Just 24% of 4-18-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 from the BFI 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 4-18-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.

57% of children in 2021 (an increase from 54% in 2020) felt that there are not enough people who look like them on TV, whilst many children with a disability, from ethnic minority backgrounds or from LGBTQ+ community felt they were completely invisible from TV altogether.

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’ (8-13 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.

PHD student Laura Sinclair 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.”

Professor Jeanette Steemers, Professor of Culture, Media & Creative Industries of Kings College London said: “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. 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.”

Head of Fund Jackie Edwards said: “The YACF exists to support the creation of unique, inspiring, diverse shows for children and young people in this country. 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 from this month.

Jon Creamer

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