If You Ask A Stupid Question…

I almost expect new research on our media usage to be misleading these days. You know the sort of thing; like asking an online panel how many hours a day/days per week do they claim to do this or that and then concluding that people spend more time online than doing anything else. We’ve had a steady flow of that kind of research from the digital specialists for so long now that I’ve become inured to it, but when the industry regulator – OFCOM – engages in similarly dodgy research, the hackles begin to rise again.

In their latest study of young people’s media use, OFCOM asked a sample of 1700 children (aged 5-15) and their parents a number of questions about how much time they spend with different media channels and how important each one is to them. In particular, they ask a question about which piece of technology they would most miss if it was taken away from them; television, the internet, or their mobile phone.

Is it me, or is that a stupid question? I mean, if I asked you which was most important to you – music or your i-pod – how would you answer? Surely, you would say, they can’t be compared. I would miss music more because without it, my i-pod is not much good to me, but without my i-pod I could still listen to music in a variety of different ways…so, music it is!

With devices (e.g. television) compared to generic content (e.g. the internet), there is a paradox just waiting to happen. Using the same logic, I would say without the internet I would miss lots of things because it delivers them all, but without television (i.e. the device) I wouldn’t necessarily miss anything because I can get the same content via the internet on other devices. Duh!

I’d love to know how the question would pan out if they used television content explicitly within the question; let’s say the choice was internet without professional long-form content of any kind or professional long-form content without any of the other internet functionality. I’d say it would be too close to call.

What the research did show was that television would be the least missed medium/device amongst 12-15 year olds, behind the internet and their mobile phones. It reported that 28% of children aged 12 to 15 said they would most miss their mobile, and 25% would most miss the internet if deprived of them – compared to only 18% citing television. A year ago mobile was the most desired (despite being owned by less than half the sample – in fact, a significant number of those who didn’t have a mobile still claimed it was the device they would miss the most!), while TV was level-pegging with the internet at 24%. The research also showed a decrease in those choosing TV amongst the younger age groups although 5-7 year olds and 8-11 year olds still choose TV over internet or mobile for now.

But then, the report goes on to mention that British children are watching more television than ever before, but much of the increase is due to viewing on computer screens or mobile devices. In fact, the report states, their TV viewing has gone up by over twelve per cent in the last four years, equivalent to an extra two hours per week of television viewing per child. Catch-up services are a key component part of this rise; one in four 5-15 year olds use them and this rises to a third amongst 12-15 year olds, but even more of the increase will come from viewing to the live broadcast schedules.

Television has never been more popular amongst young people; even the OFCOM report acknowledges that fact. They are watching record amounts of TV content, they are embracing the new ways of viewing and they are chatting about TV (programmes and ads) like never before. Asking them whether they prefer a device or a technology does not indicate a falling out of love with the medium, merely that they are moving with the times and watching in ways that are more convenient.

I have no doubt that the technology that is available to children nowadays is massively increasing their options. Sometimes this will result in new behaviours, although my belief is that most times it is a different manifestation of well-established childhood phenomena; for example, a couple of years ago it was common to hear from conference platforms that TV was dying because “ my kids are coming home from school and spending most of their time on Facebook”. My argument to that is that kids have always done that, just in real life rather than virtually. It’s called hanging out with your friends. The only difference nowadays is that you can hang out with your mates AND watch TV; that was never an option when I was hanging out with my mates outside the fish & chip shop!

So, if the digital cheerleaders ask a stupid question and get a stupid answer, we can almost forgive them; they are merely using the tools at their disposal to make a (rather flimsy at times) case for online. But if the industry regulator asks a stupid question, the consequences can be rather more serious. The implications are too important to sanction research that generates a neat headline in the Media Guardian but fails to throw much light on to a much more complex area of digital convergence.

  • Paul Keers

    Generally I find that if you ask a stupid question online, you get an answer from a content farm…

  • Fred Perkins

    I totally agree with you, David.  Often, however, it’s not so much that the question is stupid, but that it is asked in order to produce ‘research’ which proves a specific point that the researcher wants to demonstrate.

    It’s a sad fact that the vast majority of ‘research’ nowadays is paid for by commercial organisations who want to show how their product/service is the answer to the future.The “researcher” is told what the required result is, and commissioned to produce ‘research’ which delivers just that.  Hence the impression given by so much ‘research’ that (in this particular context) broadcast TV is dead (or about to die), with us all abandoning it in favour of the latest VoD facility or android device or whatever. Nobody addresses the paradox that TV viewing hours continue to rise…

    It’s becoming more and more difficult to get at real, objective, facts… which get buried (or ignored) by hype arising from self-serving ‘research’.

    Ofcom generally DOES produce some useful research (since they’re after facts rather than fantasy); but in this case, the question was plain stupid. 

    Dunno if you ‘subscribe’ to it, but I’ve almost abandoned YouGov polls, because the questions more and more are simply designed to produce a required ‘answer’… It’s infuriating when you are asked to choose between A,B,C or D, but with no option to answer ‘none of the above’.

  • tim foley

    Dave. If you are a cunning researcher, there is also a simpler explanation for the ordering. Kids own a phone, they don’t own the TV, so if you ask a kid to give up something they own, they will hold onto it more than something the family own irrespective of the value they derive from it. Interesting data all the same! 

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    • David Brennan

      If it was TV vs the phone, I’d expect the majority to say the phone – as you say, they ‘own’ it. It’s more these pointless comparisons of devices vs technologies (and, as an industry, we too easily confuse the two) that drives me nuts!

  • Colin Stone

    A well written piece David, but what will the kids say when all of them are watching tv exclusively on their ‘phones?  

    • David Brennan

      Thanks Colin. My guess is, they’d say “I can’t see the ball/shoes/captions (delete as appropriate) on this, where’s the telly?”