Public Media and the Youth Media Landscape: A Q&A

November 18, 2020

youth media

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is funding a project with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop ("Cooney Center") to study the current media habits of tweens and teens. The By/With/For Youth: Inspiring Next Gen Public Media Audiences project seeks to build a foundation for how public media can engage with youth audiences and better equip them to participate and thrive in the world.

The Cooney Center recently published “Navigating Youth Media Landscapes: Challenges and Opportunities for Public Media,” by Patrick Davison, Monica Bulger, and Mary Madden. "Navigating Youth Media Landscapes: Challenges and Opportunities in Public Media" presents a review of academic research on youth media. It is being released as a precursor to a full report in 2021, which will present the ideas of a diverse group of youth ages 11-17 obtained in focus group interviews.

Patrick Davison
Patrick Davison, Program Manager for Research Production and Editorial, Data & Society Research Institute 

CPB caught up with the researchers to discuss what they found:

Q: What are the biggest challenges for public media that you found in this literature review?

A: Something that our early research has shown is that some of the language we use to describe media activities – dividing it up between entertainment and news, for instance – doesn’t neatly apply. For young people who actively engage with new media platforms and invent new media practices, the distinctions get even fuzzier. 

The other challenge is locating and contacting young people without regular access to mobile devices and the internet. It would be easy to reduce contemporary media use to networked media – streaming video, social media – and overlook the role of broadcast television and other media forms. It remains to be seen how the experiences and needs of those without this type of access will compare to those that are more often online. But if anyone is positioned to look at the media landscape holistically, it is public media.

Q: Did any of the findings surprise you?

A: With it being 2020, we found some interesting studies on how youth are reacting to quarantine measures. For instance, we don’t think anyone in 2019 would have predicted a new surge in daytime broadcast TV viewing from teenagers.

Apart from such historical ruptures, it was surprising to see the exact age of mobile phone possession: 53% of children had smartphones by age 11 and 69% by age 12 in 2019. We knew that more young people were getting personal devices earlier and earlier, but just how many and just how young is a little surprising.

Monica Bulger
Monica Bulger, Senior Fellow, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

Q: You identify gaining access to a smartphone or other personal device as a milestone when a youth’s media habits change significantly. What are some of the implications for public media?

A: Having a personal device allows youth to choose their own media and how they interact with it. Mobile devices offer media that is often shorter or accessed through different platforms in comparison to traditional broadcast offerings.

And mobile device media consumption also means that traditional methods of measuring engagement are less useful. Certain types of content delivery, like dedicated apps or websites, are going to give really granular data on media use. However, if content makes it into the larger social media “ecosystem,” it will be harder to analyze how many young people are engaging with that content.

Currently, when young people choose their own media, they don’t choose public media. Practically, what this means is public media will need to develop new skills ranging from production methods to community engagement practices.

Q: How will this literature review inform what will happen next with the project?

A: We see this literature review as having two main functions for future research. We have used it to shape our research questions and to help us evaluate how we find interview participants. The other function this review serves is as a way to communicate with public media professionals the research and the values which underpin this project. We hope that even before we have full-fledged interview findings, that this presentation would help pave the way, spark discussion, and create common commitment to the growth of public media.

Mary Maddon
Mary Madden, Senior Fellow, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

Q: You make the case that youth media is evolving constantly. What lasting effects have the pandemic had on youth media habits?

A: Honestly, the lasting effects are not yet known. Obviously, there’s a question about how educational life will change with new school attendance policies, but the other major sphere where we’re going to continue to see changes is the social sphere. Young people are not going to stop wanting connections with their peers and will naturally pivot and reroute around the physical impediments to that socialization. But what that means for public media, really, remains to be seen.

To subscribe to CPB spotlights, press releases, grant announcements and ombudsman reports, go to