My almost 6-year-old daughter is bright, thrives in school, engages with her friends — and she's also a YouTube addict. The minute she's done with homework or feels my focus slipping from her to some other task, you can bet she's grabbing her hot pink foam-encased iPad, ignoring all the educational apps I've loaded it with, and watching as many YouTube Kids' videos as she can.
I'll be honest: in some ways, I appreciate her addiction. The video app is about the only thing that will hold her attention for longer than 10 minutes, giving me time to cook dinner, deal with her little brother, and not brainstorm 50 ways to entertain her between the hours of 2:30 p.m., when she gets off the bus, and 8 p.m., when she goes to bed. But I know it's also sort of ruining her.
Here are five reasons why and what I know I need to do about it.
- She talks like a YouTube channel host. After an hour or so of watching tutorials, suddenly my daughter will totally change the way she communicates. Instead of asking me to get her ketchup for her chicken nuggets, she'll start explaining to me why tomato sauce is an important part of her meal and why every kid loves it in a voice that kind of sounds like she's giving a TED Talk. It's a weird affect she puts on, and I can tell in her mind, she's not talking to me, but to her potential viewers. She might as well say, "click below to subscribe" at the end.
- Even YouTube Kids can get weird. YouTube Kids is genius, and if your kid is watching normal YouTube, I highly suggest you switch them over. The app allows you to set time limits for usage and restrict search terms, and it hand selects all the videos that appear on the app to make sure they're age appropriate. It also disables comments and collects less personal data from your kids. But that doesn't mean your kid won't still find some weird sh*t when they go down that YouTube rabbit hole. I can't even tell you how many times I've wondered whether the video my daughter is watching is really for kids or fetishists.
- Everything is a commercial. I always loved Disney Junior when my daughter was little because of the limited commercials (i.e. less whining for crap she saw advertised on TV). Then she found YouTube, and suddenly she wants everything. And when she asks for some tacky Justice item or a disposable toy or some game that sounds like nothing she'd enjoy, and I ask her how she heard about it, the answer is always "YouTube."
- You'll have to hear all about their favourite hosts. I don't really know who HobbyMom and HobbyPig, EvanTubeHD, or the Family Fun Pack crew are, but I hear about these people all the time, which now that I think about it, makes me realize I probably need to make sure they're not fetishists.
- Surprise eggs. Every single mum whose small child has only recently started watching YouTube worries about that child's intelligence level when they realize they're exclusively watching egg-opening videos. Then they reveal this secret to any other mum on the planet and realize that's all every single little kid ever watches on YouTube, a fact that still doesn't make the appeal of surprise egg videos any less bizarre.
So, yes, YouTube Kids is probably ruining our children a little, but there are ways to lessen its negative effects without permanently deleting the app. First, actually use those parental controls the app provides, including turning off or pausing the search history, which will clear the recommended videos the app usually provides (i.e. that rabbit hole). Also, setting time limits is the easiest way to hold both you and your kid accountable for the amount of time they're actually watching those egg videos.
Also, it's important that you occasionally sit down with your child and actually observe what they're watching. Gently encourage them to pick educational videos over glorified commercials. Help them subscribe to channels you both like, so they'll automatically be given any new videos from that creator. And finally, talk to them about why they like or dislike certain videos. The reasons might surprise you, and if nothing else, the conversation will get them off the screen and back into the real world.