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VI.6 Nov.-Dec. 1999
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Social perspectives

Sonia Livingstone

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Back in the 1950s, the whole family used to gather around to watch the TV, sitting in respectful silence with the curtains closed. But television has long since lost its place as the undisputed focus of family life. Like many other domestic activities, TV viewing has become fragmented and individualized. In the United Kingdom, 63 percent of children have a TV set of their own. A "bedroom culture" has developed within most families, according to Sonia Livingstone.

"The child's bedroom has turned into a multi-functional space where the child can watch TV, play computer games, do homework on a PC and entertain friends," says Livingstone. Although the rise of a "bedroom culture" does not worry her too much as a psychologist, she is doing her best to keep her own home free of it. "My 9-year-old son does not have a private TV in his bedroom. I don't suppose I'll be able to keep it at bay forever, but I don't like the idea of every member of the family having their own media culture. I think it's better to have a shared culture within the family," she says.

Sonia Livingstone is considered an expert on the use of media by children and teenagers. She and Moira Bovill recently published a hefty report called Young People New Media, which took a close look at bedroom culture. "It's a phenomenon of the past 20 years or so. Until recently, families were too big and homes were too small. Increasing prosperity has also played a part, of course. The latest surveys show that the British spend more on entertainment than they do on basic necessities like food and housing. Children are the main beneficiaries of this spending," says Livingstone. Of British children ages 6 to 17, 72 percent have a room they do not have to share with a sibling; 68 percent have their own music installation, 34 percent have an electronic games controller hooked up to the TV, 21 percent have a video and 12 percent have a PC. The computer is usually an old model—only 4 percent of the children have a CD-ROM drive and only 1 percent have an Internet connection in their bedroom.


The bedroom culture is hard to avoid, as Livingstone knows from personal experience. Her son is forever nagging her for a TV and for a Nintendo, too. "Last weekend he met another youngster in the park. Neither of them had a Nintendo, but to listen to them you'd think they had been playing on them for years. Game computers are just part of the normal lifestyle of kids of that age. Everybody else has one, he keeps complaining. I'm putting up a fight because I consider it unnecessary, but he obviously knows we can afford one. So it's getting harder and harder to think of excuses," Livingstone says.

"Of British children ages 6 to 17, 68 percent have their own music installation, 34 percent have an electronic games controller, 21 percent have a video and 12 percent have a PC"


Children are spending more and more time in their own rooms, the report indicates, and less time outdoors. Parents are worried about safety on the streets. In particular, they are afraid of criminal harm being done to their children. The children themselves think there is not much to do in their neighborhood. This dissatisfaction is an outcome of higher expectations, in Livingstone's opinion. It is hard to believe that children back in, say, the 1950s had so many more options. "But it's also a result of many local activities disappearing to make way for elaborate, centralized leisure facilities. The local bathing pool is replaced by an all-in modern swimming center, and the neighborhood cinema makes way for an uptown multiplex. The new facilities are much more luxurious, but they're more expensive and harder to get to. You can't just go every day," Livingstone says.

At first sight, Young People New Media seems to underwrite some common pessimistic assumptions—for example about children no longer playing outside but shutting themselves away in their rooms and losing themselves in individualistic activities like TV viewing and computer games. But in fact the report puts the impact of all the new media on children in recent years into perspective. Only one child in 100 can be classed as a real "screen addict," a child who spends a "worrying" 7 hours or more watching TV or playing computer games. "The average child is hardly glued to the screen. On the contrary, most children engage in a wide variety of activities. They do watch a lot of TV, on average for two and a half hours a day, but really they prefer playing with their friends. Although children generally have a few favorite shows, they mostly use TV to kill time when they are bored and have nothing special to do."

Children differ considerably from one another in their use of media. Despite the somewhat old-fashioned image of books, 57 percent of children enjoy reading them and one in five teenagers can be classed as a book-lover. The distinction between individualistic media use and social activities such as chatting with friends is also less extreme than is commonly assumed, the research reveals. Children gossip about TV soap characters, make contact with other children on the Internet, and visit friends to admire their new computer games. Even children who watch more TV than average (typically working-class boys) are far from isolated or lonely. They usually share a preference for lightweight screen entertainment with their friends and siblings. Conversely, the researchers play down the purported beneficial influence of new media. Although working-class boys spend a lot of time playing computer games, it does not necessarily stimulate more serious computer use. The real nerds, as we might expect, are mostly middle class.

