Are the Kids All Right? Canadian Families and Television in the Digital Age

Study summary of “Are the Kids All Right? Canadian families and television in the digital age”, conducted by the Université de Montréal Centre for Youth and Media Studies (CYMS)

Despite an overabundance of available audiovisual content – and the proliferation of techno gadgets that give us access to it – television is still an important fixture in the lives of Canadian families with tweens. And it will be able to keep this privileged place despite today’s multiplatform environment as long as it keeps giving families a good reason to curl up on the couch to watch and discuss quality programming.

At least that’s what “Are the Kids All Right? Canadian families and television in the digital age” has revealed. The analytical study was conducted on a national scale by the Université de Montréal communications department’s Centre for Youth and Media Studies (CYMS) under the supervision of Dr. André H. Caron, Ed.D. for the Youth Media Alliance.

Over the last two years researchers traveled to five different cities across the country to meet with children aged nine to 12 and their parents in their everyday environment (their home). The team assessed each family’s relationship with various media and gathered their opinions on tween programming. They also organized focus groups comprised of children, teenagers and parents in each of the cities visited.

A ground-breaking project in two stages

This study is the second stage of a three-year project. Results of the first stage1 – published in 2010 – were presented as a quantitative assessment of over 150 hours of television content broadcast across Canada during the spring of 2009.

The first stage of the study revealed significant gaps in the variety and availability of Canadian television content specifically targeting children aged nine to 12 which – according to the authors – led to a lack of interest by this demographic in Canadian children’s programming.

Based on these results – for the second stage of their study – the CYMS team conducted a qualitative assessment of the perception 9- to 12-year-olds and their parents have of the television content available to them.

The study – which polled a representative sample of over 200 participants from 80 separate families – enabled researchers to determine how important television in particular – and new media technologies in general – are in today’s children’s social universe and to gauge what impact children’s programming has on their identity and values.

In each of the five cities visited – St. John’s, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver – the CYMS met with five families with at least one child between the ages of nine and 12 who watched 10 or more hours of television per week and that owned a number of new “screen” media.

The families interviewed represented all social classes and metropolitan cities of very different sizes (between a little less than 200,000 people in St. John’s to over 6 million in Toronto). The CYMS reported that each family had an average of 3.5 television sets, 2.3 computers and 2.9 gaming consoles as well as high-speed internet access. Half the children had a Facebook account even though you need to be at least 13 to sign up for one. One out of every two children had a cell phone and two out of every three had an iPod.

The impact of new technologies

Despite the infiltration of new technological gadgets in many homes, today’s children still mostly watch TV shows on a television screen. Half of the children interviewed had never watched a show online while the other half rarely did so.

When 9- to 12-year-olds watch television online, it’s usually a specific show they’ve been following on their favourite TV channel. Children aged 11 and 12 spend more time watching TV online than younger ones because – according to the study – that is usually when they start becoming familiar with social media. They’re also more likely to start multitasking – meaning they text friends, chat on Facebook, play a game on their iPod and so on while watching TV – while younger children mainly focus on one task at a time.

However, as soon as a show they like comes on, children will gladly set aside their techno gadgets to focus their attention on the good old TV set. It goes to show that the “small screen” can still take precedence over new technologies and social media.

Content – regardless of its origin – is primarily what draws children’s attention. In fact, most of the 9- to 12-year-old children interviewed by the CYMS who fondly remembered specific Canadian programs from their early childhood had trouble figuring out the origin of shows targeting their age group. But when they could it was usually based on quality. Certain children considered American shows technically superior while others recognized Canadian content based on the values they presented.

Regional differences from coast to coast

CYMS researchers observed that – while avoiding stereotypes – different regions have different television viewing habits.

St. John’s families spend the most time in front of the television as well as the most time watching TV as a family. However, these are the children who also spend the most time playing outdoors. The test children in Montreal can easily distinguish Quebec content – which is closer to their cultural environment – from American content while identifying with both. Parents in Toronto don’t have much time to spend watching television as a family due to their careers and long commutes but they do favour educational content for their children. Calgary parents – driven by more traditional and conservative values – intervene more frequently in their children’s media consumption than any other parents, which could explain why their kids are the only ones who don’t have TVs in their rooms. And even though television watching is still an important family activity in Vancouver it is often set aside in favour of outdoor activities.

More than just an entertainment tool

The strongest trend to emerge from the 60 hours of research material and CYMS observations is how important and cherished family television watching still is. The study’s authors concluded that TV is like no other medium. Television – unlike new content distribution platforms that isolate users – provides families with an opportunity to put down their tech toys and spend some quality time together. Oftentimes it goes above and beyond its basic entertainment value and becomes a learning tool, presents noteworthy socialization patterns and addresses children’s everyday concerns.

The study stated that television plays a key role in maintaining our national identity. CYMS researchers advise local producers to spark and sustain tween interest in quality Canadian programming during this pivotal time in their lives.

The study «Are the Kids All Right? Canadian families and television in the digital age» is avaliable here. A summary version is also avaliable.

Danielle Desjardins
Danielle Desjardins offers analysis, research and writing services for media and cultural enterprises through her company, La Fabrique de sens. Before that, she was director of planning for Radio-Canada, where she was responsible for strategic, corporate and regulatory matters for more than 20 years.
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