Children and their Changing Media Environment
Sonia Livingstone

Introduction A major new study into the media habits of children has refuted the view that the media in and of itself turns children into television or computer addicts. How young people integrate the new media technologies into their lives depends both on family circumstances and on national and cultural contexts. Under the direction of Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics and Political Science, academic research teams in the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland conducted comprehensive national surveys in 1997-1998, interviewing a total of 15,000 children and young people across Europe about their use of media. Their findings were published in Children and their Changing Media Environment. In this feature, Livingstone summarises the significant findings from the study.

This wide-ranging study of young people in 12 nations refutes the technologically determinist view that the media in and of itself turns children into television, computer or Internet addicts. As research on children's everyday lives shows, the media represents just some of the consumer goods available in the home, some of the competing options for leisure activities and some of the sources for social influence. Cross-cultural similarities are particularly apparent in socio-economic differences concerning access to new media, and in age and gender differences as regards young people's lifestyles, media usage and content preferences. On the other hand, cross-national differences in both media environments and cultural traditions of leisure and family life frame children's media use, resulting in variation in access and use.

Cross-national similarities

Almost all children have access at home to television, telephone, books, audio media, magazines and videos. Compared with older media, access to newer, computer-based technologies is more variable. Television continues to dominate European children's lives: in every country television is the most used medium, the one most often discussed with family and friends, the one most often chosen for excitement and for relieving boredom. As it occupies on average over two hours per day, it exceeds time spent on all other media combined.

However, across all countries, screen-based media is driving the changing media environment for children and young people. Interactive media such as computer/video games, PC use and the Internet now occupy third place in terms of time expenditure behind television and music.

Although most policy discussion focuses on access rather than use of information and communication technologies, the research shows that access does not accurately determine use. Young people may not use media they have access to, and they may seek out media to use if they don't have access at home. Between access and use lies the murky area of parental permission and values, physical and symbolic location of goods, lifestyle expectations and the personal preferences of the child.

Ulla Johnsson-Smaragdi, professor of media and communications at Växjö University in Sweden examined the interplay of availability and use. She shows how PCs most often fall into the category of "not available but desirable", while by contrast books tend to fall into the category of "available but undesirable", being present in most homes but not always read.

Johnsson-Smaragdi adopts a lifestyle analysis, grouping young people according to how they combine diverse media in their leisure time. She argues that "low" media users, who spend less time on media, use a more diverse range of old and new media. On the other hand, heavier media users tend to follow a more exclusive pattern of use, concentrating much of their attention on selected media.

Demographic differences

In all 12 countries examined, access to media in the home varies by the socio-economic status of the family. For example, children in homes of a higher socio-economic status are more likely to have access to a computer. However, children's age and gender also matters when it comes to having media in their own room: with the exception of books, older children and boys own more media personally.

For use, on the other hand, gender and age are the crucial variables. Given equivalent access, socio-economic status makes little difference, a finding of importance in relation to the "digital divide." More teenagers make use of audio media, magazines, newspapers, PCs and the Internet, while younger children prefer books, comics and computer/video games. In terms of number of users, books, magazines and audio media are more popular with girls, while computer-based technologies are more popular with boys.

It seems, therefore, that inequalities in gender arise predominantly, though not entirely, from differences in content preferences, for boys and girls are embedded in a highly gendered peer culture. Dafna Lemish of Tel Aviv University points out that girls struggle to identify diverse role models in a consumer culture primarily addressed to boys, particularly as the narratives they prefer focus on uncertainty and self doubt rather than the action-oriented leadership roles that dominate boys' preferred genres.

Information and communication technologies at home and school

Although policy initiatives to provide resources and technical infrastructure vary across Europe, the scale of these initiatives has resulted in some 60 percent of European children using computers at school. However, across Europe the frequency of use in school remains relatively low and teachers face a number of difficulties in implementing the use of information and communication technologies in the classroom.

Friedrich Krotz and Uwe Hasebrink consider the different paths the diffusion of new media has taken across Europe. They argue that the manner in which children and young peope acquaint themselves with new media technologies has important implications for the development of civil society. Daniel Suess is pessimistic about whether schools can keep up with the pace of change within the home. In consequence, the continuing inequalities of access at home may outweigh the fact that access is more evenly distributed in school. The study suggests that the contexts of use at home and in school tend to reproduce rather than undermine existing social inequalities based on socio-economic status and gender. Moreover, the entertainment orientation of domestic information and communication technologies use may outweigh educational uses at school.

