Teens on screens: Ofcom survey reveals life online for kids and young adults

Internet, Social Media, Websites, YouTube

  • Drawn to drama: Kids gravitate to dramatic, short-form videos on social media
  • Rise of ‘split-screening’: Trend for watching two videos at once
  • More careful, less creative: Youngsters more socially self-conscious, posting fewer videos.
  • Screen time: 16–24-year-olds more likely to take social media break to manage wellbeing

Children are gravitating to ‘dramatic’ online videos which appear designed to maximise stimulation but require minimal effort and focus according to Ofcom’s annual study into children’s relationship with media and the online world.

Almost all children aged 3 to 17 (96%) watch videos on video-sharing sites and apps. More than half of all youngsters view live-streamed video content (58%), which increases to 80% among 16-17-year-olds.

YouTube remains the most popular site or app, used by nearly nine in ten 3–17-year-olds (88%), although short-form video apps TikTok (50% to 53%) and Snapchat (42% to 46%) saw significant increases in use over the last year. 

Rivalries, reactions, rapidity – what makes a popular video

Much of the social media content consumed by the young participants in our latest Children’s Media Lives study can be characterised as ‘dramatic’ videos, engineered to grab and maintain their attention, but which require minimal effort and focus.

Gossip, conflict, controversy, extreme challenges and high stakes – often involving large sums of money – are recurring themes. ‘Commentary’ and ‘reaction’ video formats, particularly those stirring up rivalry between influencers while encouraging viewers to pick sides, were also appealing to participants.

These videos, popularised by the likes of Mr Beast, Infinite and JackSucksAtStuff, are often short-form, with a distinct, stimulating, editing style, designed to create maximum dramatic effect. This involves heavy use of choppy, ‘jump-cut’ edits, rapidly changing camera angles, special effects, animations and fast-paced speech.

The ‘split-screening’ appeal

This year also saw the rise of ‘split-screening’. Split-screen social media posts allow children to watch more than one short-form video simultaneously, on a single-screen, side-by-side or stacked on top of one another. This appears to be a progression of the ‘multi-screening’ behaviours seen in previous research waves, where children reported difficulties focusing on one screen-based activity at a time.

Sometimes the two split-screen videos watched by participants were related, such as influencers reacting and offering an opinion on real-world events. In other cases, the two videos had no obvious connection.

Social media… not all that social

Children are much less likely to post their own videos (32%) than to watch them (96%). Correspondingly, children in the Media Lives study said they are seeing less content created by their friends, and even when they do see it, are interacting with it less. For these children, social interaction between friends online is now primarily confined to chat apps or message functions within apps, rather than on public feeds.

With their social media feeds dominated by professionalised content, our Children’s Media Lives participants spoke about feeling increasingly self-conscious about how they portrayed themselves online – posting rarely, to limited circles, or not at all. Some children were creating edited or filtered videos and photos , but were saving them in their ‘drafts’, with no intention of ever posting them.

Striking the screen-life-wellbeing balance

Today’s research also includes a deep-dive into the online lives of older teenagers and young adults aged 16 to 24. This group are among the most avid online users, typically using nine online communication sites or apps on a regular basis – compared to six for the average adult internet user. Nearly nine in 10 (87%) use all four types of online communications – social media, messaging, video-sharing and live-streaming – significantly higher than the average user (61%).

As with younger children, Snapchat and TikTok have grown in popularity among 16-24s over the last year, overtaking Instagram as the social media platform they said they used most often. BeReal – an app which asks users to share, once a day, a real-life, unfiltered photo with friends – has also seen notable growth among this age group, with use increasing from 9% to 22% between spring and autumn 2022.

Just over half of social media users aged 16-24 (51%) thought they spent too much time on social media – up from 42% in 2021, and significantly higher than average (32%). But they are also setting boundaries. This group were significantly more likely than average to take a deliberate break from using any social media apps (36% vs. 25% average) or delete apps to avoid spending too much time on them (32% vs. 23% average).

Older teens and young adults are also generally more likely to seek out online content and services that support their wellbeing (89% vs. 78% of all online adults). Specifically, use of websites or apps designed to help with relaxation (44% vs. 34%), improve mood (43% vs. 26%), aid sleep (37% vs. 22%), manage anxiety (33% vs. 19%), follow a fitness programme or health-tracker (29% vs. 24%), meditate (21% vs. 15%) or feel energised (20% vs. 11%) was higher than average among this 16-24 age group of internet users.

Chris Price
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