Unformatted text preview: Sonia Livingstone From family television to bedroom culture:
young people's media at home
Originally published in Devereux, Eoin, (ed.) Media studies: key issues and debates. London,
UK: SAGE Publications, pp. 302-321.
© 2007 Eoin Devereux
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This document is the author’s submitted version of the book section. There may be differences
between this version and the published version. You are advised to consult the publisher’s
version if you wish to cite from it. From family television to bedroom culture:
Young people’s media at home
Department of Media and Communications
London School of Economics and Political Science
Houghton Street, London, WC2A 2AE, UK
Tel. +44 (0)20 7955 7710
Fax +44 (0)20 7955 7248
Email [email protected] Published as Livingstone, S. (2007) From family television to bedroom culture:
Young people’s media at home. In E. Devereux (Ed.), Media Studies: Key
issues and Debates (302-321). London: Sage. Acknowledgements
Thanks to Moira Bovill and Shenja Vandergraaf for their comments on an earlier version of
this chapter. This chapter draws on material published in Chapter 5 of Young People and
New Media (2002, London: Sage).
‘Bedroom culture’ – especially for young people, a set of conventional meanings and
practices closely associated with identity, privacy and the self has become linked to the
domestic space of the child’s bedroom in late modern society.
‘Risk society’ – in late modern societies, knowledge of and calculations regarding risk and
uncertainty have become central to most or all social, economic and technological
In this chapter, I identify and analyse the role played by the media in underpinning the recent
historical shift from a model of family life centred on the collective space of the living room to
one dispersed throughout the home and, especially, located in the bedroom. It is argued that
the domestic media introduced into Western homes over the past half century or more are
first conceived as communal but then, as they become cheaper and more portable, they are
reconceived as personal media, particularly by children and young people. In sociological
terms, this reflects an underlying process of individualisation, by which it is meant that
traditional social distinctions (particularly social class) are declining in importance as
determinants of people’s (especially young people’s) life course, resulting in a fragmentation
of (or perhaps liberation from) traditional norms and values. This process is linked in turn to
the emergence of the risk society, a term by which Beck (1992) points to the recent (Post
World War II) development of modern society as it faces vast yet uncertain and
unmanageable risks of its own making; for childhood has become one key site of just such
risks and anxieties. In the present chapter, it is argued that as ‘outside’ spaces are seen as
ever more risky for children, ‘home’ takes over as the focus of their safety, identity and
leisure. Within this, the bedroom, and hence bedroom culture, is becoming a central location
– both physically and symbolically – of media use and the mediation of everyday life.
Public and private leisure spaces
At the turn of the twenty-first century, ‘the home is now commonly accepted as providing
personal fulfilment and satisfaction as well as the means of recuperating from the pressures
of the working day’ (Allan, 1985: 57). It was not always thus. The model of the single family 1 home emerged strongly in the middle-classes in the early twentieth century, with a strict
separation of public and private spheres, and with the private constructed as a refuge, a
place for nurturing positive values and for the socialization of children: ‘home sweet home…
is the household interior, an over-decorated and embellished space held in the highest value’
(Segalen, 1996: 400).
With the growing significance of domestic mass media in the second half of the twentieth
century, two distinct trends regarding the home can be identified. These help us understand
the difference between childhood in the 1950s when television arrived, and childhood at the
turn of the twenty first century now that computers and the internet have made similar inroads
into the home. The first trend concerns the shifting boundary between the home and outside,
altering the balance between life in the community and family privacy, as symbolised by the
changing significance of ‘the front door’. Extending this spatial framework, the second trend
concerns the shifting balance between communal family life and the private life of the child,
as symbolised by the growing significance of ‘the bedroom door’.
To take the first trend first, children’s lives are defined by the ways in which:
‘adults seek to impose or negotiate rules and limits, adjusted over time, aimed at
reconciling children’s freedom and security… The nature of the local environment
and the availability of formal recreational services, ranging from parks to clubs,
crucially affect how children negotiate their relationships and use of space outside the
home’ (Hill & Tisdall, 1997: 93).
