The missing middle: Reimagining a future for tweens, teens and public media

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Joan Ganz Cooney Center

In the 1960s, Joan Ganz Cooney published The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education, a report that would revolutionize television for children. Where others saw a “vast wasteland,” Cooney saw possibility, and from it, educational programming for children, like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was born.

Half a century later, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and CPB seek to carry forward Joan’s vision of programming that prioritizes youth well-being and supports learning and the development of life skills. The focus of this new initiative are tweens and teens, identified as a “missing middle” audience for public media that enjoys an abundance of options for watching, playing and listening, but is often underserved quality content appropriate to their developmental stages and needs.

Amidst a global pandemic when adults and children alike spent most of their lives online, we spoke with tweens and teens from across the U.S. about how they spend their time; what they find interesting; how they find new shows, apps or videos; what issues are important to them as well as what misconceptions adults have about youth. We also talked to kids about their experiences with public media and asked for their advice about what public media could do to engage with people their age.

This excerpt of the full report highlights salient themes that emerged from those conversations, bringing to light important media-related experiences and viewpoints of youth broadly, while offering implications for the public media sector specifically.

Tweens and teens view the current media landscape as one of abundance and seemingly endless personalization possibilities. They describe spending their free time moving across platforms and devices depending on their moods, their interests and their access to certain kinds of connectivity.

However, contrary to the stereotypical portrait of screen-addicted teens who prefer digital engagement over offline interaction, many youth described routines that privileged hands-on and in-person activities. When asked about their favorite ways to spend their free time, participants mentioned a wide range of active and creative pursuits including sports, playing music, crafting, cooking, drawing and hanging out with friends.

For some of these youth, turning to digital media — whether videos, games or social media — was seen as a secondary background activity or something they turned to during times of loneliness or boredom.

The diversity of interests among the tweens and teens we interviewed was notable; at the same time, there were striking patterns and consistencies. Watching broadcast and cable television were rarely mentioned as preferred pastimes, while the dominance of online video — whether YouTube, streaming services or short-form video-based social media like TikTok — was a near universal part of teens’ and tweens’ media diet. In addition, youth further differentiated digital video content with distinct naming associated with various platforms: Netflix has “shows,” YouTube is for “videos” and “TikToks” are their own format. All of these were considered distinct from “TV,” which might occasionally be playing in the background but was often absent from the rhythms of their daily lives. 

In terms of discovery, social media, search and recommendations are paramount. During our interviews, tween and teen participants described with considerable consistency the recursive system of discovery and amplification that is common to major social media platforms. In particular, TikTok’s personalized “For You” page and YouTube’s “Recommended” videos were mentioned by many as how they find what to watch, and often were the first places they would find out about new shows, apps or other videos.

For a large segment of the tweens and teens we interviewed, video content augmented offline pursuits in a range of important ways. The use of how-to videos was exceptionally common across all of the groups. In some cases, youth use videos to help them with homework, reinforce or review skills they have forgotten, or support their online learning in school.

Whether younger or older, living in rural or urban areas, and regardless of interests, tweens and teens told us of the many ways they turn to how-to videos to learn new skills, support creative interests and solve problems. In particular, the role of videos in supporting artistic pursuits appeared to provide an especially important outlet in the absence of after-school activities and in-person lessons that were no longer available.

How youth make sense of the media ecosystem and where public media fits

“I don’t feel like I’m ever gonna really get back into watching TV, but I do know a lot of people aren’t gonna watch PBS anymore, ’cause it’s mostly Curious George and stuff like that. It’s little kid shows. Compared to us, ’cause we’re maybe eight, nine years older than them, we learn… they explain things like simple things, they go in-depth explaining it on an episode where we already understand this and there’s not really anything you can learn from watching it.”  — Boy, age 14/Bossier City, La.

