Children’s Attention Divided

Oct 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It’s no secret that people often do other things while watching TV. What isn’t as well known is how those other activities impact the attention viewers pay to TV programming and, more important for media planners, TV commercials.
Market researchers might assert that in reality people are absorbing much of the content emanating from the TV screen, including the ads, while doing other things. The problem, according to some new media research findings, is that the number of things people-especially kids-do while watching TV appears to be expanding with the number of media options available to the average consumer.

TV isn’t competing for attention only with other media, but with anything and everything else that people do while sitting in front of their sets. The explosion of new media options merely complicates the issue for planners, who are increasingly being required to make judgment calls on the impact of other activities on advertising.
“We all talk about multitasking in terms of media, but you’d be surprised about what we are learning in terms of the other things people do while they are using media,” said Debbie Solomon, senior partner and group research director for media buying giant MindShare.
Indeed, some years ago Nielsen Media Research conducted a series of unusual studies in which it placed cameras inside the TV sets of a handful of households in an effort to learn what people do while watching TV and how that might affect their attention to TV programming and advertising. To their surprise, Nielsen executives learned that people engage in all sorts of things-including some decidedly adult activities-while in front of their TV sets.
The study also revealed some interesting things about how children watch TV. Many of the kids in this study rarely even looked at the screen but were engaged in other activities, such as homework, playing with toys or doing crafts.
The reality, said MindShare’s Ms. Solomon, is that people-especially children-do many other things besides using media while using media. “The No. 1 activity that people engage in while using media is eating,” she said.
New research conducted by Ms. Solomon and Roberta McConochie, director, consumer and industry trends, for Arbitron, found that talking to other people was the No. 1 activity children engage in while watching TV. Nearly all of the children age 8 to 17 surveyed by MindShare said they talk to another person at least some of the time while watching TV.
In terms of activities children say they “always” do while watching TV, eating is the most common. About 10 percent of kids say they always eat while watching TV. Social health implications aside, the findings are important for media planners who might need to understand the impact these so-called co-activities have on the attention children pay to advertising on TV. It could be, for example, that food advertising might be extremely relevant to children who are eating in front of the set.
Meanwhile, the study shows a vast array of other activities that, while not engaged in with the same frequency of talking and eating, do occupy much of the time kids spend watching TV.
“Kids are doing a lot of chores and homework, things that do seem to require a reasonable amount of mental effort,” said Ms. Solomon, a child psychologist. She said the impact of those activities isn’t always a negative for advertising attentiveness.
“One thing we know about learning theory is that children learn better when they are exposed to multiple stimuli,” she explained. That being said, Ms. Solomon added there are some logical media/activity complements that media planners need to consider.
For activities such as homework and chores, she said, radio, not TV, “is a perfect complement.”
The study also sheds new light on how children are multitasking media and raises some planning questions about how those simultaneous media exposures might be impacting their attention to advertising.
“What we found was that so many kids, more than half of them, and even the youngest ones, are multitasking while they’re watching TV,” Arbitron’s Ms. McConochie said. “They’re watching the Web, but they’re reading magazines and doing other things too.”
The findings are important, she said, because they imply that the attention spans of children may be far less “static” than the ad industry may think. “It’s dynamic,” she said, “and the measurement systems need to reflect that.”
Ms. McConochie is alluding, of course, to the Portable People Meter, a hand-held device that Arbitron and Nielsen Media Research have been testing as a potential new method for measuring audiences for both TV and radio and possibly for other media and other types of consumer behavior.
Because the pager-size device, which is simply worn by respondents, is so easy to use, Ms. McConochie said, it is ideal for kids. In fact, she said, their compliance rates in Arbitron’s PPM tests so far rival those of adults.
And because the method is able to measure even very young children, it could be a breakthrough for kids audience measurement. Historically, radio ratings systems have measured only kids 12 years and older. The U.S. PPM trials measure kids 6 and older, and a Canadian test is measuring kids 2 and older.