There has been a gradual shift from children’s leisure time spent outside (in the streets,
woods or countryside) to that spent primarily at home, both reflecting and shaping cultural
conceptions of childhood over the past half century. Interviews with parents about their own
childhoods reveal a dominant image of a carefree childhood spent out of doors (Livingstone,
2002). Idealised and nostalgic though this may be, historians of childhood confirm a ‘shift
from a life focused on the street to one focused on the home’. Further, ‘this was accompanied
by a change in the social organisation of the home. Parents, and in particular fathers,
became less remote and authoritarian, less the centre of attention when they were present’
(Cunningham, 1995: 179).
The second trend has been fuelled by the continual multiplication of media goods at home,
fostering a shift in media use from that of ‘family television’ (Morley, 1986) to that of
individualised media lifestyles (Flichy, 2006) and, for children and young people, of ‘bedroom
culture’ (Bovill & Livingstone, 2001). First the television, then the hi-fi, video recorder,
computer, and now the internet, entered the home for communal use in the living room and
were then gradually relocated to kitchens, bedrooms, even hallways. So, new media today
enter the home in a similar fashion to the television before it, the decision is no longer
whether to have any of these goods but rather how many to have and where to locate them in
the home. This multiplication of domestic media goods is facilitated by the reduction in price
for media goods, by the growth of mobile media (e.g. mobile phone, walkman, ipod), by the
continual process of innovation in the design and marketing of existing technologies, and by
the diversification of media forms (which encourages the multiplication of goods through
upgrading and recycling existing technologies through the household).
For many young people now, a personalised media environment is taken for granted, in
striking contrast with their parents’ upbringing. In interviews with children, some have lost
track of their possessions. One six year old boy told us, ‘I've got two computers in the house,
I've got Sega, and a Nintendo. No, I've got three, Sega, Supernintendo and the normal
Nintendo’. In another family, the children disagreed on the number of television sets they
possessed – was it 9 or 11, they wondered? - although they were clear that every room,
especially the bedrooms, contained a set (Livingstone, 2002).
These two domestic boundaries, marked by the two doors, raise questions about the role of
the media in the changing relations between parents and children, and between public and
private (Livingstone, 2005). The two are also linked. The creation of a media-rich home tends
to be justified by parents in relation to the decline of safe public spaces. Outside spaces are 2 increasingly seen as dangerous, the range and quality of public services has declined, and
media use at home is increasingly construed as educational as well as entertaining
(Buckingham, 2001). More practically, since much leisure time is spent at home, and since
family members’ tastes are increasingly segmented, there are also concrete advantages to
the multiplication of media goods at home.
In what follows, I shall elaborate the argument just sketched above, drawing on findings from
the Young People, New Media project (YPNM). This project interviewed and surveyed
children and young people (aged 6-17) and their parents across the UK in spring 1997,
asking them about the media in their home, their leisure time use, including time spent on
each medium, media-related attitudes and tastes, social contexts of media use, parental
guidance, family communication, and so on (Livingstone, 2002; Livingstone & Bovill, 2001). In
a follow up study, UK Children Go Online (UKCGO) interviewed and surveyed children and
young people (aged 9-19) and their parents across the UK in spring 2004 (Livingstone &
The decline of street culture
I think it's got a lot to do with society. In our day it used to be ‘Watch for the bad man’,
but now it's ‘Watch for the bad man, and the bad woman and the bad policeman and
the little boys and girls’. You cannot trust anybody. It's a horrible thing to say, but you
(working class mother of a 9 year old daughter)
James et al (1998) draw on Beck’s (1992) theory of the risk society to examine how the
spaces for young people’s leisure activities have changed in meaning over the past half
century. Ennew (1994) argues that British children’s lives are ruled by ‘the idea of danger’,
which she sees as having taken a new twist at the beginning of the 1990s. One consequence
of the growing fears regarding children’s safety is a growth in adult management of children’s
leisure space and time. For example, Hillman et al (1990) found that while in 1971 80% of
seven and eight year-old children walked to school on their own, by 1990 this figure had
dropped to 9%.
