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What teens REALLY get up to on YouTube

By Ann-Marie Corvin

It’s easy to make sweeping generalisations about teens’ YouTube habits – from ‘they’re wasting their time’ to ‘they’re all digital creatives’. The truth, according to London School of Economics professor Sonia Livingstone, is far more complex.

Livingstone and fellow academic Julian Sefton-Green followed a class of London teenagers (aged 13-14) for a year to decipher their social media usage, and their findings reveal a myriad of viewing behaviours.

Published in their new book The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age, the findings on pupils’ YouTube usage show that while 60% of 13-14 year olds use the video sharing network every day, only six teens in Livingstone’s class of 28 pupils had uploaded anything.

These statistics confirm earlier LSE research which shows that while many teens engage with interactive content online, only a minority of this ‘digital native’ generation actually create it.

Of the six ‘creators’ in the class, it was revealed that four have now stopped uploading content onto YouTube altogether – three of them seemingly out of embarrassment.  Abby and Salma, for instance, spent a happy day setting up a YouTube channel and posting eight to 10 episodes of ‘The Abby and Salma Show’ before retreating in mortification when their history teacher got wind of their efforts and showed everyone.

Their classmate Megan also had a period of making videos and uploading them to YouTube, describing herself as ‘obsessed’ with searching YouTube, but for her, too, this became embarrassing and she migrated to a more closed social network, Tumblr. Another talented and artistic creator Giselle, gained several hundred views for her YouTube animation channel, before she too gave it up.

For others the aspiration to create is there but not, unfortunately, the resources. Joel initially told the researchers he was using YouTube tutorials combined with music-making software and mixing decks to record his own music on the computer. Later the teen admitted he did none of these things as he didn’t have the kit – but these are things he has heard about and hopes to follow up in the future. 

‘With more support, could the kids have taken their creative first steps much further, gaining vital skills for the digital age?’ Livingstone asks in her conclusion. 

Livingstone also revealed that while parents and teachers constantly told her that they ‘simply thought the kids were wasting their time watching silly videos about people falling off walls and cute kittens,’ her experience was that where pupils did watch the funny stuff, it was usually as a ‘light relief’ to escape the pressures of school and home life. 

This view is backed up by the findings of Parent Zone's report, The Perfect Generation: Is the Internet Undermining Young People’s Mental Health? which found that teenagers would recommend YouTube to friends who were feeling depressed or unhappy.