"The activities of children and teenagers are not radically affected by the new media," in Livingstone's opinion. "They pick up on them quickly but the media do not make any significant difference to their daily life. Has the spread of the PC changed the nature of childhood? I don't think so. Computers are much less significant to them than social developments such as the emancipation of women and rising incomes."

Despite the relatively reassuring conclusions of her study, Livingstone does have reservations about the growth of the bedroom culture. She brands it "living together separately." It gives children an easy way to escape from the family culture. Behind the closed bedroom door, the child enters a private world to which parents have only limited access. In Livingstone's words: "In your bedroom, you are no longer part of the family hierarchy but you are in peer culture mode. You can watch MTV, phone your friends and listen to your favorite CDs. The bedroom furnishings and the posters on the wall are a statement of your identity."

The TV forms the principal line of communication between this sanctuary and the outside world. "Communication is much less mediated than it used to be when parents and children watched TV together. The parents used to act as censors—usually in an informal way, such as saying now it's time you went to bed. Now it is becoming rarer for children over 10 years old to watch TV with their parents. It does happen, of course—getting together to watch a soap opera episode, or enjoying a football match with Dad. But you also come across several members of the family watching the same program on different sets."

"Bedtime is not so much time to go to sleep as the start of 'bedroom time,'" Livingstone says. Once in their rooms, children tend to stay up watching TV for a while. This is making it harder to control children's viewing. The United Kingdom has a "watershed" at 9 p.m. after which the channels are allowed to transmit programs containing violence or sexually explicit material. Livingstone's study shows however that one in three children continues watching TV after this time. Some 28 percent of this group is between 6 and 8 years old.

Can a bedroom culture be the cause of antisocial behavior? The young perpetrators of the shooting at Littleton High School in Colorado created a universe of violent and explicitly fascistic fantasies in their bedrooms. They made extensive use of the Internet. Livingstone warns us that "you have to be careful about drawing conclusions from extreme incidents. Youngsters like those are subject to all kinds of pressures. It's all too easy to treat technology as a scapegoat. Deeper-lying causes such as poverty or broken families are harder to deal with. So the video recorder gets the blame."

The modern household is already packed with media. Is there any scope for a new invention for sending and receiving pictures? Do the family members have time to incorporate a device like that into their already overfull media mix? "I suppose we could still find some time, here and there. Families could eat together less often, and children could spend less time hanging around aimlessly in the street," Livingstone says. "Seriously though, I do wonder whether there will be a market for separate gizmos, or whether all these things will be built into the computer. I can imagine the computer turning into something like a second TV set that is left on all day and that performs a variety of functions. You could send images by e-mail without needing another piece of hardware."


Livingstone is skeptical about the need for an appliance to promote emotional communication between family members. "The only indication that such a need exists is the enormous growth of the greeting card industry. People are sending one another cards for more and more occasions. For my lovely mum, thanks for your support in passing my drivers' exam, and so on," she says.

"Bedtime is not so much time to go to sleep as the start of bedroom time"

All the same, Livingstone does not expect young people to have much need of sending one another images. "I am sure parents would generally like to have more time for communicating with their children. Children, on the other hand, pull away from that. They are afraid they will find it boring," she says. Youngsters mainly use media as a kind of identity display. By having their own TV programs, videos, CDs and computer games, they try to distance themselves from their parents' culture. Young people are enthusiastic about virtual communication channels such as e-mail and chat boxes, precisely because of their lack of visual communication. In a chat group, you can experiment to your heart's content with other roles and completely different identities. Boys transform themselves into girls and shy teenagers become assertive young adults. "The main use of e-mail among teenagers is for flirting," Livingstone says. "It's much better than face-to-face contact for passing risqué remarks. You can keep things vague and then pull out without losing face. Images are much more direct. If you send someone a pink chocolate heart, it's a whole statement which is hard to wriggle out of later. Youngsters are well aware of the language of images but it's a language that is not suited to every purpose. Young people tend not to communicate all that directly, as I observed during the interviews for my book. Their language was full of expressions like 'you know' and 'it's hard to say'; it's as though they were trying to avoid taking any clear standpoint. They have a very self-protective way of talking to one another. Sometimes the continual 'you knows' drove me mad. No, I don't know, I said to them, so please tell me!"

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Sonia Livingstone <> is a senior lecturer in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics. Together with Moira Bovill she recently published the report Young People New Media. This major research report investigates the new media environment for children and young people in Britain in the late 1990s.

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