At the heart of this project is an underlying question: How can public media meaningfully communicate its value to tweens and teens today? Whenever possible, we asked our participants directly — what did they think of when they heard the term “public media”? Many shrugged in response or asked for clarification about what we meant. Others leapt into descriptions of favorite shows or channels from childhood, much of which was not public media. Issues of production, ownership and business models for media were distant concerns. Public media was at best a set of associations, rather than an understanding of local and national stations, or the funding and infrastructure that supports that system.

The youth we spoke with talked about a broad spectrum of issues that they feel are important — the racial justice movement, the environment, the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election were all mentioned repeatedly. When speaking about the ways they find information and engage with the topics they care about, this process of sense-making for complex issues and the difficulty of navigating the current media ecosystem emerged as core challenges.

Making sense of a messy media ecosystem

On issues relating to news and politics in particular, tween and teen participants often reported going to different sources to seek multiple perspectives. Many of the youth we interviewed first encountered news stories on YouTube and TikTok, but often sought out supplementary information from established news organizations and family members who were seen as more reliable sources.

“I watch YouTube a lot. I watch a lot of YouTube videos about [political issues], mainly by leftist creators, and I follow CNN and Fox to see two different points of view” — Boy, age 17/Bronx, N.Y.

Many participants explained the challenges of trying to understand the nuances of an argument. One teen shared speaking with her dad about the news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests as she tried to make sense of what was happening, while another talked about trying to reconcile what she learned about Christopher Columbus on TikTok versus what she was taught in school. 

Many youth participants also expressed fatigue with navigating information sources, noting that opinion seemed to eclipse facts on YouTube. Awareness that they need to be on their guard for potential misinformation seemed draining, and quite a few wished for a safe space. Often turning to parents or peers to help find reliable information, a space for this in their media ecosystem seemed lacking.

Tweens and teens we spoke with were often very sophisticated in their understanding of different purposes and audiences of the apps they used, but less so about the business models. One constant was the confusing notion of what the tradeoffs are with “free” content. With the exception of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and, to a lesser extent, cable channels, tweens and teens reported mostly not paying for the apps they use.

When asked how “free” apps make money, some tweens and teens were surprisingly savvy, noting the role of personal data collection and advertising. Youth who played games, and particularly those who used Discord, seemed to have a better understanding of the app ecosystem and their underlying business models. When asked whether they ever pay for apps, most affirmative responses related to in-game purchases. Others hadn’t thought through the implications of services that seem “free.”

In their discussions of TikTok, none of our participants mentioned its unique use of influencers for their ads. While TikTok users heavily relied on the “For You” recommendations, few questioned how recommendations happened. In contrast, many teens understood the relationship between ads and supporting their favorite YouTube influencers.

Aside from supporting their favorite personalities, however, clarity around business models for the apps teens use and the media they engage with was rare in our interviews. Some teens demonstrated a piecemeal understanding of particular apps, rather than the media ecosystem more generally. A collateral effect of this general confusion around business models might be a lack of appreciation for noncommercial offerings of tax-supported and donor-funded public programming.

Public media generally doesn’t play a role

When first asked what the phrase “public media” meant to them, the majority of participants hesitated or expressed confusion. Others used deductive skills to determine what the phrase might mean, while some grabbed their phones and searched for show names. Even some who were confident in their responses assumed that any kid-focused program was public media.

The specific ways that youth mistook public media, however, were instructive. Repeatedly, we heard youth describe experiences of enjoyment, heard them focus on education or feelings of trust. In many cases, these associations seemed to point to values that youth no longer find in the commercial media they’ve aged into.

Once prompted with examples, such as PBS, NPR, popular national shows and their local networks, many tweens and teens then expressed a positive association with the PBS brand. They also described who introduced them to particular media: remembering media watching with family or educators rather than simply with peers.

Why were these shows so compelling in their childhoods and why do teens continue to remember them so fondly? Many tweens and teens associate the programs with early learning experiences. For instance, one 12-year-old boy in a STEM program in Louisiana shared that he appreciated that each Curious George episode had a problem and a solution. Similarly, our discussion with a Girl Scout troop in Texas surfaced that watching Dinosaur Train served as one girl’s first childhood exposure to dinosaurs. Others associate watching PBS with family time and childhood, blending experiences with parents, grandparents and siblings with their memories of specific shows.

