Children’s online time has settled at just over two hours per day, new research by Ofcom reveals, as younger viewers continue to move away from old-school linear TV and towards digital streaming services.
Ofcom’s study from a panel of boys and girls around the UK highlighted the control and choice that streaming platforms give to younger audiences.
Live TV, for example, is parent-led, and often reserved for family time. Most of the children in the study watched live, scheduled TV, though only a small number did so daily. Live TV viewing was often convened by parents, allowing the family to come together to watch soaps, quizzes or ‘appointment viewing’, such as Strictly Come Dancing or The X-Factor. Some children used live TV to fill time, often while they were doing something else such as eating dinner.
Many children said they valued online services, though, for offering instant control over what they are watching, and access to seemingly endless, personalised content. Children appreciated the platforms’ content recommendations and valued receiving notifications from the channels they subscribed to. Some preferred to watch content privately, whether this be on their personal devices or in their bedrooms.
It confirms the ongoing trend among younger viewers. While children’s online time stopped growing for the first time in 2018 – estimated at an average of 2 hours 11 minutes per day, the same as the year before – their average daily TV time has fallen year on year by almost eight minutes, to an estimated 1 hour 52 minutes. Nearly half (49 per cent) of children, and a third (32 per cent) of pre-schoolers aged 3-4, now watch subscription on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Now TV.
But YouTube remains children’s primary online destination, with 80 per cent having used it; children in the study overwhelmingly preferred watching YouTube (almost all children watched it daily) and Netflix, to any other platforms. Among those who watch both YouTube and TV programmes on a TV set, nearly half of ‘tweens’ aged 8-11 and older children aged 12-15 (49 per cent) prefer watching content on YouTube (although more than a third get the same enjoyment from both viewing experiences).
While Ofcom’s research doesn’t reveal much new in that sense, it does give us an insight into why young people are drawn to YouTube in particular. It highlights three reasons:
Firstly, hobbies and passions. Lots of children watch videos related to their offline interests – such as tutorials to further their passion for music or football. Some experienced similar gratification watching others participating in hands-on activities – such as arts and craft, or playing sport – to the extent that they said they no longer took part in these activities themselves in the ‘real world’.
Secondly, vloggers and community. Many children watch ‘vloggers’ or YouTubers, often connecting with them through a shared passion such as sports or crafts, and enjoying becoming part of their ‘follower’ community. Lots of the children said they looked up to their favourite vloggers as role models, or regarded them as a friend who could provide support or advice. This type of content also appeals to children’s natural curiosity about other people’s ‘normal’ lives; they felt the videos had an authenticity which made them easy to relate to.
And third, sensory videos, with many children enjoying ASMR videos, which include ‘satisfying’ noises – such as other people making and playing with slime, or opening presents.
The research also suggests that older children are finding it harder to control their screen time than they were last year. The proportion of 12-15s who agreed they found it difficult to moderate their screen time has increased to a third (35 per cent), up from a quarter (27 per cent) the year before. Seven in ten older children (71 per cent) are allowed to take their mobile phone to bed. But in spite of these challenges, around two thirds of 12-15 year olds (63 per cent) considered they ultimately achieved ‘a good balance between screen time and doing other things’.
Yih-Choung Teh, Strategy and Research Group Director at Ofcom, says: “Children have told us in their own words why online content captures most of their attention. These insights can help inform parents and policymakers as they consider the role of the internet in children’s lives. This research also sheds light on the challenge for UK broadcasters in competing for kids’ attention.”