Parents recall with nostalgia their own childhood freedoms to play out of doors, convinced
that they cannot allow this for their children, and so the home is construed as the haven of
safety. Fears of the outdoors are expressed by parents in urban and rural areas, and reports
of harm to children on television and in the newspapers often figure in parents’ accounts. The
YPNM survey showed that only 11% of parents with children aged 6-17 say the streets where
they live are ‘very safe’ for their child, compared with 56% thinking this about the
neighbourhood where they themselves were brought up.
The perception of public space as relatively unsafe appears to be a particularly British view. 1
Britain is often popularly described as a 'child-unfriendly culture', where many social codes
exist to manage the separation of spaces for children and adults, and many others exist to
regulate children's participation within those adult-designated, or adult-defined 'family'
spaces. However, observing parallel trends in America, Coontz (1997: 17) comments that:
‘People talk about how kids today are unsupervised, and they often are; but in one
sense teens are under more surveillance than in the past. Almost anyone above the
age of 40 can remember places where young people could establish real physical, as
opposed to psychic, distance from adults. In the suburbs it was undeveloped or
abandoned lots and overgrowth woods … In the cities it was downtown areas where
kids could hang out. Many of these places are now gone.
Societal desire to keep children safe is paralleled by the desire to keep society safe from
‘youth’. As Hill and Tisdall (1997: 194) comment, ‘our fears about children’s crime in public
places exemplify society’s requirements for an ‘indoors child’, which will not only keep
children but also the public safe’. 3 The retreat to the home
There’s nothing to do really... ’cos they’ve just gone and closed down the <club>.
But there’s nothing here now.
(15 year old girls living in rural area)
Writing in the mid seventies, Corrigan (1976) contrasted the potential unpredictability of street
corner culture with the alternatives of Mum and Dad in the rather formal front room or the
known environment of the youth club. If those were the alternatives to the street corner of the
1970s they had changed by the 1990s. For many young people we interviewed, the youth
club has closed down and the front room has been replaced by a multimedia home and,
particularly, a multimedia bedroom. In the YPNM survey, 66% of children and young people
aged 9-17 said that there was not enough for them to do in the area where they live.
Crucially, then, the decline of street culture and the rise of the media-rich home are related.
Both parents and children explicitly link restrictions on the child’s access to the world outside
to increased media use within the home. In an extreme illustration of this, a 13 year-old boy,
living in an area with a high level of unemployment and violence, told us that ‘Mum gets us a
video or a computer game if we have to stay in because of the fighting’. More often, though,
the link between street culture and domestic culture is implicit, reflecting not only a shift in
perceptions of public space but also in perceptions of the home. Where once the home was
highly rule-bound, with codes for eating at table, activities in the bedroom, behaviour in the
living room, and so forth, today it is going out which is heavily hedged about with rules and
expectations. Here a middle-class mother living in a rural location talks about her 10 year-old
son 2 :
Mother: You see television as playing a different role in Leo’s life than it did in
Oh yes, definitely. I can remember playing outside in the street for
hours on end and having a lot more freedom to play out. They
haven’t got that as children now ... he’s in more than we ever were
as children. Her son confirms the importance of media in his life, telling us that he spends a lot of time
with the television, hi-fi and a games machine in his bedroom, and that while would like to go
out more often, the garden is too small and he is not allowed to play football there.
Thus, children face not only practical and material but also discursive constraints on their
lived activities, all contributing towards a historical shift towards the privatisation of leisure
(Williams, 1974). At home, it is screen media that emerge as the easy way of keeping the
family entertained, notwithstanding the doubts parents have regarding the media as ‘timewasting’.
