Why do children spend so much time online?

Which aspects of the internet tap into kids’ interests?

Recent Ofcom research examined in-depth data collected from a panel of 40 boys and girls, aged 4-16, from around the UK. The children kept seven-day diaries and were interviewed regarding what they watch and why.

The study revealed children in the UK (aged 5 to 15) now spend around 20 minutes more online, in a typical day, than they do in front of a TV set – just over two hours online, and a little under two hours watching TV.

Children’s online time, estimated at an average of 2 hours 11 minutes per day, was the same as the year before. Average daily TV time has fallen year on year by almost eight minutes, to an estimated 1 hour 52 minutes.

What are children watching online?

YouTube remains children’s primary online destination, with 80% having used it. Nearly half (49%) of children, and a third (32%) of pre-schoolers aged 3-4, now watch subscription on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Now TV.

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%) prefer watching content on YouTube. However, more than a third get the same enjoyment from both viewing experiences.

Many children said they valued YouTube and Netflix 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.

Live TV 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.

What are children watching on YouTube?

The study found most of the children’s viewing on YouTube fell into three broad categories:

1. Hobbies and passions. Lots of children watched 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’.

2. Vloggers and community. Many children watched ‘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 appealed 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.

3. Sensory videos. Many children enjoyed videos which included ‘satisfying’ noises – such as other people making and playing with slime, or opening presents. Such videos are described as ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response’ – due to their ability to generate a feeling of well-being and relaxation among some people.

Yih-Choung Teh, Strategy and Research Group Director at Ofcom, said:

“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. But it’s clear that children today still value original TV programmes that reflect their lives, and those primetime TV moments which remain integral to family life.”

Managing screen time

Older children seem to find it harder to control their screen time.

The proportion of 12-15s who agreed they found it difficult to moderate their screen time has increased to a third (35%), up from a quarter (27%) the year before. Seven in ten older children (71%) are allowed to take their mobile phone to bed.

Despite these challenges, however, around two thirds of 12-15 year olds (63%) considered they ultimately achieved ‘a good balance between screen time and doing other things’.

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