What should be done? For gender inequalities, a two-pronged attack is appropriate: first improving girls' access to computers, and second improving the quality and variety of computer-based content that appeals to girls. For socio-economic status, the issue of access is primary. Most countries are dealing with socio-economic status related inequalities in information and communication technologies through education policies, but the relation between provision at home and in school remains problematic.

The globalisation of youth culture

The spread of global television channels and the Internet supports a shared media-based youth culture increasingly disassociated from national or class-based structures. Young people use these global media contents in ways that transcend the medium that transmits them. Young fans pursue inter-textual themes (sports, music, stars, romance, and cartoons) across television, computer games, comics and the Internet.

Growing up: from family to friends

In each of our 12 countries, as children grow older, their primary leisure context shifts from that of family to friends. For both children and teenagers, television remains at the centre of family life. Television-oriented interaction tends to centre on the mother and is greatest in households of a lower socio-economic status. Playing computer games and using the computer more generally, tend to be more solitary than sociable, yet also more peer-oriented than family-oriented, more male-oriented than female-oriented and, for the PC particularly, more middle than lower class.

Changes in media provision and domestic culture are making parental regulation of media ever more difficult. While for parents the issue is one of responsibility for their children's moral education, for children their growing autonomy is at stake; hence this struggle is part of the growing democratisation of family life. The growth of 'bedroom culture' and the increasing numbers of young people with their own television sets raises new difficulties for parental control. As children often know more than their parents about computers and the Internet, these media may play a contributory role in the long-term cultural shift towards the democratisation of the family.

Cross-national differences

Although the complexity of the area advises caution, as we wish to avoid oversimplification, the findings do identify particular groupings among our 12 countries. The Nordic countries together with the Netherlands form a particularly interesting group. They emerge as 'pioneers of the new technologies', in terms both of the domestic provision of computers and time spent by young people with interactive media.

There are also indications that in these countries cultural values and practices are establishing a positive connection between computers and books. Kirsten Drotner points out the significance of being in small language communities, which may make these countries more open to ICT technologies which predominantly use English and hence more prepared to recognise the educational potential of audiovisual media.

In the UK, print and screen media are less successfully combined. The UK tends to stand apart, as a country where screen entertainment, above all television viewing, is particularly important for children and young people, and where books are seen as boring and unrewarding.

The relationship between private provision of information and communication technologies at home and public provision in school also makes common ground between the Netherlands and the Nordic countries--they lead in both. Germany lags in both, while the UK is 'ahead' in terms of PC use in school, but lags behind for access to a PC at home. In Spain, it is parents who seem more forward thinking than the schools (for provision at home exceeds that available in schools). Such differences belie the view of diffusion of new media as a mechanistic or passive process. Information and communication technologies are appropriated into particular social contexts, subject to specific national policies and valued within certain cultural frameworks.

Suoninen contrasts the 'traditional family-oriented cultures' of Catholic Spain, Italy, France and Belgium with the 'peer-oriented cultures' of Protestant Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. The remaining countries with strongly multi-cultural populations, Switzerland, Germany, Israel and the UK are characterised as 'moderate family-oriented cultures'. The primary importance of this distinction is the interaction with age. In 'peer-oriented cultures', the transition from family-focus to peer focus occurs in early childhood, while in 'family-oriented cultures' the shift occurs in teenage years.

There are also repercussions for media use. For example, the case of the Nordic countries and the Netherlands suggests that such late modern developments as the democratisation of family life and national readiness for information and communication technologies go hand in hand. There are also possible links with the privatisation of media use: in family-oriented Spain, for example, children spend comparatively little time watching their favourite television programmes alone, whether or not they have a set in their own room. In Germany on the other hand, we see more privatised media use.

Once again, the UK represents a special case. The particularly large amounts of time British children spend with the media (around 5 hours per day on average) can be linked to a combination of three factors: an increasingly personalized media environment in the home, a relative lack of things for young people to do in the area where they live, and parental fears for children's safety outside the home.


This feature has been adapted from Chapter 14 in the book, "Children and their changing media environment", edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.