'Watching Television' Means Something Different for Today's Kids

There seems no question that for young people who have all of these different platforms as viewing options, "watching television" is starting to mean different things. And with all of these different ways of consuming televisual content, today's parents and caregivers are presented with some new sets of challenges.
03/14/2014 12:43 pm ET Updated May 14, 2014

When my kids were little, (which doesn't feel like it was that long ago even though objectively speaking, it's been almost a decade since my youngest could still be considered little), I depended on the VCR. I depended on this technological tool to help me with both television content and the television experience. A VCR facilitated my ability to expose my children to film and television content that I thought was appropriate, educational and entertaining.

I also relied on the VCR because of its ability to rewind and play back. What I knew as a researcher was borne out from what I was learning as a mom -- kids, especially very little kids -- thrive on repetition. It helps them to learn. And they love watching the same thing, time and again. The VCR couldn't have been more helpful in enabling my children to watch episodes of Barney or Wishbone or Magic Schoolbus as often as I would let them.

Today it's pretty difficult to buy a VCR at all. But honestly, you don't need to, because we have streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, Amazon Prime and YouTube. There are "on demand" cable options, opportunities to view shows online on network websites, iPods and mobile apps. And it turns out that kids, young and old, are using these services at astonishing rates.

There seems no question that for young people who have all of these different platforms as viewing options, "watching television" is starting to mean different things. And with all of these different ways of consuming televisual content, today's parents and caregivers are presented with some new sets of challenges.

In an article posted last month on the iKids website, Melanie Shreffler reported, "According to recent research from Tennessee-based youth and family research firm Smarty Pants, services such as Netflix, YouTube and Hulu in the U.S. are now competing on equal footing with kids television networks -- and winning." Among children in their sample, Nickelodeon continued to top name recognition and popularity, but YouTube was a close second, ahead of the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. And Netflix wasn't far behind.

Those of us who try to investigate and understand such things wonder about where kids are getting their TV content. And perhaps more importantly, we wonder what it means. For instance, for young children will the concept of "watching television" mean viewing something real time when it is aired on a TV screen much longer? Will children discern any difference between watching something on a tablet or a mobile device and watching it on computer or television screen? Will the interactive capabilities of some of these technologies make the experience of television viewing different for children? And since streaming content also enables the same kind of repetition that the old VCR did, what are the implications for both learning and entertainment?

And finally, we have to wonder about the content. Since there are so many more choices available today for where we can find children's media, is this actually diversifying the content to which kids are exposed? Or do they use these different platforms simply to see more of the same?

While there's not much data available yet to start to answer many of these questions with regard to younger children, there is a little bit that we know about what older children, adolescents and college students mean by "watching television."

A comprehensive Kaiser Family Foundation report from 2010 reported overall media use among children 8-18 up from their previous comprehensive analysis a year earlier. Television viewing was down a bit, but kids in all age groups were increasingly reporting watching "old" TV content through "new pathways" like Hulu or iTunes. The Kaiser researchers estimate that about 41% of children's television viewing is now actually viewed online, on DVDs or on mobile devices of one sort or another.

Data from 2013 from the Nielsen company, reported in marketingcharts.com, suggested a drop in the overall amount of television that young people 18-24 reported watching on a weekly basis. However, the analysts were also quick to point out that online video appeared to be what was complementing traditional television viewing. In other words, young people are finding alternate ways of viewing televisual content, more of them than ever before, and that this may be replacing viewing television shows when they are aired, as well as contributing to an overall increase in media use.

To try to get a little more insight on this, I conducted an informal poll among some of my Tufts students. Here's what I found.

The great majority almost never watch television real time. There are exceptions: special sporting events like the Super Bowl, series finales, ongoing shows that build to an event (like The Bachelor) where, as one student put it, "if I didn't watch it real time I would have the surprise taken away from all the social media the next day."

A few students reported that they do watch certain shows when they are aired, on a television set or projected from their laptops. Those who do report viewing mostly with others --- it's a social event -- and it's almost a ritualistic one. "We have a little group that watched Scandal together every Thursday," said one student. "We always get together in the same place, at the same time. We have certain phrases that we utter throughout the show. That's how the weekend begins for us."

Another student reported that she has to watch Grey's Anatomy when it's aired each week because she viewed it with her parents and siblings at home and each week they watch it so "we can debrief about it the next day. It's a way of keeping a little bit of home with me when I'm at school."

Almost all of the students I polled said that the television content they watched they mostly viewed from streaming services like Netflix or Hulu. Several of them had stories about "Netflix binging" -- watching a whole season or a whole series, even, within a compressed amount of time. "It's a great way of catching up with a show that my friends saw but I didn't, so I can participate in conversations and we can share it," said one student. Another admitted that "Netflix binging is a great way of procrastinating." (In an amusing article on The Atlantic, Nolan Feeney ponders how much viewing constitutes television binge viewing -- he concludes watching four or more episodes in one sitting -- and whether, in fact, "Netflix binging" has become synonymous with "television binging" because of the ways in which the streaming service releases its content.)

The changing television consumption habits of children, adolescents and college students certainly have ramifications for content creators, content providers and advertisers. They have implications for how researchers ask the basic question of "how much television do children watch?" because the very nature of what it means to "watch television" is changing. They also raise some important issues for parents and caregivers.

Today, the fact that across different age groups, for all kids "watching television" is starting to mean something very different than it did only a decade ago poses some interesting questions to consider. Some are the questions we've always had about television and kids: what kinds of content are most educational? Are there particular kinds of content to which I want to expose my child and are there particular kinds of content from which I want to shield him or her? How much television is "too much" TV?

But new delivery methods also mean some new questions: are all ways of receiving televisual content equal? Can interactive platforms strengthen an educational or entertainment experience for a child? Do all the new ways of "watching TV" mean that a child is exposed to a wider variety of programming or conversely, what happens when a child is exposed to a lot more of the same? Is it possible for little kids to binge watch Sesame Street the way college student binge watch Orange is the New Black? And ultimately, are all of these newer ways of viewing changing not only the content but the experience of what it means for a child to "watch TV"?