Social Media and TV in the Lives of Children* Is it doing them good?

4th June, 2019

Today I attended a breakfast briefing at the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) on a new study done by STAC (Social Media, Television and Children) in collaboration with The University of Sheffield (see reference below). The briefing consisted of a slide presentation of the study’s main findings and related recommendations for the Media industry. I was interested in attending because I am frequently asked by television, radio and news journalists for my professional psychologist perspective on the digital world and lifestyle intrinsic to modern-day childhood and family life.

The study’s mixed qualitative and quantitative methods research design consisted of an on-line survey with 3,154 British families with children aged 0-16, six family case studies undertaken over six months, telephone interviews with 110 children aged 5 – 11 and telephone interviews with 30 young people aged 12 – 16. I was told that “partner companies'” (to STAC) made recommendations for potential participants.

Three central research questions were explored by the study:

  1. How do children aged 0-16 use television and social media in their daily lives?
  2. What view and practices do parents have in relation to children’s use of television and social media?
  3. What are the implications of this analysis for the children’s media industry, schools and parents?

A detailed account of the study’s findings is available (see references below) but the points that particularly caught my attention were:

  • The amount and range of on-screen use by 0-16 year-olds, e.g. 91% have access to a tablet with 51% owning their own device, 86% have access to a smartphone with 47% owning their own and 74% have access to a smart TV
  • The social media preferences of 0-16 year-olds with WhatApp and Snapchat being used most frequently for communications with family, YouTube and Netflix most frequently viewed content and most photograph posting happening on Instagram
  • According to the study 15% of participants (but 23% of parents) disclosed they had been exposd to something that made them uncomfortable and 15% had bought something on-line by accident
  • 38% of participants said they knew how to keep their personal information private and 37% said they knew how to report something that concerned them
  • The stated favourite content of participants, not surprisingly, was reflective of age, for example 0-7 year-olds particularly liked nursery rhymes, videos of play, animals and toys and 8-16 year-olds especially enjoyed funny videos, music and how-to videos
  • Types of parents’ involvement were categorised as: shared useage, shared enjoyment, surveillance and offering practical and educative support

In terms of implications for the children’s media and television industry the emphasis seemed to be upon improving the technical and practical aspects of devices, i. e. high quality content and design and related marketing. What I found of especial interest was what the study had to say about safety and privacy. This included recommendations for:

  • Embedding a timed controller to limit screen time
  • Easy-to-access parental controls and a ‘history’ feature to support parental monitoring
  • East-to use controls “that foster children’s self-regulation strategies” for using social media
  • Monitoring by host web-site in order to increase parental trust
  • Mobile device content to be especially monitored for age-appropriate suitability
  • Make privacy and data control measures explicit and accessible “going beyond the minimal requirements embedded in relevant law and regulations”

None of the above are particularly surprising but are perfectly reasonable and laudable measures. As for all research on complex social phenomena it is important to exercise some healthy scepticism and caution in terms of accuracy and representativity. After all, how many individuals, of any age, let alone teenagers are going to be completely frank and honest about their on-screen lives? And do those individuals and families who are suggested by “partner companies” truly represent the UK population? The ethical aspects of the interface between this new digital world and children and teenagers are many and as long as anyone stands to make money it is never going to be straight forward. Government, policy makers and the industry itself are certainly engaging more and more in trying to safeguard and protect the wellbeing and safety of our young and as a parent and grandparent, as well as a professional psychologist, I am grateful this is the case but there is a long way to go. In the meantime, as one parent confided to me, it may be useful to ask the question they always put to their children and teenagers:

“Is what you are looking at making someone money and if so, is it doing you good?”

*Yamada-Rice, D., Marsh, J., Law, L., Lahmar, J., Parry, B., Scott, F., Robinson, P. , Nutbrown, B., Scholey, E., Baldi, P., McKeown, K. ,Swanson, A. and Bardill, R. (2019) Social Media and Television in the Lives of Children: Sheffield: University of Sheffield – Full copies of the study’s findings are available from

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