One consequence was to force the realisation that home and family are not necessarily one
and the same. Ironically perhaps, the privatisation of leisure throws family members together
precisely at a time when the cultural shift towards individualisation means that children and
young people are ever more encouraged to pursue their own individual tastes and interests
(Buchner, 1990). Their media preferences decreasingly shared with their parents, for ‘the
modern family ideology [promotes] families in which the goal of individual self-realisation
overshadows community solidarity and stability’ (Gadlin, 1978: 236). And there are ever more
media contents and sources tailored – indeed, targeted - to their age group. This growing
individualisation fuelled our second trend, as we explore below.
From family television to bedroom culture
Mother: Do you think that there are any advantages or disadvantages to
Charlie having TV in his bedroom?
Advantages are that we can watch programmes in here when
Charlie wants to watch something else and -- 4 Father:
Father : Disadvantages are that it, err, discourages family life because it
separates people […]
So is spending time together as a family important to you?
Yes, of course, the family is the most important thing.
(Working-class family with 12 year-old boy) If public spaces in the second half of the twentieth century witnessed a decline in access for
children, the private, domestic realm has also undergone changes. The arrival of the
television set into the family home transformed the spatial and temporal rhythms of family life
(Scannell, 1988). Historical studies of the arrival of television suggest that far from fitting into
the home, television transformed the structure of the home by prompting a considerable rearrangement of domestic space (Spigel, 1992). As each room had pre-defined activities
associated with it, television posed a new problem, namely where to put it. In most UK
homes, the decision was made to put this proud new object in the once adult-only front room
or parlour of the post-war British home, transforming this room in the process into the ‘living’
room, this itself being part of a wider trend towards the creation of the open plan living space
Today, only relatively wealthy homes keep a room for ‘best’, most family homes having
'knocked through' from the best room into the dining room to make a large multifunctional
space – the family room – in which the media play a central role. ‘Family television’
encapsulates a site of both conviviality and power plays, in which the family share interests,
pleasures and conflicts. As recently as the mid-1980s, Morley (1986) described the family
gathering in the main living room to co-view the family television set, this providing an
occasion for the operation of traditional generation and gender inequalities - Ang terms them
‘living room wars’ (1996) – in which Dad monopolises the remote control, sport wins out over
soaps, women’s viewing is halted when the husband wants to see ‘his programme’, and
children’s preferences come last.
As the media at home have multiplied, no longer a scarce resource for the family, the social
practices which surround and accompany viewing have altered. A common solution is to
transform bedrooms into private living rooms, leaving the family living room for those times
when the family chooses to come together, enforced conviviality being a thing of the past for
all but the poor. Thus today, most homes have been reorganised, the dominant principle no
longer being that of ‘front’ and ‘back’ (Goffman, 1959) but rather than of communal space and
personal spaces. How far along this path to go represents a central dilemma for families as
they decide whether and when to acquire and locate televisions, computers etc, thereby
shaping the particular balance between a communal or individualised model of family life.
What do these newly privatised, media-rich spaces mean to children? By the end of the
1990s, many young people had media-rich bedrooms, reflecting not only an intrinsic
fascination with the media but also the unsatisfactory nature of the available alternatives.
Other social changes, including central heating, smaller family size, and continual upgrading
of domestic technological goods all had their part to play (Allan, 1985), but the result is a new
kind of place for children's leisure which we are just beginning to explore and which is filled
with ever more media goods for ever younger children.
The YPNM survey showed that in British children’s bedrooms music media are the most
popular: 68% of 6-17 year olds have a personal stereo, 61% have hi-fi and 59% a radio.
