Of apps, kids and culture

Television - even at this point in the streaming era - is primarily global by choice and business model. But recently, David Kleeman was stopped short by the question of how the intersection of culture and media works in the mobile app world, and whether it's even of importance.
September 3, 2015

For more than 20 years, I’ve traveled with the PRIX JEUNESSE Suitcase, showing children’s television from around the world and talking about how programs reflect the places they come from. Recently, though, I was brought up short by the question of how that intersection of culture and media works in the mobile app world, and whether it’s even of importance. Let me explain, then I hope you’ll weigh in with your own thoughts and experiences.

The week before last, I was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for the comKids conference and PRIX JEUNESSE IberoAmericano. The former is a set of panels and discussions on the changing Latin American children’s media landscape and the latter is the region’s competition to recognize outstanding children’s TV. PJIA is modeled after the global PRIX JEUNESSE, which since 1964 has honored the world’s best programs for young people. In Sao Paulo, as in Munich, everyone watches, everyone discusses, everyone votes. You can see the results here.

To my mind, Latin America is the most interesting world region for creativity in children’s TV, right now. There are many reasons; one big one is the proliferation of distribution opportunities. For over a quarter century, I’ve seen extraordinarily talented producers and directors, writers and animators from Latin America, but they often had no outlet for their work.

In the past few years, professional and public advocacy has given birth to broadcast blocks and channels – Argentina’s PakaPaka, SeƱal Colombia and others, channels that either didn’t exist before or paid little attention to children. Streaming and mobile media, too, are growing fast.

The Latin American producers’ various cultures shine through in many of their works – indigenous lives profiled in documentaries with gorgeous cinematography, animations done with local craft materials, pointedly honest and political histories, and types of humor that may mystify outsiders but leave the target audience in stitches.

Like its worldwide parent, PRIX JEUNESSE IberoAmericano has an interactive media division, with prizes for best mobile app and best website. After all the finalists were presented, someone noted that they carried far fewer Latin American markers than had the television entries, and a discussion ensued about whether cultural specificity was as important in mobile as in television, and what it meant in practical terms.

My initial reaction was “of course,” that children need to see their lives reflected on any and every screen. Between economics and typical genres, however, it may not be that simple.

Television – even at this point in the streaming era – is primarily global by choice and business model. Programs are consciously made either for a particular place or for international sale. We’ve all heard the stories of story or design compromises made to mask culture or accommodate tastes and taboos.

At the same time, many typical TV genres are ideal for telling rooted stories incorporating narrative conventions, traditional arts and crafts, and casts (whether live action or animated) that reflect local population.

Web and mobile are more inherently global by technology – content has to be geoblocked to prevent border crossing, as opposed to actively sold to enable it. Given an already tight economic model for mobile, anything that shrinks potential audience is risky.

The most common app genres, at least for younger kids, may mask cultural diversity, too. Outside of ebooks, they tend to be less character or narrative driven, such as art, puzzle and education “drill” apps.

Nonetheless, the more time kids spend with mobile devices and their inherently global nature, the most important it becomes to support diverse cultural content. One of my mentors, Mogens Vemmer, the former head of children’s programming from Danish public TV, used to ask “when a child wakes up in the morning and turns on TV, how does she know where she is.” Today, that same question applies to tablets and phones. In both content and design, Adarna House’s A Day in the Market book and app is a good example – firmly rooted in the Philippines, even if it can be accessed anywhere.

Kids don’t just need to learn their own roots, though; they need to see how their world is interconnected with others’. Another of Vemmer’s dictums was that “children should learn that kids everywhere grow up with equal dignity even under unequal circumstances.” That’s impossible if all interactive content is generic in its location and point of view. Tinybop’s Homes and Round by Design’s One Globe Kids both take elements of everyday life – how we eat, sleep, shelter – and showing similarities and differences around the world.

It seems to me, as well, that social media and user-generated content are perfectly suited to cultural exchange, as long as we create tools that are designed less for egocentrism and more for ubuntu - the African concept of interdependence: “I am because you are.”

Fortunately, there’s a way for all interactive media creators to join this discussion, to contribute to innovation in representation, and to help all young people find inclusion in their screens, which function both as a mirror on their lives and a window on the world. Diversity in Apps is an emerging organization of producers, publishers, researchers, educators and others. Diversity is a function not just of what’s on the screen, but who’s behind it, so wherever you’re located, whatever you’re making, check it out and help make Diversity in Apps deeply and truly exemplary of its name.

Photo credit: Danila Bustamante/comKids

About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.


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