Friday, February 01, 2008

The UK Kids' Media Disconnect

One of the reasons I came to London this semester was because the UK is currently such a hotbed of academic and public debate about kids and media. From child obesity and videogame controversies, to the numerous nation- and EU-wide studies being conducted here, to special government task forces and initiatives, to the large amount of media coverage UK newspapers and bloggers provide of these developments, London just seems like the 'place to be' for a children's media scholar. As a hotbed of debate, it is necessarily populated by conflicting opinions and interpretations -- which is both hugely exciting and a little overwhelming. As in the US and Canada, however, the debates here are also characterized (possibly hindered) by an underlying disconnect between everyday use (kids' media usage, parental concerns, family dynamics, school life) and popular discourse (governmental response, media representations, industry agendas). An example of this can be found in two articles that appeared in the BBC News online in the past couple of months. In December, the BBC published an article on a Microsoft commissioned review of 4000 parents in various countries around the EU. Among other things, the study found that:

- "More than 75% of parents are concerned about the content of video games played by their children."
- "Almost half of the 4,000 parents surveyed in the UK, France, Italy and Germany said that one hour of gaming each day should be the limit."
- "43% of the surveyed parents said they were not aware of ratings systems for games to determine suitability."

Without digging up previous reports/surveys, I'd risk making the claim that these findings pretty much support prior work in this area, which consistently finds that the "problem" lies in the parents' lack of awareness about ratings...a convenient argument that puts the blame and responsibility back in the home and well away from the industry (i.e. any need for government regulation).

The story is positioned in relation to an ongoing study being conducted by Tanya Byron on kids' new media culture (you can check out her study's Bebo page here), which was commissioned by the PM and launched in September 2007 to the immediate outcry of the UK videogames industry and self-regulatory board. Although the findings of the "Byron Review" won't be released until March, the BBC story appears to be laying some important groundwork for its reception, making preemptive links to industry-commissioned studies, and setting up the debate within the age-old industry-vs-parents binary. The article notes that according to the Microsoft study, parents "saw themselves as the key decision makers for which games should be played by their children, rather than regulators or the video games industry", making it seem like an "either or" scenario, rather than a system that can (and often does) work in concert. A big chunk of the remainder of the article is dedicated to providing the industry's perspective -- its defense of the educational and social aspects of games,reproducing the same tired dichotomies we've been seeing for years - violent vs. educational, wasted time vs. productive leisure.

The last third of the article gives some of the study's findings on kids' media use, again based on parental reporting/perception:

- "[M]ore than half of children played games on consoles, 32% on PCs, 9% played games online and 4% played on a mobile phone."
- The majority (64%) of kids play digital games alone, while less than 10% played with family members, and 12% played with friends. (although it doesn't specify whether this includes playing with friends online, I would assume that it probably doesn't)
- Only 5% of kids played "mainly online" - again, not sure what that signifies exactly, or how and whether parents keep track of this.

A few weeks later, the BBC published an opinion piece (though not so clearly labeled as such) by the Chief executive of Becta, Stephen Crowne, under the headline: "Parents urged to embrace new tech: The head of the government agency which promotes technology in schools urges parents to see it positively". The article takes aim at recent ChildWise report, under the introduction of: "It seems that every week a new report is published revealing the negative impact technology such as the internet, computer games and television is having on young people." The report found that UK kids spend about 5 hours and 20 minutes "staring at a screen each day", which reading continues to decline. Crowne suggests that before parents throw away their television sets and computers, they should consider some usage stats published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (that 41% of children 8-11 yrs regularly use the internet; 75% of 11-year-olds have their own TV, games console and mobile phone; 56% of children aged 8-11 play computer games; and 7% of 10-year-olds have their own web cam), stats which he says describe the "real world of children." The gist of the argument is that because technology is to kids what honey is to bees, parents shouldn't fight their children's technology use, but channel it towards positive outcomes. etc., etc., etc.

Again here we see a tidy reduction of the issues, a championing of productive play and educational value as the right and only response to parental concerns, a vilification of children's current technological/media use as "non-effective" (i.e. wasted time) that can be "repurposed" (by parents and teachers, of course) as developmentally and economically beneficial activities, if only parents and teachers will "get on board". A perfect example of the kind of thing Ellen Seiter talks about in The Internet Playground, and that Anil Narine and I discuss in our paper Playtime is Over! (forthcoming). Crowne concludes with the following advice to parents who are worried about their kids' uses of technologies:
Rather than trying to exclude technology from their lives because we feel uncomfortable with it or have a vague idea that it is "not a good thing", we need to do what parents and educators have always done - harness their children's passions and interests and use technology to engage them in learning.

Sound familiar?

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