Children switching off and logging on

JULY 9 — Big news! My children, aged 8 and 11, watched television yesterday.

That may seem to be a rather banal observation of an everyday occurrence, but I can assure that it is not. In fact, I literally cannot remember the last time before yesterday — when they tolerated 15 minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants before wandering away — that they even switched the television on.

Before we go any further, let me be clear that I’m not about to regale you with smug tales of how intellectually minded and deeply cultured my children are: they love their pop trash as much as anyone.

But they consume it online, rather than on the television, which is becoming a largely peripheral object in millions of households all over the world.

Instead of switching on the television, children now devote their spare time to logging onto the Internet and school summer holidays, which used to give children a rare chance to lounge in front of the box for hours on end, are now gobbled up by a preoccupation with tablets and mobile phones.

This is nothing particularly surprising, of course, because adults do exactly the same thing in the digital era with our addiction to emails and social media alerts, but the scope of children’s online lives is even starting to overwhelm their parents’ equivalents.

That is especially the case when it comes to viewing habits. Whereas most adults will still unwind in the evenings by settling down in front of the television to enjoy the latest series, cheer on their favourite sports team or catch up with the news, children watch nearly everything online.

Even more interesting than how they watch is what they watch. True, Netflix is very popular for various shows and movies, many of which were intended for children of a much older age than the ones who watch them.

But that’s only a relatively small part of the average child’s viewing diet, which instead largely consists of videos made by other children or young adults and published on YouTube.

YouTube sensation Eva Gutowski... you may not know who she is but you can bet your kids do. — Picture courtesy from
YouTube sensation Eva Gutowski... you may not know who she is but you can bet your kids do. — Picture courtesy from

If you’ve never heard of people like Eva Gutowski (star of the eponymous My Life As Eva; 8 million YouTube subscribers) or Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg (better known by his pseudonym PewDiePie; a staggering 56 million subscribers), be careful about talking about YouTube with children: I can attest from personal experience they will laugh you out of the building for your ignorance.

As strange as it may seem to grown-ups, as far as children all over the world are concerned Eva and PewDiePie and countless more “YouTubers” are major stars, with their low-budget (or even no-budget) self-published videos capable of consistently attracting several million viewers.

This development has obviously impacted upon traditional broadcasters, and this week the BBC announced that it will invest an additional £34 million (RM188 million) into children’s content over the next three years, in a reaction to seeing viewing figures for children’s programmes drop by more than 25 per cent since the turn of the decade.

It’s not really a question of money, though, and the BBC’s extra millions might end up counting for nothing, because many of the most popular YouTubers are children who somehow scratch together their content with little or no financial resources and scant regard for conventional editorial standards.

The most extreme example I’ve seen is a video by Tiana, a nine-year old English girl from Nottingham who has her own channel, Toys AndMe (and the bad grammar in that title is a precursor of the kind of production quality you can expect to see).

Tiana’s channel has 5.8 million subscribers, and her most popular video — produced when she was seven — shows her licking at an enormous lollipop with a joke giant tongue. That’s it. The clip, which is seven minutes 36 seconds long, has nothing more to it than that simple joke. It is filmed out of focus from one static camera, with below-average lighting and several jumpy cuts.

In traditional terms from a technical point of view, it is terribly made — if it was produced as a piece of course work at any respectable film-making college, it would be given a fail.

Amazingly, however, this cute but poorly constructed and rather uninteresting video, made by a seven-year-old girl, has no less than 239 million views. Yes, 239 MILLION — way more than the highest ever viewing figures in American television history (last February’s American Football Super Bowl, which was seen at its peak by 172 million people).

Enticing children to watch programming or engage with content, therefore, will not necessarily be achieved simply by throwing money at the problem — slickly produced professional broadcasts are obviously not what children really want.

The BBC, at least, appears to be aware of the scale of the challenge faced by its industry, with the corporation’s Director General Tony Hall admitting this week that his task is “to reinvent the BBC for a new generation.”

Exactly how that reinvention should be carried out, though, is the million-dollar question and it’s quite possible that traditional television broadcasters will be fighting a losing battle in their bid to lure back young viewers.

The remarkable popularity of people like Tiana suggests there’s nothing predictable or easily definable about children’s preferences. If a girl licking a giant lollipop with a giant joke tongue can outstrip the record viewing figures in American television history, there’s surely no way of knowing what children will like and what they won’t.

But one thing does seem increasingly certain: they will be watching it online, not on television.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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