Children Using Media
Johannes W.J. Beentjes, Cees M. Koolstra, Nies Marseille and Tom H.A. van der Voort

Introduction With the rise of new technologies, the personal computer and the Internet are becoming central to the daily lives of children and young people. But how do these new forms of media influence the use and uptake of traditional media, such as books and television? This feature looks at previous research in the area and then sets the current agenda using some key findings from a major study, Children and the Changing Media Environment in Europe. It shows that as a result of new entertainment like including computer games and the Internet, traditional hobbies such as reading may be in retreat.

Since the coming of television it has been widely feared that reading will become a pallid second choice for children and teenagers. While early research indicated that only comic-book reading was affected by the advent of the box, some later findings confirmed fears that television consumption does indeed make inroads into time spent in book reading. With the rise of interactive media, the question is live once more. How much time are children spending on interactive media in comparison with other media, and what is the attraction of interactive media?

Previous research

Several studies in Europe and the USA have investigated the amount of time people spent on various media. However, before the present research project, Children and the Changing Media Environment in Europe, the relationships between media use, children's age, gender and parental socio-economic status have never been investigated in one comprehensive European study.

Earlier studies have consistently shown television to be the most time-consuming medium in terms of frequency and length of use. With the onset of adolescence, however, young people have been found to spend an increasing amount of time listening to audio media. Reading usually comes a poor third. Most studies have also found that children from low socio-economic status families spend more time watching television and video, whereas children from high socio-economic status families spend more time reading and using personal computers for internet, e-mail and CD-ROMs. However, with the arrival of interactive media we could well expect to see these new technologies impact on reading and displace the time spent with the written word, regardless of socio-economic status. First we should acquaint ourselves with the facts from the latest research findings. This study surveyed some 11,000 6-16 year olds in 11 countries around Europe including Israel.

How many ever use each medium?

In all of the countries in the present study, between 98 to 100 percent of children watch television. Audio media and video are also used by almost all children. In the majority of countries, books, magazines and electronic games are used by more than 70 percent. The number of users of these media is particularly high in the Netherlands, where about 90 percent of the children reportedly read books and magazines, and play electronic games. In the United Kingdom and Israel, on the other hand, only about 60 percent of children use these media. In most countries, newspapers and comics are read by more than 60 percent of children. However, here cross-national differences are huge: the number of newspaper readers varies from 33 percent in the UK to 89 percent in Sweden, and readers of comics from 22 percent in Israel to 87 percent in Flanders. In the majority of countries, the number of children who use a PC for purposes other than game playing is also over 60 percent: however, there are countries (the UK, Germany, Israel, and Italy) where fewer than half the children do so. The internet has the fewest number of users: averaged over all countries, only 30 percent of the children were found to use the internet, although in the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden and Denmark) this figure rises to 60 percent.

How long do they spend?

Averaged across all countries, and including non-users, children spend approximately two hours per day in front of the television set. The amount of time spent watching television is highest in the UK and Israel, where children on average spend almost three hours per day watching television. The amount of time devoted to television viewing is further increased by the fact that children spend about half an hour per day watching pre-recorded video. Audio media also attract considerable attention. On average, children spend about one and a half hours per day listening to audio media. Electronic games are the most frequently used interactive media. On average, children devote about half an hour per day to playing electronic games. Most time on interactive media is spent in Finland Sweden and Denmark: whereas the average European child spends 52 minutes per day with interactive media, the figure in the Nordic countries is 73 minutes. The more serious types of PC use (not for games or the internet) takes up less time.

Why do they turn to particular media?

In contrast to previous studies, this latest study has added texture to its findings by looking at the purpose of use. For example, children were asked which media they would turn to in particular situations. Television and video are not only the media most frequently used to counteract boredom, but are also the ones most often used when young people want excitement. Averaged over all countries, 45 percent of children think that television and video are best at providing excitement. An interesting exception is provided by Swiss children, who are more likely to turn to print media for this type of satisfaction.

There are indications that electronic games are increasingly valued for mood control and entertainment, and other types of PC use for informational purposes. Electronic games rank second, behind television and video, when children indicate which medium they would choose for excitement or to stop being bored. When young people are asked what they would choose if they wanted to learn about something, PC and the internet come in second behind books but before television and newspapers.

However, closer inspection again shows a considerable gender difference in the perceived functionality of electronic games. Girls rank electronic games fourth behind television, audio media and books for excitement, and in joint third place with books behind television and audio media to fight boredom. Interestingly, however, girls are as likely as boys to associate PCs with learning, despite the large gender difference in time expenditure.

Is reading an activity in decline?

In the Netherlands earlier research indicates clearly that young people are reading less and less. In 1955 when only one or two percent of Dutch households had a television set in the home, girls spent 20 percent of their free time reading. That figure that was reduced to less than 10 percent in 1990. For boys, the figures dropped from 22 percent to 6 percent.

Although this cross-sectional study cannot presume to provide causal evidence about possible displacement effects of interactive media on reading, there are some findings that at very least add fuel to the suspicion that the rise of interactive media may have had a negative effect on children's reading. Even if the increased used of electronic games has not affected the sum total of children's reading time, it is certain that the time spent on audiovisual media overall has been increased by the introduction of electronic games.

The proliferation of interactive media in the homes of European children has therefore had substantial consequences for their media-time expenditure. Electronic games have conquered the third position behind television and audio media, taking up more leisure time than the various print media. The third place of electronic games in leisure time expenditure was found across all age and SES groups. However, this finding mainly holds for boys only. Among girls, electronic games rank fourth, because girls spend twice as much time reading books as they do playing electronic games. The finding that girls are less attracted to electronic games may be attributed to the content of such games and the perception that the computer in all its manifestations is a boy's thing. This perception may in turn explain why girls spend less time on serious PC use than boys do.

On the other hand the more serious information oriented use of computers and the internet has to be taken into account. Even if time spent on these media is directly at the expense of time previously spent with print media, it still can't be claimed that reading is reduced because both the internet and other serious uses of the PC require considerable amount of reading.

The future of children's media

What of the future? Will interactive media gradually take up more of children and young people's time? Computers and the internet empower users by giving them control over the selection of content. As children's mastery of the specialised skills required to use computers becomes commonplace, and as content improves in range and quality, it is to be expected that the diffusion of interactive media will speed up and so occupy even more of children's time. However, a convergence between interactive media and other media may also happen, making present distinctions between new and old media obsolete.

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