Young audiences have been a buzzword for a while across the entire audiovisual industry. In these digital times – saturated with overproduction of youth content that has never been distributed more easily – the competition for young audiences became a rat race. To reach the youngsters, one needs to get to know them well first. Thus, the content producers – from broadcasters and audiovisual public funds, via streaming platforms and studios, to YouTubers, vloggers, and all kinds of influencers – have developed their own ways of researching tastes, habits and behavior of target audiences. Broadcasters commission audience reports from external consultants, streaming platforms treasure the algorithm-based audience data, while YouTubers simply co-develop content with their fan-bases to ensure that it is watched. But how film & TV scholars researching young audiences position themselves within this paradigm? What are their findings good for? Which methodological challenges do they face while collecting and creating data on young audiences?
As audience researchers within the project “Reaching Young Audiences: Serial Fiction and Cross-Media Storyworlds for Children and Young Audiences” we regularly experience methodological challenges and reflect upon them with varying levels of frustration. These challenges are numerous, but there are six of them that stand out as the most recurrent ones. And even though our research focuses on Danish youngsters and Danish film & TV content, these six challenges might be universally shared among young-audiences-researchers worldwide.
Finding a balance between “on-site” and “online” methodological traditions
It is self-evident that children and young audiences massively watch screen fiction online. Therefore, a lot can be learned from tracking and observing their behavior on YouTube or social media. Digital methodologies such as Netnography (see Caliandro 2014) invite for an analysis of publicly available online data on different platforms. This is a time-efficient and cost-efficient approach as researchers do not have to spend time and money recruiting and scanning respondents. When we must research a specific group of youngsters in relation to specific screen content, then we recruit and scan respondents, and ask them to record their behavior, habits, and opinions about that content over a period. This way, we receive unique data in the form of rich multimedia files and analyze them remotely. This autoethnographic methodological approach is generically called digital ethnography (see Standlee 2017) and mobile ethnography is among its most common tools.
These online methodological frameworks, indeed, keep children within their comfort zone and are less invasive than the traditional offline methods such as interviews, focus groups and analogue ethnography. But are they enough? How much do they tell us about the young audiences’ offline lives? How do we keep respondents focused on the tasks if they are too remote? Do we simply have to talk to them face-to-face sometimes? Online research methods are evidently inspiring, rich and efficient. They generate relevant and well-informed studies. Yet our impression is that triangulating online research results with some offline research can be only beneficial.
(Mis)communicating with the industry
As mentioned above, all the major players within the audiovisual industry engage in audience research. As audience scholars we increasingly get in touch with these industry professionals to exchange findings, methods and experiences or to simply inspire each other. When our research project started in 2019, we embarked on finding the most suitable mix of methods for researching young Danish audiences’ perception of quality and relevance in Danish screen fiction. Talking to Danish industry professionals was, therefore, important part of our strategy. They showed us methods for online testing of audience-potential for specific films or series. We learned about digital surveys for getting a macro-picture of Danish young audiences; about an application of design thinking to developing content for specific target-audiences; and about the use of mobile ethnography and AI in obtaining a more nuanced qualitative insights into the audiences’ behavior and attitudes. Researchers can benefit in great deal from adopting these methods.
However, the industry professionals and researchers use these methods for two very different goals. The former generates audience-data opportunistically – to maximize their organizations’ capital. The latter uses the unique audience-data to reflect critically and independently on specific societal processes. Scholars can, however, find it challenging to always keep these different goals in mind. Inattentive and unexperienced researchers can fall into the trap of taking for granted the industry reports and talks, or suddenly feeling more native within the industry than within the research environment. Thus, learning to keep a distance from industry professionals while at the same time being friends with them is an important project in the lives of audience researchers and, I would add, media scholars in general.