Screen entertainment media follow close behind: 63% have their own television and 21%
have a video recorder, while 34% have a TV-linked games machine and 27% have a
Gameboy. Just a few years on, the ‘UK Children Go Online’ project, in updating this work,
found that 19% have internet access in their bedroom (Livingstone and Bober, 2005). As is
common, the internet is no more equally distributed across the population than other media:
while one in five have the internet in their bedroom, this is the case for 22% of boys versus
15% of girls, 21% middle class versus 16% working class children, and 10% of 9-11 year olds
versus 26% of 16-17 year olds. Moreover, this emergence of the media-rich bedroom as a
child-centred and private space has its own developmental trajectory. Not only are media-rich
bedrooms more common among teenagers, but interviews with children and young people
reveal how the meaning of the bedroom alters with time. 5 Convenience
Children younger than about nine years old are relatively uninterested in bedroom culture,
although a well equipped, ‘media-rich’ bedroom is occasionally provided as a way of ensuring
the parents’ privacy. Indeed, younger children prefer the family spaces, especially when
parents are present, by contrast with teenagers who also like to use the space and facilities
of the living room but mainly when their family is absent. Six year old Belinda told us that she
doesn’t normally play in her bedroom, but prefers to bring her toys downstairs to play where
others are. Hence, these children are less likely to have media in their bedrooms, and family
life is heavily focussed on the multi-functional, child-centred, media-rich living or ‘family’ room.
Yet even by this age, children’s bedrooms will often contain media-related collections, not just
of china animals and foreign coins but also Disney memorabilia, Pokemon cards or the
paraphernalia of a Manchester United football fan. Ten year old Rachel and her friends all
collect, but ‘they collect different things’, suggesting the link between collections and personal
identity (Rochberg-Halton, 1984). Part of the convenience of the bedroom, then, is its role in
the safe storage of valued objects. As these collections are generally recognised as transient,
‘a stage’ children go through, children’s bedrooms house not only the current enthusiasm but
also previous enthusiasms, making for series of partial collections which tell the story of a
One may see in these collections a legitimised form of consumerism. Generally encouraged
or even initiated by parents, the practices associated with adding to and displaying the
collection is construed by parents as specialist, serious, knowledgeable. We see this positive
assessment of ‘the collection’ in the narrative spun for John, aged 7, by his mother, a lower
middle class single parent. She first introduced the ‘collection’ to explain her son’s video
viewing, linking his interest in animals with her views of videos as educational and, perhaps,
portentous of his future.
We have got a lot of the Walt Disney videos because we collect those because I think
they are a collectable item and John is very much into marine life and the Free Willy
video, anything to do with animals… In actual fact, the teacher in school said to him
something about the whale that was in Free Willy and said to me 'if your son doesn't
become a marine biologist then I will eat my hat'.
Already, through these collections, through their emerging fandoms, and through the
associated theming of wallpaper, bed linen, decoration, etc, children’s identities are being
constructed and, simultaneously, commodified. In early to middle childhood, the objects
collected vary widely, but often take the form of media-related merchandising (Kinder, 1999).
By the teenage years, objects being actively collected are more directly media goods – discs,
music files, videos, computer games, magazines, and so forth. This transition is noted by
Kathy’s (15) parents:
Father: Oh well, she used to collect all those little whimsies that we once got
from a car boot sale (laughter)… little animals that she collected.
She doesn't collect anything now though, apart from music, not
seriously anyway. As with John, above, Kathy’s collection of some 200 tapes is judged ‘serious’. Possession,
and safe storage is no longer key to the enjoyment of these goods, for media require time
spent with them. Associated with the transition to media goods is a transition in the use of the
bedroom – no longer primarily for convenience but now also for escape (into individualised
media use) and for identity (requiring an investment in media use to promote selfdevelopment and self-expression).
She's got all these comics on the bed, and she likes to read them, and she's got a
computer next to her TV so if she gets bored she can just move around quick, and 6 she's got like a computer booklet on computers and TV, and she's got a telephone
with a hi-fi midi system sort of thing.
