Teens And Screens

by , Sep 19, 2007, 2:45 PM
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Ever since the emergence of the Internet, there has been an increasingly urgent desire to better understand how young people use media.  Though efforts have not been limited to the Web  -- originally perceived by many to be a younger persons medium - still,  it was probably the evolution of that medium that energized our current and entirely rational preoccupation with understanding how media consumption was evolving among younger audiences.

At this point, the questions we had to ask ourselves added another layer of complexity.  It was no longer sufficient to ask which programs young people watched, which magazines they read and which radio stations they listened to.  Suddenly there was another medium altogether to be understood -- both in isolation and in terms of its emerging relationship to other media.

Since then of course, things have become even more complex.  The advent of cell phones and all they can deliver, developments in how we use TV, the massive transformation of the video games market and things like IM, social networks and the rest have literally changed the face of the media ecosystem. Large numbers of young people have been in the vanguard of those adopting new devices, with the resultant impact on behaviors.

Over the last couple of years, one of the most significant developments has been the long-awaited realization of the promise of decent quality video delivered over IP -- and not just to computers, but to an ever-increasing number of devices.

As we all know, the result is this: What we have always thought of as TV (i.e. TV-originated content) is migrating beyond the proverbial box in the family room to just about every screen-based device available to us.

This presents no end of opportunities for all concerned -- and, inevitably, no end of challenges.  Not least of these challenges is that of measurement.  Whereas our current measurement practices are heavily biased toward silo-based, single-media approaches, the ways consumers experience media seem to become further removed from that historic approach every year.  Although there are several attempts within the industry to adapt to what is widely recognized as one of the major challenges of media  measurement and research (two different but complementary things), we are still in the early stages of our pursuit of the possible.

At the Center for Media Design, when talking about the decidedly consumer-centric observational method we used when conducting the Middletown Media Studies, one of the most frequent questions we have been asked is, "Can you do this for teenagers?"  The question, in itself, reflects not only interest in the method -- but, more significantly, a desire to understand teenage media behavior to the same level of granularity that we have been able to study it for an adult sample.

Until now we had not investigated this audience, due to a combination of other commitments, and the unique challenges of any project that involves effectively shadowing a group of minors wherever they go throughout the length of the waking day, including school, part-time jobs, home, etc.

This week however, we release the results of a pilot study that was designed to test the feasibility of applying the observational method to this challenging audience.  The study recorded (in 10-second increments) the subjects' exposure to 15 different media and their involvement in 17 different life activities.

The key finding is that -- to our minds, at least -- the project was successful enough to convince us that it can be scaled up to encompass a much larger sample and to cover a broader span of time (for the pilot, we only looked at media consumption during schooldays, not weekends or school vacations).

However, although the sample was very small (15 teenagers), we naturally looked at the data we captured and --although we do not offer them as findings as such -- found some insights that, if reflected in a larger study, would be interesting indeed.

One of these was the extent of the dominance of screens in teenagers' lives.  When one accounts for the amount of potential media time that is constrained by the school environment and the type of work done there, it seems remarkable that, on average, each of our teens spent approximately 60% of total media time with screen-based media.  The balance was principally made up of music, radio (in-car mostly), print (skewing heavily towards textbooks) and landline phone.  On a weekend, one can only assume the percentage for screen-based media would have increased.

What is also interesting is that the total amount of Concurrent Media Exposure (CME), or media multitasking, among the sample appears to be lower than that of the adults studied in the Middletown Media Studies -- but once again, this is due to the constraints placed on teenagers by school.  The time spent out of school pushed their total time in CME up to within reach of that for the adults in Middletown Media, as measured for the entire day (where, for adults, the workplace generally facilitates much more CME).  Perhaps, then, teens really are multitasking that much more than the rest of us.

The other thing intimated by this small-scale study that really jumps off the page is the extent to which TV seems so prevalent.  While other media may also be simultaneously in play, the apparent ubiquity of TV for this group was remarkable, with prime time appearing to start pretty much as soon as many of them got home and carrying on through until late into the evening.  As I said earlier, this was a methodological experiment, and it will take a larger study to give us confidence in (or change our view of) anything it suggests, but if the larger study we now hope to conduct bears out some of what this pilot suggests, then all those dire predictions about the end of TV and the big TV companies would very definitely seem premature by at least a couple of generations.

If you're interested, you can download the report here.

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