Old and New Media: Access and Ownership
Leen d'Haenens

Introduction In a world of multi-channel television, interactive video and electronic games, the personal computer and the internet are becoming central to the daily lives of children and young people. Yet little is known about the meanings, uses and impacts of these new technologies. Leen d'Haenens, associate professor at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, looks at some of the key findings from a major study of children and the changing media environment in Europe. It suggests that there are consistent patterns of media access and ownership which cut across national differences, but that cultural, economic and gender differences are crucial for understanding the diffusion and significance of new media and information technologies among young people today.

It is an open secret that the internet is the fastest-growing communication tool we have known. Where radio took 38 years and the personal computer 16 to touch the lives of some 50 million people, the World Wide Web has expanded to this level in just four years. This suggests that the pace of technological change is increasing. What are the implications of these changes for children and adolescents in Europe? More particularly, what impact has this new media age made in childrens' homes and bedrooms, and what criteria govern this change?

The "haves" and the "have-nots"

The clearest disparity regarding access to computers and the internet is between the so-called "information-poor" and "information-advantaged" nations or social groups. This study surveyed some 11,000 6-16 year olds in 11 countries around Europe including Israel. Throughout the study it is clear that the northern European countries lead the pack in new media.

In Sweden almost one in five individuals over age 15 have access to the internet from home. In France the equivalent number is almost one in 50. Yet statistics can be misleading. In Finland, statistics for access to the internet from home may not look impressive, yet these figures mask the extensive public provision of internet facilities in this country. The figures for free public access may eat into the figures for personal access at home. Indeed, the policy climate in which these media have emerged will also influence the quality and range of access throughout Europe.

Social and economic factors

Another fundamental question which the study seeks to answer is whether social and economic indicators at the national and familial level can help us to explain some of the differences in new-media penetration within households with children throughout Europe. What patterns cut across national differences--for example is socio-economic status more influential than nationality? We may conjecture that in more hierarchical societies like the United Kingdom and Switzerland the socio-economic status of a child's parents is likely to be a more important factor in new-media penetration than it is in unhierarchical societies like Belgium. Yet material and social wealth is not the only determining factor: age and gender also impact on young peoples' media ownership. One assumption is that boys will be more oriented towards new, interactive media than girls and will therefore own more new media than girls.

Access and ownership of old and new media is clearly influenced by a number of factors. This research helps us begin to address this complicated issue.

What are the facts?

Many of the findings of the research are unsurprising. Access to television and video recorders is very similar between countries, but the prevalence of television sets in bedrooms varies considerably. For instance, three in five children in Denmark and the UK have a television in their bedrooms, whereas in Switzerland the figure is only one in five.

The research also shows that, predictably, many more boys than girls have a personal computer in their bedrooms and that such personal ownership increases steadily with age. Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Nordic countries and Israel lead the way in internet access amongst families with children. Socio-economic status is also important, with the most affluent families being two to three times more likely to have access than those with the lowest income. This discrepancy is particularly marked in Switzerland, France and the UK where families in the highest grade are five times more likely to have internet access than those in the lowest grade.

What do children want?

When children were questioned about the media they would miss the most and the media they wish for the most, the importance of television in children's lives became very clear. Television remains the most pervasive medium in European homes. Almost all families with children have a television set as well as a shelf of books--television is the medium European children are most likely to say they would miss. In fact socio-economic status made little difference to the child's attachment to the box--only in Finland were children well placed in the socio-economic scale noticeably less likely to say they would miss television the most.

However, there are striking national differences in the popularity of both television and computers. Confirming the UK's strong television culture, around half or more British children in every demographic group say that they would miss television the most. In stark contrast, television did not figure at all among the top three choices of either boys or girls in Switzerland, and personal ownership by children of their own television set is also much rarer in Switzerland. In the UK and Denmark as many as two in every three children have their own set.

Challenging assumptions and sustaining perceptions

Surprisingly, the research uncovered some striking discrepancies between the rankings of some countries produced by the World Economic Forum in 1996 and the media realities in children's homes and bedrooms. For example, Switzerland's high ranking, just marginally below the Nordic countries in overall preparedness for the networked society, is not reflected in our study of children's media use. Swiss figures for family internet access are well below those of Sweden, Finland and Israel. Similarly, many more Flemish children than Swiss children have access to a computer somewhere at home, although Belgium is regarded by the World Economic Forum as only a middle-ranking country.

By examining the kind of media found in boys' and girls' bedrooms, it became clear that boys are earlier adopters of new interactive media than girls. This is particularly marked when it comes to computers and games machines. Girls are more likely to possess books of their own, and the survey indicates that these discrepancies reflect the interests of the girls and not parental prejudice. When asked what media they would miss the most, only in Israel does the PC figure amongst the girls' top three choices, where it is more often than not the top choice for a boy. However, parents do seem more inclined to buy a multimedia PC if they have a son as opposed to a daughter.

Socio-economic status has considerable influence over family ownership of a number of media: video recorders, cable or satellite television, telephones, books and computers are all less frequently found in low socio-economic status families. There is only one exception--in over half the countries high socio-economic status families are less likely to have games machines.

Conclusions

Clearly, there are certain consistent patterns which cut across national differences; particularly the more restricted access to information and communication technologies of families with a low socio-economic status, the tendency for girls to be less likely than boys to own most media, girls' greater interest in books and boys' greater interest in--and superior access to--new interactive media. However, there is also a considerable body of evidence to show that media have been integrated into family life in very different ways in different countries. Differential uptake by different demographic groups of particular media suggests that media ownership is not a simple matter, but is influenced by complex social and cultural as well as economic factors.

Thus for Swiss and British families a love of books seems to be related to socio-economic status. On the other hand, in France, a highly hierarchical society comparable to Switzerland or the UK, all families, regardless of socio-economic status, are equally likely to have books somewhere in the home. British children stand out as screen-entertainment fans, with the highest percentage of children having a television set in their own rooms and the lowest percentage owning books. The leading position of countries such as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Israel in access to the internet is the product of a multiplicity of factors, including the needs of more isolated, small language communities as well as commercial and government policy.

Does access mean use?

Through this study we have developed some idea of the nature of and conditions governing access and ownership to old and new media for children in Europe and Israel. But throughout any analysis of research of this kind we need to remind ourselves that having access to a medium at home does not necessarily imply use. It may be that children choose not to use a given medium at all during their leisure time, even though it is readily available. Conversely, physical unavailability within the home is not necessarily an insurmountable barrier to leisure-time use: many young people find ways around it, such as going to a library or a friend's house to surf the net or borrow a book. Access and ownership aside, there are clearly other complex forces at work governing the relationship between new media and children.

This feature has been adapted from Chapter 3 in the book Children and their changing media environment, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.