This week, the writer James Bridle published an essay on Medium called “Something is wrong on the internet” that introduced many people to the weird, massive, and often disturbing world of children’s content made for YouTube. Bridle’s thesis is that YouTube is producing videos for children at a terrifying speed and scale, and it’s hard to disagree with that. Many of the examples he cites are disturbing, and YouTube announced Thursday that it will introduce age restrictions on many videos which target kids in this manner. But Bridle, who admits he’s not a parent, has an alarmist tone. He refers to this trend as “violence being done to children,” writes that “to expose children to this content is abuse,” and seems to think that kids will be somehow forced to watch these videos. “What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives.” Though none of this is inherently untrue, it’s certainly not inevitable that kids will see this stuff from birth. Furthermore, parents know the issue is more complicated than simply “YouTube is bad.” YouTube is bad. But there’s more to it than that.
For parents, there are a few big issues that come up earlier and earlier in their children’s lives. One of them — the question of when kids should start watching television, how much they should watch, and what they should watch — is more complex every year. Suspicion of television has been around for as long as television has existed: It was known as the “rot box” for good reason. Parents suspected, and research often backed up, the feeling that kids would be better off playing outdoors or with board games than they would be sitting passively in front of a screen. The question of the content has become more and more of an issue, as has the resultant exposure in childhood to relentless advertising, and the effects of not moving around enough. The prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled in the United States since the 1970s.
All of this is magnificently complicated by the internet. The cause for concern — “television” — is now a multi-faceted assault known as “screen time” and “media exposure.” The offerings have proliferated into a cornucopia of choice as to the number of possible devices — TVs, phones, tablets, computers — and the number of individual pieces of content available: websites, shows, apps, games. And of course, much of this is still bookended with a seemingly never-ending array of advertisements, which have increased their sophistication dramatically in the face of a growing body of research as to their detrimental effects.
Parents are thus faced with a complex battery of choices to make, all while coping with the very real burdens of raising families in the U.S.: poor access to low cost childcare, little to no leave days, health insurance woes, and so on. And while the research is clear, too much “screen time” can be very detrimental to children’s attention spans later in life, kids spend as much as ten hours a day consuming media on screens, including roughly three or four hours of television. This issue gets infinitely more complicated as children grow into their middle years and do not need to be physically minded all their waking hours. Many kids, of course, have their own phones.
Much of the worry about media and screens for parents occurs very early in a child’s life. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that after the age of 18 months, some screentime is OK if it’s “high quality” and restricted to less than an hour a day for children under the age of five. But the reality is a lot different than the recommendations: the average age a kid starts watching “TV” or “screens” is about four months, and on average children see about seven hours of screen time per day, with up to three hours a day of television.
So what the fuck are they watching?
It’s complicated. For kids under five, who often aren’t in school full-time, the appeal of screentime is obvious to parents: An iPad is a babysitter of sorts, and there are many hours to fill. I reasoned that watching a show for a half an hour was a nice break for my own daughter from the constant cycle of painting, drawing, building, and singing. If you’re a mother at home alone with a sick toddler, it’s certainly an attractive option to simply turn on a movie to get a few minutes of downtime, where you can sit together and relax.
Parents of children of this age can (and should) be in full control of what their children are watching. The options are basically unlimited, but there are a few really, really bad ones. Really bad, and popular ones. YouTube, which is free unless you pay $9.99 per month for YouTube Red, a service that ditches the ads, is one of the most popular video platforms for kids. Because content is free and there is a huge quantity of it, it’s an easy timesuck. My daughter was, for a while, enamored of “baby videos” — three- or four-minute videos, narrated by adults (often in baby voices) of baby dolls being cared for, fed, and put to sleep. Out of context, they’re a little unsettling. In the context of YouTube, they’re about as “good clean fun” as it gets. Because, of course, YouTube is a nightmare world. It’s full of garbage, and it’s also full of videos that are meant to trick their viewers into watching them, advertising themselves as things they’re not. A lot of popular videos in this genre are “fake kids brand” videos, where Peppa Pig, or Elsa, or Doc McStuffins — any beloved kids character — is mashed up with other characters in ways that are unsettling, gross, or violent. These videos are obviously copyright violations in many instances, and Google claims to work hard to take down such videos, especially ones targeted at kids. In June of this year, it took steps to limit creators’ ability to monetize “family friendly characters” usage in content. But so much slips through anyway. YouTube Kids, a dedicated app for children, filters things more stringently and works slightly better, but still, there is plenty of stuff there that parents wouldn’t want their kids to see.
