Looking back 25 years, Birgit Guth, Head of Media Research at Super RTL, examines the media usage patterns of young children in Europe. Smartphones, tablets and other devices have been in the lives of today’s children since even before their first steps. They have impacted the way they watch content, they brought new opportunities for parents, but also challenges.
Even though the first pioneers came from the USA, SUPER RTL started the first full programme of children’s television in Germany in 1995, albeit with some hesitation. The programme served to fill the popular early evening with children’s programmes, but while the rest of the day was mostly occupied by series for adults. Children’s increasing demands finally resulted in a change to the entire schedule (up to 8.15pm) making it more suitable for younger audiences. That same year saw the arrival of Nickelodeon (now Nick) as a provider and, in 1997, the children’s channel now known as KiKA joined as well. The growing product range of children’s programmes led to a significant phenomenon: children were watching TV content that was made specifically for them, classic children’s television. They had already been watching TV before 1995, of course, but back then it consisted mostly of material created for adults. Due to the increasing distribution of children’s programmes, the ratio of time spent watching children’s TV children aged 3 to 13 grew to 51% (2009)1 of the total, compared to only 25% in 1993. It is interesting to note that, against expectations, the total time spent watching TV did not increase at all. In 1993 the average time spent in front of the screen was calculated at 94 minutes, and in 2010 it was 93 minutes. These figures suggest that when children are offered a programme specifically tailored to them, they use it. Since 2010, we have observed a reduction in the consumption of linear television among children in Europe. For example, the time spent watching TV among 4 to 15 year-olds in the UK was 147 minutes in 2011, but only 101 minutes in 2016. This trend is especially apparent in Scandinavian countries. Only Austria and Italy still achieve the same coverage levels for children watching linear television. Households now contain a comprehensive selection of media formats. All homes have a television, a smartphone and most also have a PC or laptop. Access to tablets (56% of all households with mothers of children aged 3 to 13)2 and game consoles (44%) further supplement media options at home – figures that would have been unthinkable just 25 years ago. The ownership of a personal mobile phone, for example, was first surveyed in 1999, when just 1% of children had their own mobile. Today, 64% of all children aged 6 to 13 possess a smartphone or other mobile device.3 Most parents (still) restrict access to such devices. Not all children are allowed to use tablets or smartphones – most only get access when they are older. Even so, half of those aged 3 to 13 use YouTube to watch videos. Added to that are VoD platforms such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. This has created a dynamic that needs to be taken seriously and monitored.
Still today, television is the most significant media activity for children aged 3 to 13. But as well as the previously-mentioned platforms there are other media-based activities such as games and messaging apps (WhatsApp for example). These have caused children’s use of media to rise noticeably. Based on a survey taken by German mothers in March 2018, the average daily time spent on these media by children aged 3 to 13 is estimated at 136 minutes (two years ago it was only 113 minutes)4. This increase is mostly seen on the smartphone, partly on the PC or laptop – but also on the traditional TV. The channels most in demand are those for children, showing that children’s television is still highly important. The quality of children’s TV has been a point of contention from the very beginning. Yet, unlike YouTube, subscription-based video-on-demand and media libraries, children’s channels have to obey minor protection directives, advertising guidelines and other regulations. The programmes are licensed, and copyright issues are resolved appropriately. Television channels also employ editors who use their professional knowledge expertise to select and curate the programmes. The content on YouTube, however, is far from this “tame” television. Here you find contests, music, tutorials and topics for children that have been re-imagined and repackaged. You can quickly find compilations of the best goals from yesterday’s match or listen to the latest viral song. Unfortunately, children can also stumble across unsuitable content due to misdirection by automated playlists. Subscription-based VoD platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix also need to be looked at in particular, as they encourage children to watch series in infinite loops. Bigger studios (such as DreamWorks) currently produce children’s series whose episodes end with cliff-hangers, encouraging their audience to binge watch. All this means that children today are presented with a situation that is similar and yet very different to that of 25 years ago. Most content is still made for adults, while children have to pick out the content that is meant for them, and be safeguarded from unsuitable material. This “safeguarding” used to work by giving children their own dedicated channels where they could be shown suitable content. But how will this work in an era of YouTube, Netflix and Amazon, where an algorithm, or a poorly-chosen search term, decides the content? It is true that good platforms offer verified content appropriate for children. Each children’s channel offers quality children’s television in its media library, on apps or on video-on-demand platforms. What is unfortunate is that children are often unaware of these options, and instead frequent platforms where they can easily be exposed to unsuitable content. Equally unfortunate is the fact that many parents don’t think about this content issue, and are often unable to adequately accompany children as they browse. It is therefore imperative that parents and children are given help in finding suitable children’s content with ease.
1Hofmann, Ole: Kids Report 2015; 2iconkids & youth, representative face-to-face Survey March 2018, commissioned by SUPER RTL; n = 1,174 mothers of children 3-13 years (iconkids & youth, representative face-to-face survey March 2018, on behalf of SUPER RTL; n = 1,174 mothers of children aged 3 to 13); 3iconkids & youth, Representative face-to-face survey in March 2018, commissioned by SUPER RTL; n = 1,174 mothers of children 3-13 years (iconkids & youth, representative face-to-face survey March 2018, on behalf of SUPER RTL; n = 1,174 mothers of children aged 3 to 13); 4iconkids & youth, representative face-to-face interview March 2018, commissioned by SUPER RTL; n = 1,174 mothers of children 3-13 years (iconkids & youth, representative face-to-face survey March 2018, on behalf of SUPER RTL; n = 1,174 mothers of children aged 3 to 13).
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