YouTube For Children: Is It Still Worth The Risk?

image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad

Is YouTube For Children Still Worth The Risk?

by Terry Heick

Over the years, I’ve seen YouTube morph from a digital video library to a vending machine for ‘streamers’ saying and doing almost anything for subscribers.

Smash that subscribe button if you want to see more great content.

I’ve seen videos of clearly fake pranks and jump scares with 50 million views. Revenue, of course, is the goal for most video content creators and 50 million views, could earn anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to more than $10,000.

I see it come to be dominated by people watching people play video games. That is, people watching a video of people watching a video game.

I see channels whose sole purpose is to ‘respond’ to other channels, who do so back again. They just argue back and forth behind the weight of their ‘subscribers’ who ‘support them.’

Seeing my own children become addicted to its video algorithms has been eye-opening. And even as I type that, there’s so much to unpack there:

Whose ‘fault’ is it if a tool is designed to promote media addiction?

Who gets to define what the standard for ‘addiction’ is? Whose ‘screen rules’ should we follow?

What is the role of personal accountability in the behavior of a child from the child? Is there any at all?

What is the responsibility of the parents in the monitoring of a child’s technology use? I’d suggest it is total and complete, but does that let technology companies–especially those that market and position themselves to appeal to children–off the hook?

But as the platform has gone from moving media index to a multi-billion dollar ecology of its own, I become a little less charitable in my assessment. Just as facebook changed its mission from connecting people to literally replacing the internet, YouTube has gone from a ‘video app’ to the preferred method of media consumption for a generation of children.

(See above for talking points to begin hashing out whose ‘fault’ this is–or if it’s a bad thing at all.)

While we can talk about the toxicity of YouTube–and, increasingly, social media in general–the challenges of using YouTube as a teaching and learning tool are varied, and multiplying quickly.

The most recent development to shape how I personally view the platform came a couple of months ago as I sat on the couch with my two-year-old son watching a cartoon. I was turned away from the screen (he was watching on my iPad) talking to one of my other children when I felt his little body stiffen, then heard him scream out in terror. I look at the screen and saw what I later came to learn was ‘Momo,’ a visual of curious origin played down by some and up by others as either ‘an urban myth’ or proof that the internet has lost its mind.

That night, I had no idea what I’d seen, only that it terrified my son and wasn’t the result of some kind parental neglect. He wasn’t ‘unmonitored.’ I was right there watching with him. Of course, ‘Momo’ has gone viral for the moment, which means that there’s a lot of hyperbole and misunderstanding. The Atlantic responded to the ‘Momo’ madness with a take intended to be measured, I think.

The problem is, these stories are only ever a distraction. They offer false reassurance and an easy fix to the wrong problem. If you can protect your child from the Momo challenge, the thinking goes, you can protect them from bad things on the internet. Unfortunately, maintaining kids’ safety online is a much more complicated and delicate task. “This whole ‘Momo is making kids commit suicide’ is a digital version of playing Beatles records backwards to hear Satanic messages,” says Ben Collins, a journalist who covers misinformation. “It does a real disservice to all the harmful stuff targeting children and teens on YouTube.”

The post, whose gist is that the ‘Momo’ is more or less an urban myth and that parents are missing the whole point, continues: ‘The internet is profoundly changing kids’ lives in ways that we have yet to understand, and it makes sense that parents want to keep their children safe. But “Momo” isn’t what they need protection from.”

Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. If you’ve never sat next to a two-year-old reeling in frozen horror from the screen you handed to them–and that they have come to trust–it’s easier to take a ‘big picture’ view that there is ‘more to worry about than Momo’ in the same way that it’s easy to take a big picture view of leash laws until your child gets bitten by the dog you’ve seen off the leash a dozen times.

Momo is a problem now, but YouTube is a more macro problem, and our cultural practices and expectations are a more macro problem still.

The Screen Time Lesson

In ‘Stop Worrying About Screen Time,’ I wondered if the focus on ‘screen time’ might be the wrong approach.

But the best test we might have to evaluate the “appropriateness” for any child in any situation might be, with a book, an app, a poem or a video game: “What are you doing, and why?” Citizenship is citizenship; digital citizenship can be considered a template for ‘real life’ citizenship. While screen time certainly matters, focusing only on time is like developing a literacy program that focuses only on “minutes read.” What about, “What are you reading, and why?” or “What will you do with this reading experience?” “What is reading doing to and for you?” “What should you read or do next as a result?”

And it’s within that frame that, until something changes–whether it’s YouTube or how we think of and use YouTube–I no longer feel comfortable recommending it as a teaching and learning tool without considerable reservation and context. This likely suggests a longer analysis, but for now I’ll itemize a few of the more prevalent issues:

YouTube predictive algorithms for suggested videos is, at best, questionable.

The kind of thinking and behavior YouTube content rewards is, at best, worthy of our collective scrutiny.

Quality content is increasingly crowded out by ‘slick’ content. For every Smarter Every Day series (I’m a huge fan), there are dozens of ‘You’ll never guess what happened next’ illusions that are this weird middle-ground between fiction (like Hollywood) and reality tv (whose own grotesqueness is generally also its selling point).

(I’d talk about the relative moral bankruptcy of core YouTube content, much less its business model, but I realize that is subjective and up to each family to decide on their own.)

YouTube As The New Textbook?

There is simply too much money at stake for YouTube not to have crumbled in on itself. Its data is too visible and the feedback loops are too direct. You can make a video of a your child playing with a doll and they are suddenly on the screen for hundreds of millions of people to ‘enjoy.’ That we are so cavalier with this kind of scale is unsettling.

It’s easy to anticipate the baby/bathwater counterargument here and I don’t necessarily disagree. Not using YouTube because of ‘Momo’ seems rash but would you continue recommending a textbook manufacturer whose pages at any moment could yield the form of a demon just because ‘it didn’t happen very often’? That said, I’ll still use it selectively because there’s so much great content.

For me, however, it has become increasingly difficult to endorse YouTube as a teaching and learning tool without reservation. (This is a reality that applies to the internet itself). In the ‘screen time’ discussion, I wanted to focus less on quantity and form and more on quality and effect. That is, it seemed important to focus on people and how they live rather than technology and how it is quantified.

Or put even more simply, focus on the people instead of the technology.

Here’s an analogy that seems close enough to be useful: Originally, textbooks were collections of academic content sequenced in pages. That’s all. Depending on how you used it and what you expected out of it, this was helpful.

Eventually, though, they became big business. And just as textbooks became an ‘industry’ and so crumbled in on themselves, as–in my opinion–has YouTube. For all of the wonderful qualities textbooks possess, their net effect seems to be outweighed by the drawbacks.

And depending on who you are and how you use it for teaching and learning, as of early 2019 the same might be true for YouTube.