For youth whose families had low internet connectivity, or acquired household internet later in their lives, public media programming was a primary source of entertainment in childhood.

“We didn’t have big TV or Internet, so we grew up with Odd Squad and Arthur and all that.” —Boy, age 12/Knox County, Ill.

A few of our participants shared that they still find comfort in watching shows from their recent past. Others noted that they used to rely on the PBS Kids app, and a few teens we spoke with continue to engage with more adult programming on PBS. Talking about their viewing and listening experiences, these teens tied television and radio shows to family time and cherished routines.

Yet, despite these positive associations, the majority of our participants did not mention public media stations when describing their preferred information sources or what they like to watch or listen to. Among those who had some prior experience with public media, most thought of it as nostalgic rather than relevant to their current needs.

Why public media might not resonate for some

Most of the tweens and teens we spoke with said they stopped watching PBS around age 10, primarily because they could no longer relate to the shows. One girl in New York mentioned that she would watch shows similar to those she enjoyed as a child if available for her age group.

Youth generally expect more interactivity from their media, including creating their own content, commenting and sharing. Many teens said they simply don’t watch TV any more, including public media and cable TV, finding it irrelevant. And those who do mention watching TV are typically referring to streaming services like YouTube, Netflix and Disney+.

At a time when, developmentally, tweens and teens are seeking diverse perspectives for information and deeper social connections, current public media offerings often fall short. Our participants had grown out of children’s programming, and while interested in more mature content, they sought documentaries that were more accessible for their age group (a few participants mentioned The Social Dilemma as an example).

“I feel like a lot of documentaries are for people who are older than me, and a lot of the words are confusing, and I feel like I would like documentaries, but I feel like they’re too advanced for me.” —Girl, age 13/Brooklyn, N.Y.

Importantly, the tweens and teens we interviewed also sought greater representation in their media. While other aspects of their media ecosystem offer interaction and an opportunity to create and participate, for many, public media was a flat space, something fondly remembered from their childhood.  

Advice for public media from the missing middle

“Make it more up-to-date … I would say things that you all think and you all want our generation to be educated on and to know about … Not super-adult, but not something super-childish.” — Girl, age 14/San Antonio, Texas

The tweens and teens in our focus groups were treated as experts of their own experiences. Through this lens, we invited them to reflect on not only what they liked to watch, play and listen to, but also why they chose certain kinds of content and platforms. This led to deeper discussion about perceived gaps in the current media ecosystem and where public media could respond to some of these needs.

(Illustration: Joan Ganz Cooney Center)

One of the most frequent requests was for public media to create programming that addresses the everyday challenges tweens and teens face. Importantly, youth told us that making these shows feel relevant would require a sense of authenticity in the topics covered as well as who is presented on screen. The youth said they “prefer watching people that are my age” instead of watching “older people play roles that are supposed to be my age.” As one 17-year-old girl from the Bronx noted, the language that adult creators use when creating youth-focused content also matters. Even when adults who create shows for her age group understand what it means to be a young person today, she said, they still “don’t know how to word it correctly for us to relate to.”

In our Louisiana focus group, one tween girl suggested that the shows produced by public media could be made more appealing if they reflected the kinds of things she and her peers are going through. She was not alone in suggesting the topic of “surviving middle school” as of particular interest. As was common across the groups, participants offered that their own experiences often inspired what they wanted to see.

Several teens described wanting a show that would reflect what a regular day is like for kids their age and the various challenges they encounter. Across our focus groups, girls spoke about wanting to see more discussion of building confidence and navigating changing gender norms, saying that this is an area where public media could make a unique and impactful contribution.

However, the tweens and teens we interviewed were also careful to note that there is not one universal experience of what it means to be a kid today, and that diversity is something they would like to see reflected in the shows they watch.

