Before I had kids, I’d hear parents talk about what their kids watched on YouTube. It was the beginning of the toy unboxing videos, and my nephews were obsessed with them. I remember thinking “Not my kid.” There was something about it that just seemed icky. I remember feeling the same way when preschools students acted out or talked about scary content like zombies at school. I always said, “Not my kid. We won’t let our kids watch that.” It’s easy to say these things when you aren’t a parent.
My daughter is three now. She started loving YouTube because we found The Wiggles, an Australian singing group that my family truly admires. I never minded her watching that. Then, she started branching out to other music groups like Bounce Patrol and Debbie Doo. Overall, the groups are fun and safe despite the overabundance of similar songs (like the 5-finger family tune) that make my husband and I feel crazy sometimes.
Recently, the icky stuff started creeping into the autoplay feed: unboxing toy videos, playdoh egg videos, and lots of Halloween videos that are suspiciously interesting to my daughter. There’s even a channel called Wiggle Pop that occasionally uses an animated slot machine to make familiar characters (i.e. Frozen, Trolls, Shopkins) do strange things (i.e. wear a panda head). We’ve never specifically searched for these types of videos. They just started showing up following other videos that we do approve. I looked up one day and realized what she was watching. Gross. I realized that we had let things slip a little bit. Worst of all, my daughter begs for these videos when they pop up as choices. Deep inner groan.
The bottom line is: It’s hard to balance a rambunctious toddler, the desire to safely parent our kids, and the need to get things done. Sometimes, we just need to make dinner. I’m here to say that I know how tough it is. But I think we all need to be very careful with this content and our kids.
I started some internet research expecting to find articles called, “What your kids are watching can hurt them!” I was surprised to find the conclusions are very mixed. At best, articles explore some pros and cons, allowing families to decide for themselves. But after years of studying education, spending time with children, and watching the way my daughter responds to these addictive videos, I have a very icky feeling about children watching this content. Deep down, I just feel like it’s bad for kids. Here’s my biggest question:
Do we really want our children watching unboxing videos instead of using their own imaginations in real-life play experiences?
When my daughter watches these videos, she is almost hypnotized. She stands close to the screen and watches with rapt interest. It reminds me of the scene from poltergeist. Sure, she acts them out a little bit later; but while she is watching it, she does not usually play. This concerns me because there is an abundance of research showing the importance of play to develop readiness skills for learning. In my opinion, unboxing videos just can’t replace that.
In a recent TED talk, James Briddle explains that these videos are intentionally addictive to children in order to generate ad revenue and keep kids watching. Natasha Daniels says that certain YouTube content brings kids to therapy when they develop fears, watch explicit content, or try pranks they have seen online. Other writers say that these videos are harmless because they allow families to learn more about products and provide children enjoyable experiences at a slow pace that is surprising and engaging. Some writers seem to downplay how these videos are advertising for kids, but I am still personally suspicious about that. It looks exactly like advertising to me. I just don’t think there is enough research or people writing about the concerns yet.
I read one article in which the writer concludes there is no clear evidence that these things are harmful for kids. However, the article includes this sentence: “The [viewing] process results in the release of the chemical dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward.” Perhaps this is a harmless hormone release in the body. Or perhaps not. Think about how kids might not find school pleasurable unless they are getting the same chemical release every 1-2 minutes. Think about how kids might seek experiences with similar rewards as teenagers and young adults. To me, this sounds like the beginning of addiction-oriented habits like gambling, alcohol, drugs, junk foods, and other dangerous behaviors. The choices we make as parents can have very lasting effects.
When my cousin was little, he was obsessed with a TV show called ThunderCats. He was so obsessed with it that his mom helped him decorate his room with the characters, straight down to his bedspread. But my cousin was having terrible, terrible nightmares. After a few sessions of therapy, the counselor discovered that my cousin was absolutely terrified of the ThunderCats. His brain was obsessed with the show because he was trying to understand it. He was so scared that he couldn’t stop watching it. This family experience really sticks with me. I think similar situations are playing out with shows like The Walking Dead today.
Choices like these are hard. My husband and I feel like we never get to watch shows that interest us, and the cacophony of children’s music is numbing sometimes. Despite the inconvenience, we believe the sacrifice is worth it. There is a body of research about mirror neurons in our brains. Simply speaking, our brain is stimulated in similar ways BOTH when we actually do something and also when we watch someone else do something. It’s really fascinating. I think this brain research explains why kids love watching the unboxing videos and feel fear or obsession watching scary videos. Their viewing experiences closely relate to feelings of real-life experiences. In my opinion, what children are watching absolutely CAN hurt them.
So what do we take away from all of this? First, I start with a deep sigh. It’s overwhelming because our world is so busy with tasks to do! But these are important decisions that are worthy of extra effort. If your kids are watching YouTube on a cell phone or tablet, you might check out YouTube Kids. It has some protections to remove inappropriate content, but it is LOADED with addictive children’s videos and needs careful adult supervision. My husband and I opted to create a channel just for our kids, allowing us to add things we like and delete things we don’t. You can find some steps about that here. If these things seem too timely or technical, consider avoiding YouTube altogether or watch with your child to control the content. And whenever you can, just turn off the TV altogether and go play!