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UK children are Europe's biggest screen-gazers

A new book published on Wednesday 27 June highlights how media aware today's European children are - and that British children spend much more time watching TV and much less time reading or playing outdoors than their European counterparts.

The book, Children and their Changing Media Environment (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001), edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, follows their UK research last year, produced in association with the Broadcasting Standards Commission.

Under the direction of Professor Livingstone at the London School of Economics and Political Science, academic research teams in the UK, Belgium (Flanders), Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland conducted comprehensive national surveys during 1997/8 with a total of 15,000 young people aged 6-17 across Europe, using the same agreed upon survey questions.

Across the 12 countries, the book compares media and Information Communication Technology environments (ICT). Similarities and differences were noted, including:

  • TV dominates across Europe, with young people watching on average over two hours a day
  • The Netherlands and the Nordic countries have most ICT at home and in school. Nordic countries emerge as 'pioneers of new technologies'. Germany lags in both, while the UK is 'ahead' in terms of PC use in school, but behind in home PC access. Classroom use is a problem for many teachers across Europe.
  • British children spend on average five hours per day using media. Compared with others in Europe, they are the most likely to say that there is not enough for someone their age to do in the area where they live ( 83% of British 15-16 year olds say this compared with only 53% of Dutch children of this age).

Professor Livingstone said: "This is the first time young people across Europe have been surveyed for their use of new media. What is striking is that, despite all the hype, new forms of media are mainly supplementing, not replacing, more familiar media. There are, however, some worrying differences in access to PCs and the internet, with a digital divide evident both within and across countries. As schools offer an increasingly important solution to the digital divide, more efforts are needed to get the home/school link right."

She added: "Here in the UK we need to think about why, compared with those in other European countries, British children are making the greatest use of screen media while thinking books are boring and being most dissatisfied with outdoor leisure opportunities available to them."



  • Professor Sonia Livingstone, 020 7955 7710
  • Moira Bovill, 020 7955 7707
  • Judith Higgin, LSE Press Office, 020 7955 7582

View a longer article and more information about the book at www.fathom.com| (Search under 'Livingstone')

Notes to the editor

Main findings:

This wide-ranging study of young people in 12 nations refutes the technologically determinist view that the media in and of themselves turn children into television, computer or Internet addicts. As research on children's everyday lives shows, the media represent 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. How young people integrate the new media technologies into their lives depends both on family circumstances and on national and cultural contexts.

Cross-national similarities

Access to old and new media

  • Almost all children in the 12 countries 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. Access to a PC in the home was least common in Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK, where only around half of the children had this, although this is changing fast.
  • In all 12 countries, access to media in the home varies by the socio-economic status (SES) of the family: in particular, children in higher SES homes are more likely to have access to a up-to-date computer. In Switzerland 74% of children from families of high socio-economic status (SES) compared with only 16% from low SES families had a PC with a CD-Rom drive. Comparable figures for the UK were 55% and 19%.
  • Children's age and gender also matter when it comes to having media in their own room: with the exception of books, older children and boys own more media personally.

Time spent with media

  • For children, having a medium available in the home does not necessarily mean that they use it. They may not be allowed to use it or they may not want to use it. 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.
  • 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.
  • For use, gender and age matter more than socio-economic status. More teenagers make use of audio media, magazines, newspapers, PC (not for games) and the Internet, while younger children prefer books, comics and computer/video games. Books, magazines and audio media are more popular with girls, while computer-based technologies are more popular with boys.
  • Across all countries, screen-based media are 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.

ICT at home and school

  • Although policy initiatives to provide resources and technical infrastructure vary across Europe (especially, whether ICT is introduced before or during secondary education), the scale of these initiatives has resulted in some 60% of European children using computers at school.
  • However, across Europe the frequency of use in school remains relatively low (around once a week) and teachers face a series of difficulties in implementing the use of ICT in the classroom.

Socio-economic and gender inequalities in ICT. What should be done?

  • Socio-economic inequalities are crucially, although not entirely, a matter of access. The study shows that, if children from low SES families have access to computers, they use them just as much, a finding of importance in relation to the 'digital divide'.
  • Most countries are dealing with SES inequalities in ICT access through education policies, but the relation between provision at home and in school remains problematic.
  • Schools may not be able to 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.
  • Moreover, the entertainment orientation of domestic ICT use may outweigh educational uses at school.
  • Inequalities in gender arise predominantly, though not entirely, from differences in content preferences. Boys and girls are embedded in a highly gendered peer culture. 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.
  • 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.

The globalisation of youth culture

  • The spread of global television channels and the Internet supports a shared media-based youth culture increasing disassociated from national or class-based structures. Young people use these global media contents in ways that transcend the medium that transmits them. So young fans pursue inter-textual themes (sports, music, stars, romance, 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. Yet 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 lower SES households.
  • Electronic games are much more likely to be played alone. If they are played with someone else, this is most usually a friend or a brother, and almost never a parent and very seldom a sister. Thus, playing electronic games is a more solitary, male activity than watching television: it is also more peer- than family-oriented.
  • 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 democratization of family life.
  • The growth of teenage '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 democratization of family life.
  • Computers and games machines appear to escape the traditional mediation of the mother between media and family life. Fathers play a greater role in controlling their use. As such, their introduction into the home may provoke an interesting re-balancing of family dynamics, giving a more active part to fathers in media guidance at home. However, these new links with fathers are strongly gender-segregated and sons benefit much more often from them than do daughters.

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. The fact that they are small language communities may make these countries more open to ICT technologies which predominantly use English and hence more prepared to recognize 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 ICT 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. ICT is appropriated into particular social contexts, subject to specific national policies and valued within certain cultural frameworks.

  • Another grouping contrasts the 'traditional family-oriented cultures' of Catholic Spain, Italy, France and Flanders 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 characterized 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 democratization of family life and national readiness for ICT go hand in hand.
  • There are also possible links with the privatization 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 privatized 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
    • parental fears for children's safety outside the home*

British children, compared with others in Europe, are the most likely to say that there is not enough for someone their age to do in the area where they live. For example, 83% of British 15-16 year olds say this compared with only 53% of Dutch children of this age.

Children and their changing media environment, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001) hardback and paperback available.

Further details can be found on www.Fathom.com|

* For further details see Young People| [PDF]

26 June 2001