Styles of Media Use
Ulla Johnsson-Smaragdi

Introduction Ulla Johnsson-Smaragdi, professor of media and communication at Vaxjo University in Sweden, explores how children and young people across Europe are developing distinctive styles of media use, which combine traditional and new media in different ways. She identifies four broad media-use styles, concentrating on the proportion of children who claim not to use particular media at all. The author analyses the research findings from 12 countries in a major new study on children and the changing media environment in Europe, and concludes that the availability of media somewhere in the home is not sufficient to ensure use: it must also be socially and/or psychologically attractive to the user.

Ownership, access and the policy climate are all issues that influence children's use of old and new media. In debates about the use of media it is traditional to pit old print media and new digital media against one another. Yet a truly nuanced study seeks to do far more than this. It should understand the nature of this use and the individual style of media use. An analysis of how different types of media are interwoven in actual use gives a subtler indication of whether media use tends to be diversified or restrictive and for which groups of people.

It is clear that new media are already a central part of the everyday media environment of European children and adolescents. Nevertheless, physical accessibility does not ensure the use of a medium. It is just as much a matter of social, cultural and psychological attractiveness.

Who are the non-users?

What do we know about young people who simply choose not to spend time with some media during their leisure time--even when they do have access at home? Most notably, very few are not using television or video in any of the countries. There are, however, interesting differences between countries, indicating that cultural and social factors are influencing the young in their media choices and options.

Comparison between countries shows that the greatest ranges in the proportion of non-users occurs for the older print media. In the United Kingdom, for example, two-thirds of those surveyed do not read a newspaper. In Finland and Sweden, on the other hand, the proportion of non-newspaper readers is only 8 and 9 percent respectively. Similarly, books are used by an overwhelming majority of the young in Finland, Switzerland and The Netherlands, while in the UK there are many young people who do not read books at all.

There are also marked differences in the proportion of non-users of computers and the Internet. Over 90 percent of the young people in Finland and about 80 percent in Sweden and The Netherlands use a computer in leisure time for purposes other than playing games. At the other end of the range are the UK, Germany, Italy and Israel where half or more of the young people do not use computers in their leisure time. For the Internet the proportion of non-users in all countries ranges between 31 and 86 percent of young people. The largest proportion of Internet users is found in Sweden and Finland and smallest in Germany, the UK, Flanders and Italy.

From access to use

Findings also reveal that physical accessibility in the home is not necessarily sufficient reason, or even a prerequisite, for using a medium. Many young people use a medium even if it is not available at home, and many who have it at home fail to use it, which makes the question of non-users doubly interesting. This is especially striking for computers where in some countries as many as 40 percent of those with a PC at home do not use it, and for the Internet where in Germany the UK and Flanders, half or more of those with home access still never use it. Apparently there are other barriers to overcome.

Media-use styles

On the basis of cluster analyses of the amount of time spent with different media by young people in 10 countries, it proved possible to assign all children to four broad media-use styles. The time-use profile with the largest number of youthful followers was termed the 'low media users' group. Their media profile is characterised by a comparative lack of interest in media as a leisure-time activity, although overall this group spends 2.5 hours a day on media. The time they spend with all media is lower than average (this is particularly the case for screen media and the new information and communication technologies (ICT) media), and they are distinguished by their low television consumption--although watching television occupies more of their time than any other media.

A fifth of children and adolescents can be described as adhering to a 'traditional media-use' style. They spend almost four hours a day on media, but spend less time than average on the more recent media, as well as the more challenging print media, such as books and newspapers. They stick to well known and well established media which they use rather moderately. In Finland, Israel and Sweden the traditionalists are greater users than their counterparts in other countries of information and communication technologies. Whereas in Germany, the UK, Spain and the Netherlands they spend somewhat less time with information and communication technologies and the Internet.

The remaining users were either 'specialists', who spent more than average amounts of time with one particular medium (either television, books, PCs, or a combination of PCs, the Internet and computer games) or 'screen entertainment fans who focus on combinations of screen media.

'Television specialists' do not discard any medium but try out most media to a greater or lesser extent. Their total media use time amounts to over five hours per day. The other identified specialist groups--the 'book fans', 'PC fans' and 'PC and games fans'--are considerably smaller. Unsurprisingly, 'book fans' devote more time than average to other print media such as magazines, newspapers and comics. They spend 4.5 hours per day on media as a whole, but do not invest a lot of time on screen media. The media use profiles of the 'PC fans' and the 'PC and games fans' are characterised by their common interest in computers, but 'PC fans' are found only in six of the ten countries and spend more than average amounts of time with books. The total media time for both of these groups is well over 6.5 hours a day.

'Screen entertainment fans' subdivide into two user styles, both characterised by a common interest in television, but favouring different combinations of screen media. These groups are small, but amongst the most voracious of all media users, spending six and seven hours a day respectively on media.

Combining, not replacing, media

To conclude, young people in Europe today may be selective in their media use, favouring only certain media and discarding others, or they may combine different media, adding new ones to their individual menu. But everyone, everywhere watches television, and television viewing makes up the main part of media time. The largest media user group, the 'low users', who spend only two and a half hours a day with media in general, spend almost half of that time watching television. The new ICTs are utilised within all user styles, although the proportion of users and amount of time spent varies. While there are tendencies towards media accumulation (in countries where access to ICTs is high, new media are combined with old media) there is also a concurrent trend towards specialisation in media use. Those groups which specialise in computers, the Internet and electronic games are still small but by no means insignificant.

The overall time profiles discussed indicate that instances of simple media displacement are rare and instead we are witnessing instances of media specialisation and combination. Distinct user styles are developing as new media become available and differentially accepted by children across Europe. Interest gaps are a reality, and information and knowledge gaps may be a consequence. To counter this it is necessary to make media not only available but also desirable--and that is a political and cultural concern.

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