As with so much, it often comes down to money and socioeconomic class. Poorer families may have children who are left to watch unattended for more hours, and it is harder for them to afford one of the services like Hulu or Amazon which only have actual shows and movies on them, and which make use of better filtering options and parental controls. Research shows that poor children spend a lot more time watching television than those who are not poor, they spend more time indoors and less time actively playing. This can lead to multiple problems later in life, including attention problems and bad sleep habits. So poor kids, who get the most screen time, often have access to the worst content in addition to official channels for mainstream children’s shows. And that content is very often on YouTube.
There’s no one who will defend much of YouTube as “good content” — it’s too vast and open for that. Although there are plenty of fine things there — the weird, poorly animated nursery rhymes that rack up billions of views are crazy but only to adult eyes — the bar is just set so extremely low there, and the barrier to entry is also so low, that it simply can’t realistically be considered safe for children. But then neither can most of the internet, or even most of cable television. People who would pretend that those who grew up in the 70s, 80s, or earlier lived in a glorious, pre-internet era of only the highest quality content have probably forgotten the realities of Saturday morning cartoons, which were constant assaults of product and food advertisements.
Driving home from vacation this past August with my husband and daughter, we did something we never do: We drove through McDonald’s. I assumed, as I ordered my four-year-old daughter a meatless cheeseburger Happy Meal, that she would be as ecstatic as I would have been as a child. When I was little, my strict parents almost never allowed us fast food, but we wanted it, we wanted it so badly. My daughter’s face, though, I quickly realized, betrayed no hint of recognition. “She doesn’t know what McDonald’s is,” I said. I’ve thought about this a lot in the days since then, as she ages closer to kindergarten age, as she becomes smarter and more aware daily. She picks up every little detail, she yells at me to keep “two hands” on the wheel at all times, she spots a new shade of lipstick from 20 yards away. Nothing escapes her attention. My daughter didn’t know what McDonald’s was because, unlike her mother, she hadn’t grown up forced to constantly endure high quality, highly targeted television advertisements.
Suspicion of television has been around for as long as television has existed.
Because she consumes all of her content on demand, through apps — PBS Kids for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Hulu for Doc McStuffins, Nick Jr. for Dora the Explorer — she almost never sees actual advertisements. She hasn’t played video or iphone games yet (thank God) so she isn’t mercilessly begged to either purchase upgrades or watch ads for other games. She chooses what she wants to watch and then watches it. This is, in some ways for sure, a definite upgrade over the way “it used to be.” Research shows that kids today see fewer television advertisements than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, and I’d venture to guess that the number will fall further. There is some preliminary research (the data is only just coming to terms with the internet and how it’s changing kids’ viewing habits) showing that preschool-aged kids see fewer hours of television than in years past: it’s down by about 15 percent, according to Jennifer Harris, Director of Marketing Initiatives at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. She says they also hypothesize, given available data, that “higher income children may have access to more of the new types of non-traditional children’s entertainment (including non-commercial options), whereas lower income children are still watching a lot of commercial TV.” Of course, advertisements have become more sophisticated and none of this means kids are less advertised to overall. But the golden age of a captive audience of children sitting in front of TVs in the morning waiting to be brainwashed by the Lucky Charms leprechaun is almost certainly at an end.
There are downsides, I’m sure, to an “on demand” model of kids’ content consumption. It almost certainly leads to a sense of entitlement and a lack of patience — everything can be gotten so quickly! And yet, I can’t really see that this new way of living, at least for now and for very young kids, is not somehow a net win. There is more garbage out there than ever before but there are also more good options than there have ever been.
The burden on parents remains the same as it’s always been: limiting screen time, and overseeing what their kids are watching. Parents should set their expectations of what they’ll get from companies like Google accordingly. They aren’t going to deliver the kind of content that Disney or PBS is, ever. And as much as we, as parents, might groan when we hear “Let It Go” for the thousandth time, it’s certainly preferable to much of what YouTube has to offer.
Something happens to you when you have a kid. It’s not necessarily “life changing” in the ways that people throw that phrase around but, you do become keenly able to distinguish between real and perceived threats to kids, and to rate those threats on a scale. Because there is a spectrum, and there are so many real, terrible threats to children. YouTube isn’t child abuse: child abuse is, and there’s a lot of it in the world. And all of the tiny little decisions parents make or fail to make every day add up to a resilient person or not. But it’s also true that no pursuit in life is more overflowing with fear, uncertainty, and doubt than parenting: razor blades in Halloween candy were a quaint threat when I was growing up. Today, it’s vaccines causing autism and the ever-present threat of fluoridated water. There’s a lot out there that can and will harm your kids if given the opportunity. But having perspective is incredibly important, and though worrying over the content on sites like YouTube isn’t exactly inciting moral panic, it is finally an avoidable or at least moderately solvable issue.