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9 ways YouTube can affect your children and how to make it safer

Oct. 8, 2019
9 ways YouTube can affect your children and how to make it safer

Whether you’re the parent of a teenager with his own smartphone or have a curious preschooler under your roof, there’s a good chance YouTube plays a role in your family’s screen time. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, 81% of parents with kids age 11 and under say they “ever” allow their child to watch YouTube videos, while 34% of parents say their child regularly watches content on YouTube. (Note: YouTube says the site is for kids 13 and up. There is a YouTube Kids platform that provides enhanced parental controls.)

But the million-dollar question is: Is YouTube safe for kids?

“YouTube can be a lot of fun, but it’s no place for kids — of any age — to roam alone,” says Lori Getz, a cyber education consultant and author of "The Tech Savvy User's Guide to the Digital World." “Content on YouTube is user-created, which means anyone can put anything they want on the site. While the company has the right to take something down or flag it as adult content, that doesn’t always happen before a child is exposed to something that can negatively affect them.”

Have a kid who’s obsessed with YouTube? You may want to break the habit. Here are nine ways the video platform can be dangerous for kids. 

1. There’s inappropriate content all over the site

No doubt about it: You can learn about a lot of things — and how to do a lot of things — on YouTube. Knitting, baking, how to make a killer friendship bracelet — there’s an endless number of legitimate tutorials on YouTube. But here’s the problem: The videos keep autoloading (and autoloading), and, eventually, your child may be face-to-face with something completely unrelated — and inappropriate — to the original search. 

“A child has the ability to jump from a harmless video, for example, about birds, to a video with adult content all within a matter of seconds,” says psychotherapist and NYC group practice owner Liz Morrison

How does this happen? The content is almost impossible to screen. YouTube is user-uploaded, so not everything is categorized with the appropriate restrictions. In other words, filters can’t be counted on to safeguard kids every single time.

“When kids are exposed to the wide range of content on YouTube, it’s concerning, because the content might not be age-appropriate, which can lead them to seeing something they’re not mature enough to handle,” says Morrison. “There are a lot of scary YouTube videos out there [who could forget the Momo Challenge?], which, if seen, can affect a child’s judgment, as well as lead to increased stress, anxiety or even feelings of depression.”

Safety tip #1: Approve what kids can watch

YouTube introduced a “trusted channels” feature in 2018, where you can handpick and approve videos from a curated collection deemed appropriate by the YouTube Kids team or their trusted partners like PBS KIDS, LeVar Burton Kids, the Geena Davis Institute and more. To preapprove this kid-friendly content, go to Settings on the YouTube Kids app, and choose the “Approved Content Only” mode. Kids aren’t able to search videos in this mode either. 

2. It may impede your preschooler’s development

While there are a host of videos on YouTube billed as “educational” for your preschooler, that may not be the case at all. 

“Studies in preschoolers have shown a relationship between poor impulse control and self-regulation with earlier and longer use of low-quality media,” says Dr. Brandon Smith, General Academic Pediatrics Fellow, Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. “It’s also thought that excessive screen time with low-quality media may contribute to poorer language development in certain children.” 

Not sure what constitutes “low-quality” media? Videos of kids playing with toys and unwrapping trinkets — which, yes, contribute further to the “I want” culture — is a good place to start. 

And even if you happen upon a truly educational video for your child, such as those on PBS Kids’ YouTube channel, they aren’t without their pitfalls. 

“Although some videos on YouTube may seem short and harmless, the quick-changing features and short clips may not let your child fully understand the content,” says Smith. “We are still learning about many of the longer-term effects in this area.”

Safety tip #2: Set age-appropriate limits

If you do allow your toddler or preschooler to dabble in screen time, be sure to stick to the recommended screen time limits for kids ages 2 to 5, according to the Mayo Clinic, which is one hour of “high-quality” programming a day. The YouTube Kids app also allows you to set a timer for how long your kids can watch, and the app will be locked once the time limit is reached.

3. It can cause meltdowns

Want to see a colossal meltdown? Take away YouTube from a kid who has become accustomed to watching it often. 

