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Streaming, writing and arithmetic


March 13, 2010

Over the summer holidays our family was treated to the world premiere of a little-known Australian film, The School Hacking Internet Team (or the S.H.I.T. Team). The film was about a school principal who refuses to allow internet use in her school. The team, in exposing her dictatorial edict, discovers she is a terrorist and armaments trader. They foil her dire plans and in the process blow up the school. Order and internet use are restored.

It's a funny, entertaining spoof of the big-budget Mission Impossible genre, produced by four kids aged eight to 14 who collaborated intermittently over a year. The film involved story-boarding, building elaborate props, downloading software and creating special effects, all done with no adults involved. It was a mission to master technology. A mission of love.

This growing love affair between our children and the media has been recently documented in a study by the US Kaiser Family Foundation, entitled Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18-Year-Olds, published in January. This is the third report in a project on media usage indicating the phenomenal commitment young people have to new technology, and the explosion in the amount of time they are spending in its company.

The Kaiser study concludes that American young people spend seven hours and 38 minutes consuming media each day. That is an extraordinary amount of time to be doing anything - more than spent in school - and no one makes them do this.

Including multitasking - using more than one medium at a time - young people, on average, pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes' worth of media content into their daily 7½ hours' usage. American young people are not alone. Research by the Australian Communication and Media Authority two years earlier cited similar figures.

Last year I mentioned this phenomenon at a conference of children's television producers in Britain and there were cries of disbelief. That doesn't happen here, they said. But indeed it does. A 2008 report by communications regulator Ofcom found the same high media usage among children in the UK.

Such numbers produce fear among teachers, parents and policymakers. How can we stop this, they ask. Children's brains will be damaged: they won't be able to concentrate or think. They will be at risk from paedophiles and profiteers, have no social and ethical values. Nations will fall and civilisation as we know it will end. Of course there are risks, both in the real world and the virtual world. But evidence needs to replace emotion.

Fear and panic obscure the fact that with change comes opportunity. Remember the Biro? Teachers feared it would ruin handwriting, and banned its use in schools. But the Biro won out and the filthy work of ink monitors disappeared. It's time once more to seize the day with new technology.

Instead of seeing the internet as the enemy, educators could use this unstoppable phenomenon to successfully target a notoriously elusive demographic - the pre and early pubescent adolescent entering the age of defiance.

The highest levels of media consumption are in the tween and early teen years, 11 to 14-year-olds. This group has always been notoriously difficult to reach through children's television programs. It is the age when peer influences lead to challenging parental wisdom, with kids wanting to spend more time with their friends than with their parents.

Mobile devices and online communities offer unprecedented opportunities to this age group to fraternise with groups outside the home who fit with their interests and developmental needs. They also offer a resource to educators.

True, a minority of youth who are heavy media users in the Kaiser study report lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment. However, this is only significant when use exceeds 16 hours a day. Most children's grades aren't suffering. How is that so? I - along with others including the Federation of American Scientists (which has issued a statement supporting the use of computer and video games in classrooms) - suspect it is because children are learning more than we know from the new media.

This recent explosion in media usage is a story about technology facilitating consumption. Today a sizeable portion (20 per cent) of media use occurs on mobile devices - mobile phones, iPods or hand-held video game players. The Kaiser study reports that time spent playing video games has increased by about 24 minutes daily over the past five years and that 20 minutes of that increase is through these mobile devices. Time spent listening to music and other audio has increased by more than three-quarters of an hour a day to just over 2½ hours. Nearly an hour of that listening occurs via a mobile phone or an iPod, and another 30 minutes is streamed via the computer through programs such as iTunes or internet radio.

For the first time since the Kaiser Foundation began this research in 1999, the amount of time young people spend watching regularly scheduled programming on a television set at the time it is broadcast has declined - by 25 minutes a day. However, the proliferation of new ways of consuming content means that, overall, TV viewing has increased by 38 minutes a day over the past five years, with the additional viewing being done over the internet, mobile phones and iPods. In addition to mobile media, online media are changing young people's lives. With the expansion of higher-speed home internet access, the availability of television content online, and the development of social networking sites such as Facebook and attractive applications including YouTube and Twitter, today's eight to 18-year-olds spend an average of 1½ hours daily using the computer outside school work. These figures can only increase with improved computer and internet access.

The growth is exponential. You Tube, launched in 2005 with a video clip, now offers millions of hours of free audiovisual content. Facebook was launched in February 2004 and had about 1500 registered members within 24 hours. In September 2006 it opened to all those aged 13 and over. Twitter, created in 2006, is the SMS of the internet. These sites currently account for an average of 37 minutes of young people's daily media time - 22 for social networking and 15 minutes for browsing video sites.

The purpose of the Kaiser research is to offer a reliable basis for policymakers to craft national media policies, for parents trying to do their best to stay on top of their children's media habits, and for educators, advocates and public health groups who are concerned with the impact of media on youth, and want to exploit the educational and informational potential of media in young people's lives.

The TV shows children watch, video games they play, songs they listen to, books they read and websites they visit - which fill a staggeringly large part of their lives - offer a constant stream of messages about families, peers, relationships, gender roles, sex, violence, food, values, clothes - advice about everything they encounter in life. The education potential is massive but, as the media response to Lord Carter's 2009 Report on Digital Britain stated, we need to move from ''the pipes to the poetry''.

Important as the protection issues are, we are doing far too little to harness the potential that this youth infatuation with media provides. Government has intervened in the past for good purpose, establishing successful policies for the funding and distribution of children's television and Australian content. Educators should now be urged to engage with media producers to utilise this technology to develop resources to help young people learn.

The ABC is calling for ideas for its digital channel that are cheap to produce and long running, as filling the schedule becomes the priority. But programming created to fill a schedule is not an answer for 21st-century children. The needs and interests of young people should dictate the program content and the form of the programs that are being produced, particularly when they are produced with public money. That trend is now towards mobile technology, multi-player games and user-generated content such as the S.H.I.T. Team.

Australia needs a Centre for the Development of Innovative Media for Children and Youth. The UK has made a start with FutureLab, an agency dedicated to furthering innovation in education through new practices and new technologies.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Centre in New York was established in 2007 to focus on the question: ''How do new media help children learn?'' The World Summit on Media for Children, a triennial event that originated in Melbourne, will meet in Karlstad, Sweden, in June this year. This summit will be about the future of the media industries and their relationship with education and development, about a new global vision for children and media and education, centred on digital technology.

In the meantime, Australia's education revolution needs to focus on new directions for media and education policy. The media revolution is not just about faster broadband, mobile and universal access to computers and mobile phones. It must be about content. There is no stopping our kids' media love affair. Their relationship with media has changed forever.

Patricia Edgar is co-author of The New Child: In Search of Smarter Grown-Ups and chairwoman of the World Summit on Media for Children Foundation.