Ethical conduct is an absolute priority while researching children and adolescents. The proper consents from parents must be obtained and the underage respondents must be treated with the utmost respect. Yet, the ever-increasing administrative workload linked to meeting many data-handling regulations can be overwhelming. The EU GDPR legislation and its (varied) national and even institutional interpretations combined with complex institutional data-handling regulations sometime put the researcher under a constant fear that they might forget about yet another rule. If that is discovered too late, then the legitimacy of the whole research can be brought into question. And researchers in children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable in this regard. So, better triple-check the rules and regulations of your country and institutional ethical committees!
Ensuring diversity among respondents
In order to speed up their research or avoid complications in obtaining parents’ consent, researchers of young audiences tend to recruit respondents primarily through their own personal and professional networks. Therefore, respondents are often children of the researcher’s friends or friends’ friends, relatives or colleagues. In some cases, especially in small countries, this can limit the diversity of the sample of respondents. It is demanding and time-consuming to ensure gender balance as well as geographical, social, or ethnic diversity within a sample, but it really is crucial to ensure the validity of the findings. Using your closest networks for pilot projects always works well, but when doing the actual study, it makes sense to invest some time, energy and financial resources in reaching out also to respondents from socio-economic and ethnic groups we rarely talk to.
We do not speak children’s language. Where do we find an interpreter?
When talking to youngsters, either face-to-face during the interviews and focus groups or remotely via digital communication tools, grown-up researchers may feel like they do not speak the language of the younger generations. The way we formulate questions and tasks and explain the purpose of our research may sound confusing, boring and too much school-like to youngsters. When we see this coming, we should find intermediaries to restore the communication. In our project, we ask student assistants much more familiar with the slang and lifestyle of children and adolescents to translate and interpret our questions, tasks and instructions using the young vocabulary. Likewise, the researcher could recruit older teenagers to interpret the tasks to smaller children and thus keep them engaged.
Making children feel at home rather than at school
Finally, it is a challenge to make our research participatory as some scholars have already noted (e.g. Clark & Richards 2017). Young respondents should not feel like passive students answering teachers’ questions. They should feel as our fellow co-researchers or consultants who despite their young age still have some valuable expertise we do not. Researchers should bear this in mind when drafting the questions and tasks for their young respondents.
We also concluded that the agency of our young respondents increases whenever they can answer questions anonymously, especially if they need to rate the specific content we curated for them. The anonymity removes the social pressure and makes their answers more revelatory than the answers they provide in interviews and focus groups.
This challenge list is far from being exhaustive and final. It is rather inspirational and invites for a dialogue on how we can research digital natives and “global natives” more insightfully and understand better their media tastes and habits as well as their definition of quality and relevance in screen fiction. We look forward to exploring this area further within the RYA research project.
Petar Mitric is Assistant Professor in the Section of Film Studies and Creative Media Industries at the University of Copenhagen. His research interests span audience-design practices, audiovisual policies and film & TV co-production.
 The term “global natives” is taken from the title of a Norwegian research project. It refers to the new (lost) generation of youngsters who spend most of their time on global platforms such as Youtube, TikTok and Netflix ignoring the local platforms in their native languages. See https://www.hf.uio.no/imk/english/research/projects/global-natives/index.html
Standlee, Alecea (2017). Digital Ethnography and Youth Culture: Methodological Techniques and Ethical Dilemmas. Sociological Studies of Children and Youth (22). doi: 10.1108/S1537-466120180000022015. PDF.
Clark, Jessica and Sara Richards (2017). “The Cherished Conceits of Research with Children: Does Seeking the Agentic Voice of the Child Through Participatory Methods Deliver What It Promises?”. Sociological Studies of Children and Youth (22). doi: 10.1108/S1537-466120180000022007. Preprint at https://repository.essex.ac.uk/25950/.
Caliandro, Alessandro (2014). “Ethnography in Digital Spaces: Ethnography of Virtual Worlds, Netnography, and Digital Ethnography,” in Handbook of Business Anthropology, ed. Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny, Walnut Creek, Left Coast Press, 738–61. Preprint on Academia.edu.