Just 24% of 4- to 18-year olds in the UK believe they see children and young people that look like them on television, but the role TV shows play in the lives of young audiences in the UK remains vital, new research has found.

The study, led by Cardiff University and commissioned by the BFI, which administers the Government funded Young Audiences Content Fund, has drawn data from entrants to the BFI’s See Yourself on Screen Challenge, which invited young people to create an idea for a TV show. The report investigates how young people who took part in the challenge feel about the television they consume in the UK on free-to-access channels and platforms, taking in hundreds of 4- to 18-year-olds from across the UK.

The research found that over the last two years, TV has helped children and teenagers feel part of a community at a time when they felt isolated from their friends, classmates and family, and has helped to spread positivity in their lives. However, reflecting previous studies that show children and young people don’t feel their lives and experiences are reflected on the small screen, just 35% of children think they see young people on TV that share similar interests or experiences with them, just 31% of children see other young people they think sound like them and only 24% of UK children see young people on TV they think look like them.

Underlining the point, the study shows how the lack of representation is driving young audiences towards YouTube and social media, where young audiences feel they can see people and find experiences that reflect their own, even though many also noted the detrimental effect some content they consume on these platforms can have. Children among the older age bracket – 14 to 18 years – shared their view that social media was exacerbating the issue of having to conform to a certain ‘look’, reflected in one idea for a TV show submitted which centred around social media taking over people’s lives and how it had ‘brainwashed them’. 

The study reveals how children want to have their voices heard on the big issues of our time, be that political, economic or environmental, with one entrant calling for more shows fronted by children themselves – their idea, Kids in Space (4- to 7-year-old, England), would provide a ‘…safe place for kids to play, explore, learn and dream of what the future will hold’.

Young people across the country, the research explained, have a desire to see more diverse representation in their shows, with 57% of children in 2021 (an increase from 54% in 2020) feeling that there are not enough people who look like them on TV, while many children with a disability, from ethnic minority backgrounds or from LGBTQ+ community felt they were completely invisible from TV altogether. The data concluded that under-18’s recognise that young people can play an important role in providing visibility in order to normalise differences in society, with one teenage entrant observing that shows aimed at children were seeking to address this lack of representation but not for their age bracket. 

The report underlines the vital role television plays for children and young people, a point accentuated over the last 18 months amid the pandemic. The findings show that television is a media form that young audiences still value for the sense of shared viewing and experiences it offers and that children, particularly younger children, see TV as a key part of their education, citing many popular public service broadcasting shows. One entrant noted that were their viewing habits to change, they would miss ‘sitting on the sofa with my family all watching the same thing at the same moment in time and enjoying being together as a family’ (8- to 13-year-old, England).

The study also revealed that children with no siblings, children from divorced families and children with key worker parents were keen to see more diverse experiences on screen reflecting their situation, with some children noting that television provides a unique sense of togetherness that other forms of media do not. One 8- to 13-year-old in England commented, ‘The feeling that other people are watching the same show at the same time and experiencing the same thing. Then you feel like part of a community which is great!’, whilst another noted: ‘The majority of people are feeling lonely in quarantine. Although we have social media, we still feel detached’ (8 to 13-year-old, England).

Launched as a three-year pilot by the UK government and administered by the BFI, the Young Audiences Content Fund was created to work with public service broadcasters to address these issues, which had been accentuated by a stark decline in the creation of original programming for young audiences in the UK. In its two years to date, the fund has invested in the creation of a plethora of new shows, from Teen First Dates (E4) to sustainable craft show Makeaway Takeaway (CITV) and The World According The Grandpa (Milkshake!), drawing critical acclaim and winning a string of awards including new projects in indigenous languages such as Sol — a film on grief created for the Celtic languages Irish (TG4), Scottish Gaelic (BBC ALBA) and Welsh (S4C).

The latest evaluation report, which details a complete assessment of the YACF’s performance and the impact it has had on both industry and audiences to date is published here. 

As part of fund activity, the BFI created the See Yourself on Screen Challenge in 2020, which launched for a second year in June. The challenge invited 4- to 18-year-olds across the UK to create an idea for a mini-TV show, receive masterclasses from celebrities and leading television figures, and then see the idea they create at home premiere on one of the partner channels, with the shows due to air this October across Channel 5’s Milkshake, CITV, E4, S4C and TG4

Ideas for the See Yourself On Screen Challenge this year, which tasked young viewers with creating a TV show that would air 75 years in the future in 2076 in acknowledgement of this year marking the 75th anniversary since the first regular programming for children in the UK, included ideas for cooking shows with recipes from around the world, shows about coping mechanisms, ways to keep positive, shows that presented a snapshot of their lives for others to gain an insight from and more. Even as young as the 4-to-7 years age group, children spoke about mental health and the role television can play in creating a shared experience to discuss such matters, with one male entrant noting: ‘I want to let other young people know there are things you can do to help when your mind is worrying too much’ (this entrant created a monologue talking about how his family was coping with lockdown).

PHD student Laura Sinclair, whose study involves an investigation into the representation of gendered parental roles in pre-school children’s television and Dr Cynthia Carter of Cardiff University said: “This research provided us with a unique opportunity to hear the voices of hundreds of children across the UK and their viewpoints on children’s television. Through conducting the research, it quickly became apparent that television plays a vital role in creating a sense of community, particularly during a time of uncertainty. Children value the sense of shared viewing and experiences that television continues to offer. Creating high quality, free to view content should remain a top priority in order to reflect the lives of young viewers.” 

Baroness Floella Benjamin DBE, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children’s Media and the Arts, said: “Contrary to some belief, television remains the first-place our young people go to be entertained, to learn about the world and to feel part of a community. The methods our young audiences consume television may continue to evolve, but this report shows that there is a huge appetite among young viewers for original television that reflects their lives, and if we don’t provide it they will find their way to content that is lesser in quality and potentially harmful to them.”

“This research offers crucial insights into how children living in the UK feel about how they are represented on screen and what they truly value about British screen content made especially for them by UK-based creative producers,” said Professor Jeanette Steemers, Professor of Culture, Media & Creative Industries of Kings College London. “The findings underscore the importance of interventions by the BFI’s YACF, whose investment in content that represents the diversity of children and their experiences, makes a valuable contribution to the range of quality, free-to-air programming that children can access – especially in these challenging times.”  

“The YACF exists to support the creation of unique, inspiring, diverse shows for children and young people in this country,” said Head of Fund Jackie Edwards. “The fund is directly addressing the gaps found in the research released today. YACF support has delivered 42 brand new, UK-originated programmes that would not otherwise have been financed by the market. Furthermore, we are financing new stories from all corners of the UK, with a good spread of projects across all target ages, including older teens, bringing to screen fantastic new series that reflect all of the UK. All of our new projects need to meet the BFI’s Diversity Standards, which are playing a key role in improving diversity across the sector in front of and behind the camera.” 

The full report will be published soon. The See Yourself On Screen Challenge winning mini-TV shows will air on Channel 5’s Milkshake!, CITV, E4, S4C and TG4 this October.

Originally published: 11 October 2021