“I knew I had to cut YouTube out of my kindergartener’s routine when she started completely losing it every time I told her it was time to log off, usually when it was time for dinner,” says Jenn Epstein, of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. “It was as if something clicked in my daughter when she started watching YouTube, and she went from being a sweet 5-year-old to a raving lunatic. Every night was a meltdown. She complained for a day or two when we took it away, but the tantrums stopped now that she doesn’t watch it anymore.”

Safety tip #3: Stick to a consistent screen time protocol

One reason behind “screen time tantrums”? Most kids have trouble transitioning from one activity to the next, particularly when you’re asking them to stop doing something they’re enjoying (watching YouTube) so they can do something they don’t enjoy (wash up for dinner).

Here are a few ways to stop screen time meltdowns from happening, according to Common Sense Media:

  • Explain exactly how much time has been allotted for YouTube before your child starts watching.

  • Give a two-minute warning.

  • Praise them when they successfully stop watching and move on to the next activity.

4. It can be addictive

“Digital addictions” are a controversial topic, but there has been at least one case where it’s believed that compulsive YouTube consumption played a role in a teen’s mental breakdown. But according to social media safety expert Paul Davis, a lot of the onus with YouTube obsessions should be placed on the parents. 

“You’ll get different answers from different experts in their respective fields, but I think YouTube can absolutely be addictive,” Davis says. “The algorithm on YouTube is such that the suggestions off to the right, when watching YouTube on a computer, attempt to take you down an endless path of other videos that have similar content. [And if your child doesn’t click on these videos, a new video will automatically start playing after the one he’s watching.] However, when parents do their job and properly monitor their child’s screen time, I don’t think ‘technology addictions’ are an actual issue. No parent should let their child stare at a screen for hours on end instead of socializing, playing with peers and doing homework.” 

Safety tip #4: Set screen time limits

In order to ensure your child isn’t hypnotized by YouTube for hours a day, give them a specific amount of time they can watch it. 

“There is good content on YouTube that’s educational and fun,” says Davis. “But even that should be viewed in moderation, and that takes effort on the part of the parents. Don’t use it as a babysitter.”

5. It may promote unsafe behavior

While some YouTube challenges can be harmless — such as the Ice Bucket Challenge, which had people dumping cold water on their heads to raise money for ALS — others — like the “Bird Box” challenge, which had people walking around blindfolded and resulted in at least one car crash — are downright dangerous. 

In January 2019, YouTube updated its terms to prohibit “challenges presenting a risk of serious danger or death, and pranks that make victims believe they’re in serious physical danger, or cause children to experience severe emotional distress.” But of course, this isn’t to say that such videos will be removed before your child catches a glimpse of them — and possibly attempts to try a challenge of his own. 

Safety tip #5: Preview content

Sure, YouTube can give you a few minutes to make dinner or have a conversation. However, “the best approach to YouTube is to watch it with your children, plain and simple,” says Getz. “You may learn something new about it or decide that what they’re viewing just isn’t right for your family.”

6. Your child is targeted by ads, ads and more ads

As with other forms of social media, YouTube isn’t without its fair share of ads, which can contribute to consumerism (effects of which has been linked to behaviors like narcissism and a lack of empathy). But a new problem that seems to be cropping up is deceptive advertising tactics aimed at young children. For instance, the massively popular YouTube channel Ryan ToysReview recently received a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission for weaving an ad for Carl’s Jr. in a video where Ryan, the star of the channel, is seemingly playing with his toy kitchen without any disclosure that it was actually a paid ad.

In addition to consumerism, some ads are downright dangerous, particularly for teens. 

“Advertisements are popping up more and more on sites like YouTube and Facebook, and research has shown a heavy presence of alcohol brands, as well as e-cigarettes,” says Smith. “The frightening part is teens are easily being exposed to these ads, even if they aren’t watching videos about drinking or smoking.” 

Safety tip #6: Pay for ad-free programming

YouTube Kids is ad-supported. According to YouTube, that’s how they keep the service free for all families. However, if you would like your child to be able to watch YouTube videos free of paid ads, you can sign up for the YouTube Kids App with YouTube Premium. It’ll cost you though. It’s $11.99 per month after a free one-month trial. 

7. It can affect sleep.

One of the most important things you can do for your child? Ensure they get enough sleep each night, which is beneficial for everything from their mood to their cognitive function to their immune system. YouTube’s not helping this case.

