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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 http://www.iabuk.net/en/1/casestudyskinsmyspace.html 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 http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/byronreview/. 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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