This article is a preview of The Tech Friend newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday.
The reality, though, is that most kids in America are using YouTube, including those under 11 — with or without grown-ups. Today, I have practical advice from child development specialists on how you can get the most from time on YouTube for your younger child, or find alternatives that feel like better choices for your family.
One piece of context: We are sometimes stuck in an unhelpful doom loop about digital and social media apps. We feel that they’re rotting our kids’ brains and bodies and ours. But we also know that online media is part of our lives. The result is constant guilt about our choices and that is counterproductive.
Digital media including YouTube can be great or not, depending on the personality of your kiddo and how she and you watch. This moment calls for nuanced help and self-forgiveness to use YouTube and other technologies in as positive ways as we can. Here are some tips:
Watch YouTube with your child when you’re able to.
Anya Kamenetz, a longtime education journalist and the author of “The Art of Screen Time,” said that when one of her children recently asked what sound a fox makes, they watched together a beautiful YouTube video of foxes playing on a lawn in New Jersey. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician, told me that she loves watching YouTube videos with her 9- and 13-year-old kids featuring musicians who she toured with when she was in a college band.
This family bonding time is similar to how The Olds (like me!) might have used encyclopedias or family photo albums growing up.
Radesky and Kamenetz also know that supervising your child’s entertainment is not always possible or desirable. You might need your kiddo to zone out in front of a screen while you cook dinner. Or YouTube might be a better, safer option than other ways your kid might spend his time.
The clear message from experts is that watching junk videos or being alone with YouTube is probably not going to ruin your child. Kids can feel loved and cared for no matter what they watch.
YouTube has a separate app, YouTube Kids, tailored for children younger than 13, and experts said that is often a better choice.
In the past, journalists and researchers found disturbing videos included in the YouTube Kids app. The company now more tightly controls the videos in the app. YouTube Kids also lets parents set time limits and ads are not targeted to your child’s online activities.
Children’s development experts recommending making a deal with your younger child to only use YouTube Kids, if you can swing it.
One problem, of course, is that many children don’t want anything to do with an app that is made for kids. And parents don’t always know that YouTube Kids exists, said Radesky, who has spent years researching digital media use by parents and children. You may be able to stop your younger child from watching regular YouTube at home, but they may figure out a way around parental controls or see regular YouTube with friends.
Or try these great channels on regular YouTube.
Radesky said that if your kid is using regular YouTube, it’s helpful to be aware of how the site influences your child’s experience. People in many YouTube videos will exaggerate silliness or gorge on toys or candy to get more attention and video views. Kids are likely to see ads that are made for adults.
Radesky recommended seeking out and subscribing to kids YouTube channels that you feel good about. That can shift what your kid is most likely to see more of on YouTube.
A 2020 research study from Common Sense Media and Radesky included a list of great kid-friendly YouTube channels such as Art for Kids Hub, a family that instructs children on drawing projects; Nat Geo Kids for nature stuff; and Turbo Toy Time, where toy conversations are less materialistic than in most kids videos. (Starting on page 38 of the report, there are more channel recommendations and tips for families.)
Development psychologist Yalda T. Uhls, who has been a paid YouTube adviser on children’s programming, said that the benefits of great, educational YouTube videos mostly outweigh the downsides for kids. But the existence of both awesome and awful on YouTube is a burden for parents. “It puts pressure on adults in the child’s life to be aware and make good choices,” Uhls said.
Ask your child what she’s watching and why.
As an example, Kamenetz said if you hate that your child watched a YouTube music video featuring scantily clad women, you could forbid her from watching — but that might backfire and make her want to watch more. It might be more fruitful to have a conversation with your kiddo about why the women in the video feel they needed to wear clothes that look so uncomfortable.
Encouraging open conversation may make your kid more comfortable talking with you if she encounters something on YouTube or in real life that she finds confusing. Kamenetz also said that her older daughter, who is 11, has more unsupervised time with YouTube and they talk together about what videos come up and why it might be that way. If your child is zonking out with YouTube or other entertainment, it’s worth being curious if she is trying to shut out feelings that she doesn’t like.
It may not be fair to you, but part of parenting now is helping budding adults make sense of the barrages of digital information and entertainment, said Jordan Shapiro, author of “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World” and a Temple University professor.
“We have to think about it the same way we teach kids to cross the street,” he said.
Alternatives for anything other than YouTube
If the right choice for your family is to steer kids away from YouTube as much as you can, there are plenty of good options.
Kamenetz said that her family subscribes to Epic, a paid service with educational audiobooks and read-along material for younger children. Other experts recommended the PBS Kids app and Sensical, a free digital media service from Common Sense Networks.
Even sitting your little one in front of Netflix, Disney Plus or regular television can be better for him than vegging out on the sea of everything on YouTube, Kamenetz said.
If you have a device that you can use just for your younger child, try downloading apps and games on it that you find acceptable, and leave off YouTube. (Of course your child still might find YouTube on her own.)
Radesky said some parents she speaks with don’t feel comfortable letting their younger kids watch YouTube. Others say that YouTube is familiar and free and they don’t want to change what works for their kids when there are so many other priorities. Radesky suggested that for the latter parents, it can sometimes feel more manageable to try a YouTube alternative for a couple of weeks to see how it goes.
More on technology and kids:
The company behind “Fortnite,” the game wildly popular with children, was issued a record $520 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission for tricking kids into making purchases they didn’t mean to and violating federal online child privacy laws.
And for a dose of good news in government regulation: As a result of a landmark children’s internet regulation in Britain that went into effect last year, major apps have overhauled the online experience for kids and teens globally.
TikTok said it would stop sending app notifications to teens at night, Facebook restricted how advertisers can tailor their messages to minors, and YouTube made videos automatically private if they’re recorded by people under 18. And this year, California passed a child-focused digital law modeled on Britain’s.
If you’re scrambling for Christmas gifts, Heather Kelly has great suggestions for digital gifts that don’t stink. The Minecraft-loving kiddo in your life might enjoy an electronic gift of Minecraft Minecoins, for example.
One recommendation from me: If you need a present for someone who loves birds (like me!), I’m a fan of the online bird courses from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, tech gift, or digital trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.