What’s next for the children’s media industry? – CMC Series pt.2

Part 2: Inclusive, Creative & Interactive Media 

 

The way consumers access media has evolved enormously and with it, children’s expectations have changed dramatically too. Children are now much more in control of the media they access, playing and watching with more freedom than ever before.

We’ve already looked at the challenges this raises in part one of our Children’s Media Conference (CMC) 2018 review so to continue the discussion about ‘what’s next’ for the industry, we’ll be looking at the opportunities that new technology offers to children.

Three themes have emerged from CMC 2018 of particular interest: a call for greater accessibility and diversity in media; children as active media consumers; and creativity in entertainment and education.

 

1. Accessibility and diversity

“As story tellers, we create role models.” (Baroness Beeban Kidron OBE, Crossbench member of the House of Lords, award-winning film and television director and producer)

Awareness of inclusivity has been growing, but there is still a long way to go. There are two aspects to this – promoting diversity positively and accurately, and also making it possible for all children to access content regardless of their abilities. With children accessing a wider variety of media more freely, there is a greater opportunity than ever for them to find content that appeals very specifically to them as an individual.

While we would love those in the industry to advocate inclusivity simply because they care, we also know that in a commercial world, revenue reigns supreme. So how might inclusive media be a good business decision?

Despite what the data might suggest, there is no such thing as an ‘average’ child; every child has their own race, gender, abilities, background, interests, and so on. And they all want characters and stories that they can relate to and enjoy.

 

 

What at first seems like a niche market is actually an opportunity to engage with an untapped audience – just look at the popularity of Something Special, Sesame Street, Tree Fu Tom and Doc McStuffins.

Research presented by Ofcom demonstrated that children are largely turning to YouTube to get their fill of relatable content. As far as these children were concerned, the big name providers like BBC, ITV and E4 didn’t come close to providing this kind of content; almost half of the group surveyed said YouTube was the best at providing content that showed people their own age and doing things they do with their own friends, compared to 5 per cent or less for other media providers.

It is like an acknowledgement or recognition that we are all human. We need to get away from this idea of ‘perfection’, the handsome prince and beautiful princess – these stories have a powerful grip on the imagination and how children come to see the world.”  (Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager at Disability Rights UK)

As Jay Hulme (award-winning inclusive performance poet) and Rebecca Atkinson (founder of the Toy Like Me campaign) explained at the CMC this year, it’s also vital that these representations are positive and accurate. This begins with the children’s media industry; if the industry is not diverse, it will struggle to create diverse characters and stories.

Promoting diversity has such wide-reaching implications – it makes every child feel like they matter, provides role models to inspire them, and helps the next generation understand and respect diversity.

Sarah Gatford (consultant, trainer and BSL interpreter)

 

As well as being representative and relatable, it’s important that this media is accessible to as many children as possible. Watch the video above – did you understand that? Imagine the world communicated only through sign language, and you (or your children) weren’t able to. Worldwide, an estimated 34 million children have a hearing impairment and 19 million have a visual impairment – huge numbers of children are affected, and yet accessibility is still considered an ‘add-on’ by many.    

“You as media people, you’re wonderful. And you could be in an amazing position to actually be pioneers, and role models because you’re shaping the future for directors, producers, actors, all these wonderful people who are out there wanting to get involved in what you’re doing.”

Sarah Gatford (consultant, trainer and BSL interpreter) 

 

So much more can be done to make accessibility an interesting and engaging experience for children too.

Subtitles mean that children with hearing impairments can understand what’s going on – but how much more exciting would they be with colours, patterns and shapes that illustrated the story at the same time?

Or how about the audio description that uses beatboxing to create a richer soundscape for children with visual impairments?

 

There are some truly innovative ideas out there and you could be one of the first to utilise them.

 

 

2. Children as active consumers

“Our biggest competitor is the home button on the phone.”

– Jais Christensen (creative manager, LEGO Digital Games)

Most children are very confident users of technology, with many growing up surrounded by the internet, computers and mobile devices. They can be quick to learn new technology as it comes out too, such as voice recognition – so just as we see children trying to tap and swipe printed magazines now, we may start to see children talking to objects and expecting a response! This competence means that the way children approach technology has changed; they no longer ask “What can it do?”, but “What can I do with it?” (Joanna Brassett, Studio INTO, speaking at The Research Thing in July 2018). Interactivity is important to this generation, and it’s likely we’ll see more opportunities for this in the future; for example, TV shows that children can talk to or control.

Being active consumers also means that children are free to navigate between media content at will, so they can follow a route that suits their own niche interests. YouTube has proven to be an ideal platform for this, with eight in 10 children (aged five to 15) saying they regularly use it. Many are influenced by the ‘Recommended for you’ feature, which helps children find a wider range of content that engages them. This new way of navigating media does present a challenge to the industry, but if we can understand the route that children take while exploring content, the right signposting may engage them with brands more readily as they flow between videos, games, apps and connected products.

 

 

3. Creativity for entertainment and education

“…Then the children learned only what could be turned into data, then the children became data.”

– Michael Rosen (children’s poet, broadcaster, columnist and former Children’s Laureate) 

 

Discussions about what’s next for play in media revealed that developers including Toca Boca, Dubit and LEGO are keen to develop more open-ended apps that inspire problem solving and creativity. The benefit of such apps was described in a video featuring a young girl, who said, “Toca Boca is good because people are free to do things they can’t do in real life”. These virtual worlds let children of different ages explore at their own pace, encouraging them to think of and try out their ‘what if?’ questions in a safe environment.

We were glad to hear this type of play being championed by the industry; the skills children can develop from it will be increasingly valuable in a digital world, where routine tasks can be handled by machine and out-of-the-box thinking will become a key skill for employees to have.

 

You can put a pizza in the oven and it comes out cooked

 

But what happens if you put a teddy in there?

 

 

In his opening keynote, Michael Rosen (children’s poet, broadcaster, columnist and former Children’s Laureate) compared the relationship between school and media to Buster Keaton riding two cars at the same time, with one foot on each car. He explained that Buster Keaton represented the child, one car was school, and the other car was media.

Rather than two separate areas that children progress through in stages, he explained that children flow between the two, with media affecting their interpretation of education and vice versa.

Therefore, what could happen in education, if children’s media started generating greater creativity at home?

Education has increasingly focused on learning that can be tested, as opposed to creativity and inquisitiveness, but new media and technology gives us the opportunity to shake this up a bit. By empowering children to make their own content in educational settings, learning can become more engaging and creative.

A few great examples of this already exist; Pen Pal Schools connects children across the globe to share projects, A Tale Unfolds [https://ataleunfolds.co.uk/] encourages children to make videos to develop their literacy skills, and Sky invites children to visit their Academy Studio to create their own TV content with cutting-edge technology.

We are likely to see big changes in children’s media over the next few years as a result of children becoming more active consumers, not just in terms of the content expected but also how it is regulated.

There are also plenty of opportunities to make this media more interactive and accessible than ever; innovation will be key to keeping up with the rest of the industry. But beware of the pitfalls that may come with this because, as adults, we can get caught up in the excitement of new technology and forget about the children it’s meant for who – in all honesty – care little about the technology behind the content, and just what it to be fun and easy to use.

 

 

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