Bedroom Culture and Media Use
Moira Bovill and Sonia Livingstone

Introduction By the time they are aged 15 or 16, the majority of young people in Europe spends at least half of their waking time at home in their bedrooms. Is a child's bedroom a site for the consumption and the display of consumer goods, or is it a private, social space where young people can express and experiment with their identity? What impact will media in the bedroom have on a teenager's identity and on relationships with peers and family? In this feature, Moira Bovill and Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics and Political Science consider how bedroom culture intersects with the media culture of children and young people.

In the second half of the twentieth century, growing affluence, changing patterns of family interaction, reduction in family size, the emergence of youth culture and the consumer power of the youth market have all combined to make children's bedrooms increasingly important as sites of leisure and learning. It is common nowadays for young people in Europe to have their own bedroom and for its furnishings to reflect their individual tastes and interests.

European children's bedrooms are, furthermore, increasingly well-equipped with media. Alongside the more traditional books and radios, many young people now have a television set, video recorder, TV-linked games machine or personal computer in their room. To many children across Europe and North America, this media-rich bedroom culture represents a vital yet taken-for-granted aspect of their daily lives, which significantly enriches the variety of leisure opportunities open to them. From a commercial viewpoint, these developments represent a new opportunity for targeted advertising and marketing, as the media-rich child's bedroom is both a site of reception for commercial messages and a location for the display and use of leisure goods. For parents, such developments have implications for family communication and media regulation. But how does bedroom culture intersect with children and young people's media culture in general?

Time spent in bedrooms

By the time they are 15-16, the majority of young people in Europe claims that they spend at least half of their waking time at home in their bedrooms. Across Europe, teenagers are more likely than younger children to spend time in their own room, and girls tend to spend a greater proportion of their time there than do boys. The socio-economic status of the family, although affecting media provision in the home, makes no consistent overall difference to time spent in the bedroom. There are, however, considerable differences across countries. Most striking is the comparatively small percentage of Dutch children of either gender, or any age, who spend half or more of their waking time in their own rooms, while the percentages in Germany and Belgium are among the highest.

More media in the bedroom, more time spent there?

In general there is a relationship between the number of media, particularly screen media, that teenagers have in their bedrooms and the proportion of time they spend there. Those who own media personally also spend more time using them. Again, cultural factors do matter, as different media are salient in different countries. For example, in Germany and the UK, having a television in the bedroom is likely to be associated with the most sizable difference in time spent there. In Germany, ownership of a set is rare and school starts early, so there is much weekend viewing. In the UK, ownership is high and bed times later, so average weekday viewing is most affected. Then again, Dutch children who have their own sets generally show least interest in watching them.

Do media-rich bedrooms mean social isolation for children?

Does having their own television set, computer or games machine in the bedroom influence the amount of time children spend alone? The answer seems to depend on the medium. Overall, those with television sets in their bedrooms are more likely to watch their favorite program alone; this is particularly the case for teenagers. By contrast, although it is generally much more common to play computer games alone than it is to watch a favorite television program alone, having one's own games machine or computer makes comparatively little difference to the social context of use. In fact, for older age groups in some countries, the tendency is for children to be less likely to play alone if they have their own computer or games machine.

Once again, the most striking finding is the difference between countries in the numbers of children and young people watching television or playing computer games alone, regardless of media in the bedroom. In Spain, having their own television makes little difference to children's behavior, and fewer than one in five at any age watch alone. In Germany, on the other hand, two in every five of those who have their own set watch their favorite program alone at the age of 9 or 10, and this figure rises to almost half at the age when television viewing is most popular, between 12 and 13.

Similarly, fewer Spanish than German children play computer games alone. This would suggest that wider cultural factors lead family life in Spain to remain largely communal, while in Germany the individualization processes associated with late modernity are further advanced and "living together separately" is becoming a more common occurrence. Such findings suggest that, although having media in the bedroom is likely to encourage young people to spend time alone with media, demographic factors and social practices rooted in the culture of the country are at least as important.

The significance of media use in the bedroom

The study confirms the growing importance of the bedroom for European children of all ages. Before the age of 9 or 10 most children are comparatively uninterested, although parents may try to encourage use of the bedroom as a play space in order to secure a modicum of privacy and quiet for themselves. By their early teens, bedrooms are increasingly valued by children not just for practical reasons but also to support a developing sense of identity and lifestyle. The bedroom provides a flexible social space in which young people can experience their growing independence from family life, becoming either a haven of privacy or a social area in which to entertain friends.

Whether bedroom culture is seen by adults as a matter for interest or concern differs markedly across countries. In the Nordic countries, although younger children in particular spend a considerable proportion of their free time at home in their bedrooms, researchers encountered few worries about this amongst parents. This may be explained in terms of national anti-authoritarian patterns of child-rearing in Nordic countries. In the UK, adult attitudes toward bedroom culture are more ambivalent. To parents, the media-rich bedroom represents both a refuge from the dangers of the streets and, on the other hand, a threat to family relationships and "constructive" leisure activities. In the UK, interviews with young people themselves suggest that the time they spend indoors with media may be related to a dearth of leisure alternatives. Our survey showed that British children, compared with others in Europe, are the most likely to say that there is not enough to do for someone their age in the area where they live: 83 percent of British 15-16 year olds say this, compared with only 53 percent of Dutch children of this age.

Conclusions

In socio-historical terms, the media-rich bedroom is new in the lives of European children and their parents. Our research has established that a sizable proportion of children and young people's time at home is spent in the privacy of their own rooms and that, if these rooms are media-rich, young people spend even longer there. We have noted that different media encourage different social practices.

Television is still in most countries a family medium, and fewer than a quarter of young people usually watch their favorite program alone. However, the future trajectory for television would seem to be toward increasingly solitary use: children are more likely to watch alone if they have their own set and therefore the choice to do so. On the other hand, although almost twice as many already play computer games alone, there is no indication that this will increase if more children acquire their own computers or games machines: the tendency is, if anything, toward more social uses. In particular, it seems that computer-game playing is an important peer activity which encourages contact with friends.

While these general trends hold cross-culturally, it also appears that, as far as bedroom culture is concerned, different national cultures are likely to encourage rather different outcomes. It seems that certain cultures may be more tolerant of, or more predisposing toward, leisure time spent alone, and that this may have consequences for the development of bedroom culture, regardless of media provision. It remains to be seen in how far national differences in culture, in family life and in young people's access to public spaces and facilities will affect the future balance of outdoor versus indoor, social versus solitary, or family- versus peer-oriented leisure activities in young people's lives. What is clear is that the media--particularly screen media--are playing an increasingly significant role within the more solitary, more peer-oriented space of the bedroom.


This feature has been adapted from chapter 7 in the book Children and their changing media environment, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.