Children’s media lives have changed dramatically

To coincide with publication of Ofcom’s latest Children’s Media Lives report, which Revealing Reality has researched and produced for the last nine years, the researchers share reflections of working on this valuable longitudinal study for the last nine years.

From Zoella to Andrew Tate, from sharing an iPod Touch with your big sister to getting TikTok when you turn eight, we’ve seen a lot of change – in behaviour, in experience and in how children reflect on what they see and say online.

But this evolution hasn’t occurred in isolation. Many of these shifts in behaviour reflect wider societal trends that go far beyond children’s media lives.

Blurred lines

Social media platforms are now a single gateway to the world, putting all types of content – social, branded, news, opinion, entertainment, advertising – on a never-ending experiential conveyor belt. The content is not just jumbled together, it is increasingly hard to categorise as one distinct genre or another.

Real life content is dramatised. Gossip is presented as news. Advertising is portrayed as social discourse. Professional influencers talk to fans like they’re best friends while monetising those relationships.

This mix of content can take different forms. During this wave of the research, we saw it in ubiquitous ‘commentary’-format content, with reaction often presented via a split screen, mixing news and real-world events with social, emotional and opinion-based narratives. Sometimes it’s on serious matters, sometimes it’s banal. For the children in this study, it often seems it matters more whom something has been said by than whether it’s true.

In our wider research, we don’t only see this thirst for genre-blurred content among children. Think of The Crown, which is hugely popular with adults. Is it fact or fiction, or both? Do viewers know which bits are fact and which bits are fiction? Do they care? Does it matter? And what effect does getting used to consuming this blend of fact and fiction have on them? Does it change the way they react to news about the real royal family or how they want and expect it to be presented?

A lot of social media is not that social

Remember when Facebook was a site where people shared funny status updates and holiday snaps with their real-life friends and family? That’s not the social media that most children are viewing in 2023.

People may think of TikTok as the place where kids post videos of themselves copying the latest celebrity dance craze. But what we see children doing on TikTok now is almost entirely consuming content, not creating it. And we know from this research that the content they are consuming is not all fun and frivolous – it is also often videos of teens or adults they don’t know talking about their struggles with depression or their self-diagnosed conditions. Children are not using social media as a place to express themselves in the way we saw a few years ago.

In the earlier years of Children’s Media Lives, we used to see a lot more exploration and creativity by children on social media. For good or ill they used it as a place to play. Now children are posting less themselves, and, correspondingly, seeing less content created by their friends.

Instead, their feeds are dominated by professionalised, fast-paced content. While every viewer’s experience is unique, and there are still social elements of the experience such as liking, following and sometimes sharing, their viewing of this endless stream is mostly passive.

Social interaction is increasingly confined to the chat or message functions within apps, rather than more visible comments in feeds. This might offer children some protection from the risks of having conversations in public, but with the majority of their social exchanges happening in more private spaces, it also has implications for regulation, for opportunities to teach children about safety, and therefore for children’s media literacy.

At the same time, the inter-platform battle for people’s attention has driven a social media arms race, propelling each of the major platforms to incorporate more and more features they can see their competitors are using to win. As a result, each platform now has to offer a whole suite of media and social tools – often with vastly differing functions – they don’t offer ‘just’ chat, or ‘just’ reels. For example, the section of Snapchat where kids swap messages is separate from its stories section; TikTok ‘Live’ streaming service runs in parallel to its video-sharing function.

Increasingly, social media is where children go to learn about the world

For children, social media is fast replacing search engines as the place to search for information. Some kids might still turn to Google when they need specific information for their homework, but for many children in this wave of Children’s Media Lives, their reflex when they want to find something out is to “search it up” on TikTok, often making little or no distinction between information and opinion, truth or noise.

This isn’t only relevant for children. The cues we all encounter for what to pay attention to on social media favour drama, controversy and emotion over objectivity, nuance or balance.

At the same time, as many people turn away from conventional news providers and public service broadcasters (or, as we see with the children in this research, almost all TV), trust in government and other institutions is weakening. This makes navigation and assessment of content more difficult for adults and children alike, and increases the likelihood that they seek alternative – sometimes misguided – clues as to what to pay attention to.

Children, in particular, are naturally drawn to working out what other people think and like – it’s an essential part of their learning about society and their place within it. Social media is the perfect engine for this. But it may not offer the answers we’d want our children to pay attention to.

Children’s media lives are becoming a larger part of their whole lives

Over the past several years doing the Children’s Media Lives research, as well as other related work – we have observed that children are spending less time face-to-face with other kids or adults outside of their families. We also see many of them spending less time with other children and adults within their families. Instead, they spend hours on their screens, where they are presented with guidance and clues about what to aspire to and how to behave. Inevitably, children’s media behaviours – and their wider behaviours – reflect the society around them, and will ultimately shape the society we live in.