“Maybe something that would like make kids feel comfortable enough to want to join in on conversations, like LGBTQ because we don’t really have many resources on those either, like besides school counselors, but sometimes even then you don’t feel comfortable enough… [They should include] people from all religions, skin colors, regions like worldwide, also like having trans people on there, gay people, queer people, like stuff like that, like not only having regular a female and a male actor anymore.”  — Girl, age 17/ South Bronx, N.Y.

Several also recommended that public media focus on content that addresses current events, politics and other issues of interest, whether through youth-focused news reporting or in the representation of different ideologies and cultural experiences.

Accustomed to the pervasive personalization of media content and delivery, the teens we spoke with had very clear ideas about the genres they would like to see and how best to deliver it to their age group. In addition, they were often careful to distinguish their personal tastes and recommendations from what they saw as lacking in commercial media options.

“Informational shows is one of your things, PBS’ things. They always have informational shows. I feel like you could keep doing informational shows for older kids … but just kind of more teenager-based.” — Boy, age 14/Bossier City, La.

Compared with the shows they loved in early childhood, tweens and teens seek more developed “mature” scripts, with sophisticated storylines that do not “reset” at each episode. Enthusiasm for rom-coms, comedy, horror and fantasy were consistent themes. Regardless of the content, tweens and teens felt they had matured past the often simple storylines directed at their age group.

“I like the shows that have a whole prompt or story through the whole thing. It’s leading up to some story. Some shows reset and then the story is gone.” — Boy, age 14/Knox County, Ill., recommended All American, and DramaAlert as examples)

Another frequent suggestion was for public media to develop new educational content that would help youth strengthen various technical and practical skills. Notably, many of the skills youth mentioned were quite specialized or something that would not usually be found in schools. As such, a focus on these topics was suggested as one way for public media to find a niche within the world of informational how-to videos, essentially helping kids “learn how to learn” while supporting a variety of needs and interests.

“I was thinking about stuff like skills, shows that could teach other teens useful skills like how to do taxes or what’s the stock market, or how to do plumbing, things they don’t teach at school anymore. So useful everyday skills that could help other teens get ready for the adult life on their own.” — Boy, age 17/Bronx, N.Y.

Beyond sharing advice for how public media can respond to existing gaps, our youth participants were exceptionally enthusiastic when asked about being directly engaged in that work themselves. Tweens and teens envisioned creating everything from new nature shows, to apps that teach kids coding, to animation based on their original drawings.

Youth wish to be taken more seriously by adults around them, including those producing media for them. As one teen in Illinois pointed out, they are exposed to mature content on a daily basis, and it would be helpful if they were better supported by their information and entertainment sources. Teens already use media to connect with and make sense of the world, and they are increasingly accustomed to seeing their peers on screen. When discussing issues they care about, teens referenced TikTok, YouTube and conversations with peers, teachers and family members as part of how they processed new information.

Implications and opportunities for public media

Through the generosity of our youth participants, we were given an unprecedented window into what life with media looks like for those who are growing up during a global pandemic. This perspective represents a moment of exceptional media immersion when tweens and teens were largely unmoored from prior screen time limits during their free time while also being required to spend many hours each day tethered to online learning platforms. Given these new obligations and freedoms, we found our young participants to be exceptionally fluent in describing the positives and negatives of this new reality.

Our research suggests that public media programming, in keeping with its mission to provide universal service, continues to be a critical source of information and entertainment in homes lacking fast broadband connections or cable. Yet the pandemic has made glaringly clear how essential and non-negotiable robust online connectivity is to an array of critical educational, economic and social opportunities for youth. As the public media community considers various pathways to engage and uplift young audiences, there is an opportunity to align with the larger movement for universal broadband, as this infrastructure will be essential to ensuring equitable access to future programming and opportunities for youth participation.

Through all of the varied media activity we heard youth describe in our interviews, the centrality of online video in young people’s lives was one constant. YouTube, streaming services and short-form video-based social media like TikTok reign paramount. These platforms’ sophisticated personalization and recommendation algorithms, combined with the increased dominance of video in search results, has elevated the role of video in information-seeking and learning online. As young people increasingly turn to video to augment their offline learning, public media could identify priority areas where trusted short-form video content could be made readily accessible to youth seeking resources through mainstream video and social media platforms. Many youth mentioned short-form videos as the kind of public media content that could help them address everyday challenges.  