“Any screen time — whether it’s TV, texting or YouTube — is going to impact your child’s sleep,” says Smith. “When kids go to bed with devices in their room, they get fewer minutes of sleep each night compared to those who don’t have screens in their room.” 

An exact number of lost sleep is difficult to determine, but a 2014 survey found that 80% of teens admit to using their phone when their parents thought they were in bed sleeping. In addition to YouTube videos autoplaying into the next (making it difficult to ever feel “done”), electronic devices in general have been linked to insomnia due to the artificial blue light they emit. According to the National Sleep Foundation, smartphones can interfere with the body’s internal clock by suppressing the release of melatonin, the body’s sleep-inducing hormone. In short: The more time your child spends in front of their screen at night, the harder it is for their body to settle down for sleep. 

Safety tip #7: Set a digital curfew

The National Sleep Foundation recommends initiating a “digital curfew” for kids — and everyone in the family, for that matter — of about two hours before bed. (If that’s not realistic, they recommend staying off of phones, computers and tablets at least 30 minutes before going to sleep.)

A good substitute for staring at your phone? Reading! Yes, actual printed books! And for families who love the convenience of being able to download books, e-readers are recommended, such as the Kindle Paperwhite, because they don’t produce the same type of blue light as traditional tablets. 

8. The comments can be problematic

In addition to your kids watching YouTube, you also need to be concerned with them uploading videos themselves. One reason in particular? The comments. 

“If your child has a talent and wants to share it with the world — and you’re OK with this as the parent, by all means make a YouTube video,” says Getz. “But I’d definitely recommend going into the settings and turning off comments. When kids see comments on their YouTube creations, this only leads to problems, even if the comments are positive. No one wants their child to become obsessed with feedback or to derive their self-worth from the number of likes, comments and subscribers.”

On the flip side, there’s bullying that occurs in the comments section. 

“The online bullying on YouTube is horrible,” says Davis, who also advises turning off the comments. “The nicest videos can get the meanest comments. This isn’t fair to your child, their confidence and mental well-being. Your child should be allowed to be proud of what they created.” 

Safety tip #8: Turn off comments

Both experts suggest turning off comments on any videos your child uploads. But here’s the good news: In February 2019, YouTube disabled comments on videos featuring minors to limit the risk of exploitation. In other words, if your child is featured, comments will probably be disabled, but it’s a good idea to check to be sure anyway. And remember — users only have control of the comments on their own YouTube videos. Your kids may still see the comments on any videos they’re watching, which, again, can be inappropriate in both language and nature. 

9. It can create a false sense of reality

Something only our kids’ generation can relate to? Making a career out of YouTube. While some people do actually become successful YouTube stars (Ryan of Ryan ToysReview is reportedly worth $22 million), it’s certainly not a conventional or widely accessible career path. 

“My kids became obsessed with making YouTube-type videos on my phone even though they didn’t post them,” says Cheryl Barry, of New York. “My phone was filled with videos of them playing with toys and talking to the camera. It was weird! When I asked them why they liked doing it, they, in so many words, said it’s what they wanted to do when they grow up. No! I explained to them that being a YouTube star isn’t something to aspire to and how very few people actually become successful doing it. To be honest, I’m not sure the message has completely sunk in, but one thing’s for sure — I never leave my phone lying around anymore.”

Safety tip #9: Talk to your kids

While, yes, there are well-made, educational videos available on YouTube, there are also tons of videos that instill a completely false sense of reality in kids. 

“YouTube provides video content of unattainable things with no real context,” says Morrison. “For instance, lots of kids watch gamers play video games almost seamlessly, which gives them the false hope that they may be able to win the game with little to no effort, as well. This can lead to feelings of frustration, disappointment and stress.” 

Morrison says that what the gamer is usually leaving out is how long they have been playing the game or how much time it took for them to practice each level. 

According to Morrison, the best way for parents to stop kids from wholeheartedly buying into everything they see on YouTube is to talk to them. 

“It’s so important for parents to discuss with their kids what’s real and what’s fake about YouTube videos,” she says. “And it’s even more important for parents to talk to their kids about all the possibilities of why someone in a video may be behaving in a certain way — how they may feel sad, insecure or lonely —  rather than letting kids go with their immediate thought, which may lead them to feel upset.”

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