(9 year-old girl living in a middle-class family and talking of her ideal
From middle childhood, children - particularly girls - become more interested in their
bedroom, and start to want their own television/computer/hi-fi. This is largely for pragmatic
reasons, particularly being able to choose and watch their own programmes uninterrupted.
Over and again, children described how irritating it is to be interrupted – when watching
television for example – by siblings or parents, suggesting strongly that for them, being alone
means welcome respite from family life, especially for the 72% who do not share a bedroom
with a sibling (Livingstone & Bovill, 1999). Here a ten-year-old girl explains: ‘I like being on my
own… [I can] watch what I want to watch instead of watching what my sister wants to watch
or what my mum wants to watch.’
Insert Figures 1 and 2 about here
The image of freedom, or perhaps also of isolation, is well captured in Figures 1 and 2, drawn
by children when asked to depict themselves watching television. In that task (see
Livingstone, 2002), about half of those asked drew themselves in their bedrooms and half
drew themselves in a family space. Perhaps this trend towards bedroom culture is particularly
‘British’? European comparisons show that British children and young people generally own
more screen media especially than do their counterparts in other countries (with the
exception of America; Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999), though they do not
necessarily spend more time in their rooms. The advantages of convenience do not appear to
encourage isolation from the family but rather, they provide some control over when to be
sociable or alone (Bovill and Livingstone, 2001). Wanting to escape, then, marks a transition
from having personal ‘stuff’ and so needing somewhere safe to put it to being a distinct
individual and so needing somewhere private to express this.
In adolescence, this concern with the self is of pre-eminent importance. The significance of
the bedroom is now primarily centred on identity, as young people take a growing interest in
how their bedrooms are furnished, arranged and equipped. By the early teens, these
psychological reasons are easily as important as the practical ones as children and young
people seek to identify, protect and embellish their own spaces distinct from adult scrutiny
and intervention. The bedroom provides a flexible social space in which young people can
experience their growing independence from family life, becoming either a haven of privacy
or a social area in which to entertain friends, often listening to music, reading magazines,
playing a new computer game or watching a video together. Listen to the satisfaction with
which fifteen-year-old Joanne, from a working class family, describes her room:
I’m usually in my bedroom… I think that I like to be by myself really. I don’t know. I
suppose it’s just because at the moment I have got all my furniture arranged like in a
sitting room area, a study room area and my bedroom and it is just, like, really cool
and I just like to go there because I know that that is my room… I mean I have
decorated it how I want it and it’s just like a room I don’t think I will ever move out.
Personal ownership of media dramatically increases in the early teenage years, part and
parcel of the development of identity. From the perspective of the social psychology of
adolescence, ‘valued material possessions, it is argued, act as signs of the self that are
essential in their own right for its continued cultivation, and hence the world of meaning that
we create for ourselves, and that creates our selves, extends literally into the objective
surroundings’ (Rochberg-Halton, 1984: 335). Lincoln (2004) suggests these material
possessions are organised in terms of zones, with a fluid set of physical arrangements
structuring the social activities that take place in the bedroom in order to enact the
‘uniqueness’ of its owner. 7 Notably, images of self-sufficiency and control figure strongly in young people’s talk of their
bedroom. In this context of self-sufficiency and control, unwarranted interventions by others
can be experienced as a significant violation of privacy:
Last year I went to Austria and erm, I came back and I nearly had a heart attack
because my mum had completely cleaned my room…. She had completely blitzed
my room and I was so angry about it... It is my own private space and I really don't
like her touching it.... She just goes on and on about me cleaning it and I mean, I try
to tell her that it is my personal space and let me have it how I want.
