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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

Co-creation with children

If you want to design a new product for children, ask a 9 year old. This week and last we’ve been spending time in schools and in homes, asking children to help us with some designs. As always the 7-10 year olds we’ve been talking to have come up with innovative and unique ideas that none of us adults could have imagined. This co-creation gives immense input into such a project, and also allows children to feel empowered and part of the creative process.

Co-creation was a theme that came up repeatedly at this month’s MRS Youth Research Conference at Sadler’s Wells. It is a theme aptly described by Andrew Needham of Face as a process where ‘creativity is democratised’. There were excellent sessions in the conference that discussed the way in which young people can help to create campaigns, including Beth Corte-Real from Coca Cola, Philip McNaughton and Andrew Needham from Face and Nadia Zohhadi from Unilever.

I ran a couple of the panel sessions, and the morning discussion focused on the ways in which market research is borrowing from and working with academic research to find new and original ways to explore the world of children and young people. We decided to debate this link because we are aware that as market research becomes ever more sophisticated, we are using different and unusual research techniques, many of which have their origin in academic research – and I’m thinking particularly of ethnography and semiotics, but of course there’s much else: discourse analysis, psychosocial analysis , Action Research etc.

There has been much debate about this recently. Procter & Gamble’s Kim Dedeker proclaimed earlier in the year that ‘the research industry will be on life support by 2012 unless it turns to methods more in touch with the lifestyles of the consumers we seek to understand.’ And Joel Rubinson, the Chief Research Officer for the highly influential Advertising Research Foundation in the US said at its conference that ‘There’s a shift in how humanity is communicating which produces a continuous stream of data in people’s naturally occurring conversations. Consumers are a genie that won’t go back in its bottle.’ And he goes on to say that the industry should look to anthropologists and behavioural scientists to provide a greater understating of consumers. I’ll be writing more about this next week.

Getting Real

In contrast to the Tanya Byron debate described in the last posting, an earlier session at the BBC Children’s Festival had interviewed father and son Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, creators of E4’s hit comedy drama series Skins, and winners of the 2009 Bafta TV Audience Award. Interesting to note that Skins was the only show on a digital channel to win a TV BAFTA, and beat among others in the category The X Factor, the Apprentice and Coronation Street. Jamie pitched the idea for the series to his dad, who was already a well established script writer, when he was just 15. Skins is a programme about 16-18 year olds in Bristol, with a story line that includes graphic accounts of drug taking, drinking and sex, but that also looks at the ‘storm and stress’ of the teenage years with humour and close observation. Bryan and Jamie admit that many of the original story lines and characters in the series were based on them and their own father – son relationship. It is a programme that often incites controversy, with accusations of it having a ‘dark side’ and indeed the moving scene from the second series where Chris dies was shown to a noticeably silent audience at the Festival. In response to very good and close questioning by Lizo Mzimba (former CBBC Newsround presenter and now BBC News Entertainment Correspondent), Elsley said he believed that teenagers do have many of the experiences that are shown in the series, ‘Friends do die, horrible things do happen to teenagers, and how they cope with that is really interesting. We wanted to introduce that element into the show to give it some realism.’ Teenagers I’ve spoken to feel that the series reflects an element of their lives (they are likely to know someone who has become pregnant, someone who has got lost with drugs, someone who has lots of sex), but are keen to point out that it does not reflect all teenagers’ lives. It was noticeable just how articulate both Bryan and Jamie are, and I particularly like Bryan’s insightful understanding of the lives of young people. He spoke for instance of just how important friends are to teenagers, and the influence they have on each other’s lives. Studies on resilience have shown that adolescents who have a strong peer support system are likely to cope better with difficult family circumstances such as parents with substance abuse or divorce and separation (Dunn, 2004; Gore & Eckenrode, 1996). In many ways Bryan Elsley reflects Tanya Byron’s view of the importance of putting young people at the centre of the message. For the new series actors were recruited from open auditions held in Bristol and London, and young people are encouraged to write for the series in a sort of Skins University of Writing; Elsley admits it takes around 2 years to become a fully fledged writer, with the average age being 17. It is interesting to note the way Skins was first promoted to its target audience, with a buzz around the new programme created on MySpace (see for more details of this campaign). Congratulations Bryan, Jamie and colleagues on winning the BAFTA.

The BBC Children’s Festival and the Commercialisation of Childhood

I spent a day at the BBC Children’s Festival last week. A great showcase for all they do and a reminder of how well the BBC understands children and young people, and just how innovative they are. There was a debate between Agnes Nairn (co-author of ‘Consumer Kids: how big business is grooming our kids for profit’ with Ed Mayo of Consumer Focus) and Robin Hilton of Dubit, Rae Burdon COO of the Advertising Association, and Neil Ross Russell, MD of BBC Children’s Worldwide. Agnes pointed out that there are serious anomalies in the way digital technology is communicating with children, with examples of inappropriate sexual messages, and advertising and marketing to children that appears to be unregulated.

In my ethnographic research that has been monitoring children’s use of social networking sites over the last 2 years, I’ve seen many examples of advertising for gambling sites, alcohol, and weight loss programmes (loose 20lb in 2 weeks was a recent example), all being viewed by girls and boys aged 10-14. The session was chaired by Tanya Byron, author of the Byron Review that made sound recommendations for protecting children in their digital world. The consensus was that of course no one would condone such explicit exploitation of children, but that currently regulation has not kept pace with technology, and as Byron pointed out, many adults are just not that familiar with what children are doing online, something she addresses fully in her review Children should be at the heart of what is done to raise awareness of harm and exploitation in their digital world; they are after all the experts, and involving children in educating their peers to be aware of their safe digital use makes perfect sense.

There is another review currently being carried out that is looking specifically at the impact of the commercial world on children’s wellbeing. Chaired by Professor David Buckingham at the Institute of Education, it is in response to the government’s commitment in the Children’s Plan published in December 2008 which called for an assessment of how children’s engagement with the commercial work has changed, and the impact this has on them. Many of us involved in consumer research, academic research, advertising, marketing, and the media were consulted at a stakeholder meeting in January. Results are expected to be published in the summer.

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