Children in the UK (aged 5 to 15)[1] now spend around 20 minutes more online, in a typical day, than they do in front of a TV set – just over two hours online, and a little under two hours watching TV – according to Ofcom’s annual study of their media use [2].

While children’s online time stopped growing for the first time in 2018 – estimated at an average of 2 hours 11 minutes per day, the same as the year before – their average daily TV time has fallen year on year by almost eight minutes, to an estimated 1 hour 52 minutes.

YouTube remains children’s primary online destination, with 80% having used it. Nearly half (49%) of children, and a third (32%) of pre-schoolers aged 3-4, now watch subscription on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Now TV.

Among those who watch both YouTube and TV programmes on a TV set, nearly half of ‘tweens’ aged 8-11 and older children aged 12-15 (49%) prefer watching content on YouTube. However, more than a third get the same enjoyment from both viewing experiences.

Children’s preference for watching programmes on TV versus YouTube videos (2017/2018)

Two charts showing children's preferences between television and YouTube. Charts focus on ages 8-11 and 12-15.

Life on the small screen

To help understand why children are drawn towards online content, this year Ofcom has undertaken a detailed qualitative study of children’s viewing.

A panel of 40 boys and girls, aged 4-16, from around the UK, offered in-depth data, seven-day diaries and interviews on what they were watching and why. The study revealed powerful preferences for choice, control and a sense of community. It found that:

  • YouTube dominates, followed by Netflix. Children in the study overwhelmingly preferred watching YouTube (almost all children watched it daily) and Netflix, to any other platforms [3].
  • Live TV is parent-led, and often reserved for family time. Most of the children in the study watched live, scheduled TV, though only a small number did so daily [4]. Live TV viewing was often convened by parents, allowing the family to come together to watch soaps, quizzes or ‘appointment viewing’ such as Strictly Come Dancing or The X-Factor. Some children used live TV to fill time, often while they were doing something else such as eating dinner.
  • Choice and control. Many children said they valued YouTube and Netflix for offering instant control over what they are watching, and access to seemingly endless, personalised content. Children appreciated the platforms’ content recommendations and valued receiving notifications from the channels they subscribed to. Some preferred to watch content privately, whether this be on their personal devices or in their bedrooms.
  • Children turn to YouTube for three things. The study found most of the children’s viewing on YouTube fell into three broad categories [5]:
  1. Hobbies and passions. Lots of children watched videos related to their offline interests – such as tutorials to further their passion for music or football. Some experienced similar gratification watching others participating in hands-on activities – such as arts and craft, or playing sport – to the extent that they said they no longer took part in these activities themselves in the ‘real world’.
  2. Vloggers and community. Many children watched ‘vloggers’ or YouTubers, often connecting with them through a shared passion such as sports or crafts, and enjoying becoming part of their ‘follower’ community. Lots of the children said they looked up to their favourite vloggers as role models, or regarded them as a friend who could provide support or advice. This type of content also appealed to children’s natural curiosity about other people’s ‘normal’ lives; they felt the videos had an authenticity which made them easy to relate to.
  3. Sensory videos. Many children enjoyed videos which included ‘satisfying’ noises – such as other people making and playing with slime, or opening presents. Such videos are described as ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response’ – due to their ability to generate a feeling of well-being and relaxation among some people.

Yih-Choung Teh, Strategy and Research Group Director at Ofcom, said: “Children have told us in their own words why online content captures most of their attention. These insights can help inform parents and policymakers as they consider the role of the internet in children’s lives.

“This research also sheds light on the challenge for UK broadcasters in competing for kids’ attention. But it’s clear that children today still value original TV programmes that reflect their lives, and those primetime TV moments which remain integral to family life.”

Managing screen time

Ofcom’s national, quantitative research also finds that older children are finding it harder to control their screen time than they were last year.

The proportion of 12-15s who agreed they found it difficult to moderate their screen time has increased to a third (35%), up from a quarter (27%) the year before. Seven in ten older children (71%) are allowed to take their mobile phone to bed.

But in spite of these challenges, around two thirds of 12-15 year olds (63%) considered they ultimately achieved ‘a good balance between screen time and doing other things’.

Quantitative research: Ofcom’s Children’s Media Use and Attitudes report 2018 – based on around 2,000 interviews with children and parents nationwide. 2018 data collected from 1,430 interviews with parents of 5-15s and children aged 8-15, along with 630 interviews with parents of children aged 3-4.

Qualitative research: Revealing Reality Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why (PDF, 6.1 MB) – 40 children and young people aged between 4 and 16 took part during winter 2018. Respondents were from a range of locations across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each child completed a seven-day media diary. Objective data, including ‘watch histories’ and app usage statistics, was also collected from devices. Finally, researchers spent time in each household conducting interviews.

  1. Unless otherwise specified, the data cited for ‘children’ relates to youngsters aged 5-15.
  2. When making comparisons across media, as is the case here, it is worth bearing in mind that there will be a degree of overlap between these estimates and some of these activities may also be undertaken simultaneously. Watching TV on a TV set will include watching live broadcast TV as well as on-demand or subscription services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. Going online could include playing games online, going on social media or watching videos online.
  3. Out of the 40 children in the study, 37 and 16 watched YouTube and Netflix respectively every day.
  4. Out of the 40 children in the study 35 watched live TV and 10 watched it every day.
  5. Ofcom’s quantitative data also shows that particular types of content on YouTube have grown in popularity among 5-15 year olds since 2017: ‘How to’ video tutorials about hobbies or sports (from 40% to 45% in 2017 and 2018 respectively watch this type of content), videos featuring vlogger personalities (32% to 41%) and ‘unboxing’ videos where toys are unwrapped or assembled (21% to 25%).
  6. In July 2018, Ofcom published an update on our review of children’s content. This identified a lack of original, high-quality programmes specifically made for older children, a limited range of programmes that helped children understand the world around them and allowed them to see themselves and their lives reflected on screen. We have asked the commercial PSBs – Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV – to develop plans to address these concerns by spring 2019. We expect these plans to demonstrate how they will reach children across their full range of services and platforms, and they will exploit the internet, to take account of the changes in viewing habits and preferences of younger audiences.

Kauser Kanji has been working in online video for 19 years, formerly at Virgin Media, ITN and NBC Universal, and founded VOD Professional in 2011. He has since completed major OTT projects for, amongst others, A+E Networks, the BBC, BBC Studios, Channel 4, DR (Denmark), Liberty Global, Netflix, Sony Pictures, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation and UKTV. He now writes industry analyses, hosts an online debate show, OTT Question Time, as well as its in-person sister event, OTT Question Time Live

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