modern positive psychology movement in the US, and whose work has focused on optimism and happiness, and learned helplessness. Martin Seligman and his colleagues have developed the Penn Resiliency Programme, which has been running in schools in the US for some years. The curriculum teaches cognitive-behavioural and social problem-solving skills, and pupils learn to challenge negative beliefs by considering alternative interpretations. The programme also teaches a variety of strategies that can be used for solving problems and coping with difficult situations and emotions. Pupils learn techniques for assertiveness, negotiation, decision-making, social problem-solving, and relaxation.

Charlie Scudamore prefers the description ‘positive education’ rather than ‘positive psychology’ because virtually every member of staff, from receptionists, to the bursar, to teachers has undergone the 9 day training course. Implicitly, the whole school is aware of and is consciously concerned to promote children’s wellbeing. Scudamore uses terms such ‘the notion of flourishing’ and ‘an enabling institution’; he aims to increase positive emotion in students by encouraging them to ‘engage their character strengths for personal and community goals’. The school wants to engage students to ‘have a meaningful life’, this means giving positive messages to even the least able child.

Measuring the outcomes of such a scheme is difficult. The Penn Resiliency Programme has been introduced on a trial basis into 22 schools in the UK in Hertfordshire, South Tyneside and Manchester. This is its first comprehensive UK trial and the largest scale trial to date in any country. 90 workshop facilitators delivered PRP to a cohort of 2,000 students in the academic year 2007/8 and the impact on student wellbeing will be evaluated over the course of three years. The evaluation is being carried out by LSE and supported by DCSF.
An interim report has been issued and can be viewed at

More on the link between academia and market research

I suppose I sit on the fence here. Having been a youth researcher for many years I’ve also been doing my own ethnographic research for the last 2 years with a group of early adolescents for my doctorate which I’m in the process of writing up. I think the present encompasses a particular time for research. There’s a recession, but clients are still looking for insight and knowledge, and in increasingly sophisticated ways. And we have a long and well respected history in this country of youth studies based on ethnographic research.

Describing the true meaning of ethnography in 3 minutes at this month’s MRS Youth Conference was an amazing feat achieved by my co-panellist Dr Julie Tinson from the University of Stirling, dispelling any thoughts of protracted academic explanations. She spoke of ethnography’s origins in anthropology and the way in which it was embraced by the Chicago School in the 1930’s. The adoption of ethnography in the study of ‘Youth Culture’ really came about from the Birmingham School and she described the way in which British sociologists have analysed ‘the sign systems, codes and conventions practised by subcultures to understand the meanings and practices of everyday life’. So increasingly we are using ethnography in market research, although as panellist Sam Buckley from Firefish pointed out, sometimes this is used to describe no more that accompanied activity, and is not ethnography in the true sense.

Back on last week’s theme of co-creation, panellist Dr Peter Nuttal from the University of Bath described his study with teenagers designing their own questions, collecting their own data and interpreting their findings to contribute to an understanding of adolescent music consumption. The extension to co-creation though might be to involve participants in the marketing process. Doug Dunn from Tuned in Research argued that increasingly companies want a continual dialogue with their target audience (not respondents). ‘When doing this we are asking research type questions, but clients also want to see if these consumers want early access to products and this often results in the participants turning into seeding platforms, achieving the vital word of mouth exposure that is so effective in influencing attitudes and purchase behaviour. A good example is P&G’s tremor panel’. For more details of the MRS Youth Conference see

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