I recently became aware that we had an addiction problem in our house. My daughter had begun to demand the iPad twice a day to get her fix of YouTube videos for children while I’d lazily become reliant on the time it gave me to get jobs done. When the iPad recently failed I decided enough was enough – we were both going cold turkey.
Give me control, dammit
The more I overheard and saw of the video content my 4-year-old daughter Tilly was watching, the more it concerned me. Yet unlike the television where I exert total control, here I found myself at the mercy of my daughter’s whims and the YouTube Kids app, which I felt wasn’t giving me any of the content control I was looking for.
The YouTube Kids app came out a year or two ago and offered the handy service of ensuring that content provided is age appropriate, in the right language and offers parents to put a time limit on viewing. All of this is useful, don’t get me wrong, but when faced with the cunning marketing on many videos that grab children’s attention to flog them toys, it has felt increasingly inadequate. Worse of all, the YouTube Kids app seems to relentlessly dish up the toy selling videos on its recommendations homepage and once you’ve seen one it’s designed to encourage watching more… and more.
But it’s only a bit of fun…
Perhaps you think I’m overreacting to these videos. Be under no illusion: there’s a huge industry revolving around YouTube that people want a part of. I have no issue with that but I do take exception to children’s interests being exploited to be sold to. Not only that, most of the videos are dreadful quality with some grown-up doing a terrible job of acting out imaginary play with toys in a squeaky voice that I think might have been responsible for attracting so many of the neighbours’ cats to our garden of late. All to flog toys, gain subscribers, views and cash for themselves. Not sure where the value to the child appears there. Nowhere, I’d guess.
It’s worth saying that in the UK we don’t have anywhere near as big an advertising culture as in the US and our tolerance for being sold to is a fraction of that across the pond. It maybe the YouTube bosses don’t see a problem here but I do. There’s a general backlash in the UK to children being sold to on the TV, especially when it’s anything unhealthy. However what advertising they do see is highly regulated. What’s on YouTube Kids isn’t regulated in any form other than that it doesn’t contain adult content.
What’s most annoying is that there is some educational content on YouTube – but you just try getting your child to see it and stick with it for any period of time on YouTube Kids. Within minutes the recommendations seem to lure them further away from education and deep into toy marketing territory. It’s a shame, but enough is enough.
A better solution
Instead, I’ve stopped being quite so lazy and we’re now curating her entertainment together. It may be the joyous if somewhat repetitive advertising-free world of CBeebies or an on demand programme we’ve agreed upon. Tilly also got a LeapPad at Christmas, which offers educational games and ironically access to YouTube that’s severely restricted to a few categories. It’s still too American but it is all pretty much educational. All YouTube needed to do to my mind was to offer a country filter and category filters. Alas, it is not to be.
We’re a week or so in to our new iPad-less world now. I miss the quality of apps on it, including some good ones for practicing writing. However we have no pressing need for a new iPad and I’m so keen that we retire the YouTube habit that we’ll manage fine without it. It feels a better solution all round. The parents are back in control and collaborating with the child in finding suitable entertainment.
I’ll keep investigating the best way of delivering educational content to my daughter in an online, multichannel world, but whatever it ends up being, I won’t again make the mistake of losing so much control of the content on offer.
Let me know your experiences of providing suitable online activities to young children. Have you found the right balance and a platform that offers the right level of control? Leave comments below.