(Middle class girl aged 15)
Emler and Reicher (1994) explore how the management of spatial boundaries, and the
constraints on this, frames the everyday management of identities. Behind this lies the social
psychological argument that identities must be enacted, and these enactments must be
situated in locations with particular spatial and temporal structures. Madigan and Munro
(1999: 70) identify the particular difficulties posed by the structure of the home for women in
resolving the tension between ‘the socially sanctioned goal of family togetherness, sharing,
equality and the goal of individual achievement, self-identity’. While they suggest that for
women this is more often achieved through the management of time than space, for children
the bedroom is provided as a spatial solution.
Most simply, whether children can keep their friendships distinct in space and time from their
family relationships is crucial to sustaining multiple, possibly distinct, identities. Hence, the
widespread irritation occasioned by siblings intruding into spaces in which friendships are
conducted, media are engaged with, or privacy enjoyed represents an irritation not simply
due to the interruption of an activity or conversation but a clash of identities. The irritation is
not alleviated by the younger sibling promising to be quiet, or not interfere, for it is a symbolic
intrusion, a clash of one identity with another, a loss of freedom to reinvent oneself for
oneself. Similarly, the persistent untidiness of many children’s rooms, and the high degree of
tidiness of others, may reflect more than a concern, or lack of concern, with order. For an
untidy room is hard for an adult to walk around, and a very tidy room will show signs of
intruders. The effect is to make the room both child-friendly and adult-unfriendly. By contrast
with the traditional hierarchies of the living room, the bedroom is fundamentally a
heterarchical space - perhaps the only place where children can dictate the rules of
engagement to their parents.
Conclusion: bedroom culture
The bedroom becomes meaningful through the conjunction of all three rationales above. It
provides a convenient location in which personal goods can be gathered and maintained. It
provides a means of escape from the interruptions, interference and gaze of others. And it
facilitates the routine (re)enactment of a desired identity. Steele and Brown (1994) describe
teenage ‘room culture’ as the place where media and identities intersect through the
bricolage of identity-work objects on display in young people's rooms. They see adolescents'
rooms as 'mediating devices' by which they express who they are and who they want to be, a
safe, private space in which experimentation with possible selves can be conducted (see also
Frith, 1978). Thus the media-rich bedroom in the ‘juxtaposed home allows teenagers to
remove themselves from adult supervision while still living with their parents’ (Flichy, 1995:
Bachmair (1991) talks of the bedroom as a text within which the television programme is
interwoven as one central element among others. This complex text of the bedroom provides
a key site for the construction of identity and a position from within which to participate in a
shared peer culture. This participation takes two forms, for the bedroom is both a location in
which children and young people can entertain friends and also a place in which they can
experience their connection to the peer group even when alone, particularly through the use
of media valued by peers.
The media are used in various ways to manage these boundaries of space and identity,
especially by young people who not only sustain multiple identities but whose identities are 8 often experimental, temporary, available for making over, and the symbolic resources of the
media provide the content – images, representations, themes – as well as the material
means of managing boundaries (the walkman, the loud music in the bedroom, the total
absorption in a computer game) – the ‘deafness’ parents complain about is more due to
identity considerations than to media addiction.
‘Bedroom culture’ in this sense is very much a Western phenomenon, being dependent on a
high degree of modernisation, individualisation and wealth. As such, it represents a new
opportunity for targeted advertising and marketing, as the media-rich child’s bedroom is both
a site of reception for commercial messages and a location for the display and use of
consumer goods. While the bedroom is a key site for the increasing commercialisation of
childhood and youth, it also supports the development of identity in ways that may be, but are
not necessarily, exploitative. For example, McRobbie and Garber (1976) and Frith (1978)
emphasised how teenage girls’ search for identity through self-presentation and the
development of 'taste' has been led by powerful commercial interests in the fashion and
music industries, though others (Fornas and Bolin, 1995, Lincoln, 2004; Steele and Brown,
1994) see mediated consumer images as providing the raw materials with which young
people creatively construct ‘their’ style.
Summary: living together separately
This chapter has traced the shift from public to private first in the decline of street culture’ and
the retreat to the home and second, in the shift from ‘family television’ to ‘bedroom culture’.
