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YouTube Tips for Parents

The media content that we put into our kids is kind of like food. It’s easy to sound preachy and dogmatic about rules - “Only local organics for my kid!” But, it’s also easy to throw up our hands and say, “They’ll eat what they want.” In pursuit of a middle-ground, we have tried to present a few guidelines for parents, how can we help our kids consume more healthy media and less crap.


Once we are ready to put our kids in front of screens, we are immediately confronted with the best and the worst the Internet has to offer. The very best is that my four-year-old daughter can watch female athletes and engineers to explain the concepts she is interested in. The best of the Internet is related to her individual interests, stretches her mind and is curated by humans. It’s best represented by YouTube playlists of strong female athletes who are personable, accomplished and excellent role models talking about their sports and their lives. Or, exquisitely produced nature documentaries and engineering animations explaining how the universe works.


The Worst of the Internet

The worst of the Internet is surprise eggs. It’s the young-viewer equivalent of video-poker for senior citizens. James Bridle characterizes surprise eggs this way:


...little kids watch these videos over and over and over again, and they do it for hours and hours and hours. And if you try and take the screen away from them, they'll scream and scream and scream. If you don't believe me -- and I've already seen people in the audience nodding -- if you don't believe me, find someone with small children and ask them, and they'll know about the surprise egg videos.

The worst of the Internet is created in content farms, made to maximize views based on keyword algorithms, and the content mashes the same neural pathways in our kids’ developing brains again and again and again.


Surprise eggs are not something your kid needs to seek on YouTube. Surprise eggs will find a young viewer as soon as you set them loose on YouTube. Within one or two auto-plays after the video you “approve,” your kids will have strayed into a nasty universe of surprise eggs and Disney snuff films described in Bridle’s TED talk. I’ve seen it happen within 2 minutes with my own daughter. That’s why we need a walled garden for kids.

Getting the Best Out of YouTube

As a parent and educator, it’s clear that we have the most powerful tool possible at our fingertips. YouTube is an almost magical tool to educate and stretch our children as in Neal Stephenson in The Diamond Age. If we have the time, resources and vigilance to curate and manage their experience, YouTube is equivalent to Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer imagined (or predicted) by Stephenson. If we leave our kids to wander unattended, it’s Las Vegas after midnight.



Curate the Content

Curate the content by creating playlists. Playlists based on your child’s interests are easy to create on YouTube. In my house, we’ve got playlists related to themes like:

  • Plants: Videos watching plants germinate and grow in time lapse.

  • Eggs: Plants morphed into an interest in eggs growing and hatching, we have playlists with chickens, ducks, tadpoles and octopus eggs hatching!

  • Sports: Female athletes practicing, teaching and talking about sports - we also have playlists of female engineers talking about their work. This strategy can help promote intentional visibility for any type of identifiable role model.

It’s extremely hard to browse videos or the web at large with a child. It’s kind of like wandering through a long check-out candy aisle while searching for “real food.” As an adult, you can tell within a few seconds if a video is “crap” but your child is already invested and wants to finish (particularly if a surprise egg may be opened).


Wall the Garden

  • Get away from the advertisements. You can pay for a subscription to YouTube, and/or use a browser ad-blocker which will block the ads (though your kid will see a blank screen in place of the ads).

  • Turn off autoplay - you can play a playlist or a set of videos without your kid touching and choosing the next selection.

  • Turn off the Internet. The safest way I have found to keep kids from wandering out of the garden is to disconnect the device she is using from the Internet. I typically download my approved playlists (which you can do with YouTube premium), and sometimes selected shows or movies on the Netflix app. Then, I disconnect the device from the Internet, and I finally feel like she can watch/browse unattended (until she undoubtedly figures out how to connect and get around my parental firewalls).


Supervise and Analyze

Talk about what kids are watching. My daughter watches a bunch of content that is not particularly pitched for kids. As a result, she has a raft of interesting questions. These lead us to select new videos and to watch parts of her videos together so we can learn the phrases, technical language and slang she may be hearing for the first time. It’s an enormously productive way to build language and vocabulary. When my daughter at three told a pre-school teacher, “I like to seek out new challenges,” I knew she got that phrase verbatim from one of her female rock-climber videos.


Good Digital Citizens

Unfortunately, the list building and curation takes time, and it’s an ongoing process as kids interests evolve. There’s no pretending it’s easy, or free to get the most educational experience for kids from the Internet. And we can feel certain our kids will consume media (and food) we wouldn’t choose when they are with other families and kids. Talking about the videos and building new playlists takes a lot of time too. But, we’re teaching a lifelong skill. If we can help our kids become critical consumers of digital media from an early age, they will build these skills over time with your help, and they will make better decisions about the content they consume, and make more sophisticated assessments of how media is manipulating the audience when they are older. For more excellent advice on how to develop digital citizenship skills, advice by age, or other tips on how parents can navigate YouTube, check out Common Sense Media.

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