Youth have figured out how to tune in to the media they like — scanning broadly based on recommendations and then homing in on what appeals or meets a need — and then deploying a secondary set of sources for pursuing topics or questions they care about. However, they are not always confident in those choices. Moving forward, there is a clear role for public media to simultaneously expand the availability of trusted and reliable information on the issues youth care about, while also equipping them to navigate complex information ecologies.

Overall, our interviews suggest that there is a significant gap in youth understanding of the value of public media as something distinct from commercial media. “Public media” as a concept doesn’t resonate with most youth. This gap should be taken into account when designing messaging for tween and teen audiences. In order to engage youth audiences, public media may first need to make the case for why public media matters and why contributions from youth voices are important.

A key piece of communicating authenticity and responding to the gaps youth currently observe in their media landscape will be responding to the problem of representation. One disconnect we observed is that youth feel heard in their own online spaces, but not necessarily in their offline world, where they don’t feel they can be their true authentic selves. The pandemic has supercharged this trajectory. In addition, our participants felt that they are often portrayed in stereotypical ways by adults creating TV shows and movies. They would like to see programs that tackle relevant teen issues: building self-confidence, navigating friendships and romantic relationships, advocating for social and political issues they care about, etc. And they want to see these topics presented by, or characters portrayed by, appropriately aged teens. New programs and initiatives that invest in authentic engagement with youth without tokenizing them or perpetuating stereotypes are likely to help differentiate the public media brand and build lasting trust with this audience as they age.

Among the many questions for the public media community as they pursue greater engagement with tweens and teens is how to best scaffold and support youth voices. For all of the challenges associated with online learning during the pandemic, many tweens and teens have acquired new skills connected to self-presentation on camera and the ability to take turns in group conversation online while navigating participation in chat or other platforms for text-based feedback. This newly honed fluency in self-expression through video can be leveraged by public media to both solicit youth perspectives on future initiatives and amplify a wider range of self-produced content from youth participants who may not have access to school-supported production programs.

Looking ahead, the public media community can also draw upon the pioneering work of existing youth-focused initiatives within the public media ecosystem. Many public media professionals have been champions for youth-focused projects and programming;  their work, taken in concert with the findings of this report and other insights into contemporary youth media practice,  can form a vision for possible future investments. These investments should work to translate what we now understand about youth and media to support for professional networks, technical infrastructure, and strategic leadership and collaboration. As this work moves forward and builds a foundation within public media, we can imagine an ecosystem where youth not only understand why public media matters, but also see themselves as an essential part of creating and sustaining that value for future generations.

Monica Bulger is a senior fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. She studies youth and family media literacy practices and advises policy globally, and she is an affiliate of the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City, where she led the Connected Learning initiative. Mary Madden is a veteran researcher, writer and nationally recognized expert on privacy and technology, trends in social media use and the impact of digital media on teens and parents. She is also an affiliate at the Data & Society Research Institute. Kiley Sobel is a research scientist at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. She also holds an affiliate assistant professor position at the University of Washington’s Information School. Patrick Davison is a media historian whose work examines the influence of 20th-century U.S. social science on contemporary social media.

The findings of The Missing Middle: Reimagining a Future for Tweens, Teens, and Public Media, are based on qualitative interviews with a total of 50 youth participants, including tweens (aged 10–12) and teens (aged 13–17). Three researchers from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center conducted online video-based and phone-based focus group interviews between Sept. 18 and Dec. 8, 2020. In order to carry out this work, we partnered with nine different youth-focused organizations, recruiting participants from the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West Coast in rural, urban and suburban areas. As such, our interview sample is not nationally representative but was designed to include a diverse mix of voices from typically underrepresented and underserved communities, including youth from low-income households, students of color and youth with disabilities.

A full-text PDF of this report is available as a free download from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s website.

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