The argument may be summarised as follows.
Today, much privatised media use is centred on the bedroom, once a rather chilly
and uncomfortable, even forbidden place in which to escape the demands of family
life, but now a positively valued opportunity for socialising and identity work,
saturated with media images, sounds, technological artefacts and other media
Although children and young people value spending time with media, often alone despite adult worries about ‘isolation’ or ‘wasting time’, this need not mean that social
contacts are being replaced with social isolation, for media offer new means for social
interaction, albeit often peer- rather than family-focused (Livingstone, 2005).
Still, it does appear that within the home, the multiplication of personally owned
media facilitates children’s use of individual, privatised space, as opposed to
communal family space. Rompaey (2001) calls this the increasing
‘compartmentalization of family life’ as a result of the individualising effect of ICT
combined with teenagers’ desire for privacy within the family context. Similarly, Flichy
calls it ‘living together separately’ in his characterization of the role of media in family
However, I have argued that privatised bedroom culture is also the result of the progressive
exclusion of children and young people from public places, together with a growing priority on
‘the home’ as the centre of a screen-entertainment focused, privatised and individualised
Intriguingly, as leisure becomes increasingly media-dominated and as rooms (or
people) rather than the household become the unit for acquisition of screen media,
today’s parents cannot rely on their own childhood experiences to guide them in
managing the spatial, temporal and moral structures of domestic and family life.
Rather they must figure out for their own family how to accommodate, regulate and
enjoy the plethora of media goods now widely available. This they generally do
together with their children as part of a sometimes co-operative, sometimes
conflictual negotiation, within a broader context which pits a discourse of new
opportunities and consumer choice against one of parental duties to manage
appropriately the social development of their children in the face of increasing
potential harms. 9 Student exercise
Make a list of the media that your parents, and then your grandparents, had at home (if you
can ask them, do so). Compare this with the media you yourself grew up with and then with
that of children today. Think especially about which media, if any, were situated in the
bedroom, and which in the living room. Think also about the other activities that took place in
these two domestic spaces, and the rules that determined who could do what? Again, you
may need to ask people of different generations, as the answers can be surprising.
Then identify the similarities and differences over time. What continuities and differences
does this suggest for what children can do, and for what is meant by or expected of
‘childhood’ or ‘the family’? For example, do different arrangements of media (spatial,
temporal, symbolic) influence the things that people (parents and children, children with their
friends) share in common? Does it make it easier to pursue individual tastes?
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An engaging account of how family life has changed in the past century, written for a popular
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S. Livingstone, and Bovill, M. (Ed.), Children and Their Changing Media Environment: A
European Comparative Study (pp. 179-200). Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Presents original empirical material on children and young people’s use of media in their
bedrooms, compared across 12 European countries.
Flichy, P. (2006). New Media History. In L. Lievrouw & S. Livingstone (Eds.), Handbook of
New Media: Social Shaping and Consequences of ICTs. Updated Student Edition. London:
Sage. (pp. 187-204).
Examines the relations between the spread of new media and the individualisation of family
and social life through the twentieth century.
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Figure 1: A girl’s drawing of ‘myself watching television’ Figure 2: A teenage boy’s drawing of ‘myself watching television’ 13 E ndnotes 1 British parents’ fears are not without foundation. Home Office statistics (1994) on child
victims of crime report twice as many cases of gross indecency with a child in 1992
compared with 1983 and a fourfold increase in child abductions. Nonetheless, surveys
conducted on both European crime rates and fear of crime show that while in Britain crime
rates against children are relatively high, fear of crime is disproportionately high among
British parents (Livingstone et al, 1999).
Throughout this chapter, names have been changed to protect participants’ identity. 14 ...
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This note was uploaded on 11/11/2011 for the course COMMUNICAT 192:354 taught by Professor Weber during the Fall '11 term at Rutgers.
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