In the worst-case scenario, YouTube transforms us into passive, entertained, consumers where we watch endless videos from an algorithmically curated playlist. YouTube’s algorithm--which certainly does not share our values--is famous for pushing extreme content including misinformation, conspiracy theories, and hatred.
As a parent, how do we ensure our children use YouTube in the best-case scenario--as active, informed citizens--and not in the worst-case scenario--as passive, entertained consumers? Well, in the same way that the examples above depend on “how” children use YouTube, as parents, “how” we respond to our children’s use of YouTube will determine our success in moving them towards the best-case scenario.
How do our children use YouTube?
Unfortunately, we can’t count on YouTube to promote consumption and creation in line with our values. YouTube has consistently failed to moderate content, so that our children aren’t exposed to inappropriate, vulgar, and hateful content (YouTube has also been busted by the FTC for storing data of children under 12). For example, they won’t control content on the YouTube kids app, and they refuse to make tough decisions about inflammatory content on YouTube. YouTube’s bottom line depends on a metric called “time on site.” Therefore, YouTube’s algorithm--which accounts for 70% of its views--either feeds us entertainment or a steady stream of fear and outrage because that’s what yields clicks, shares, and engagement. It nudges users towards more and more extreme content understanding that "time on site" skyrockets when users fall down a rabbit hole of sensational content. And its been effective: Users watch over 1 billion hours on YouTube a day and researchers have proven that both flat earthers and the alt-right have expanded their reach thanks to YouTube’s algorithm.
Hopefully, our children aren’t watching sensationalized, controversial content or getting sucked down a rabbit hole of extreme content. But it’s easier to get sucked in than we might think. Watching a video about Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump during the 2016 election led users to conspiracy theories about the government. Typing in “Federal Reserve” leads users to conspiracy theories about the Fed and follows with more about the illuminati. Frequently, our children arrive at YouTube when sent a link by a peer in group chat or by a user on a message board--locations where extreme voices ring the loudest while introducing our children to “edgy” or offensive content that--should anyone be offended--is immediately labeled just a joke. That algorithm and these preconditions mix for a toxic binge.
The most direct draws to YouTube for our children are interests and influencers. Whether they want to hear political opinions, learn about video games, or practice new make-up techniques, on YouTube, our children enter tight-knit communities led by individual creators rather than professional organizations or civic leaders. In the last year, all of these YouTube communities have faced intense public outcry for offensive content. YouTube stood by the homophobic content of a political contributor; YouTube’s top account encouraged gaming viewers to watch anti-semitic videos; and racism rocked MUA (make up artists), one of YouTube’s tightest communities. YouTube’s algorithm links like minded accounts. Therefore the actions of a handful of creators (or users) will determine the videos recommended to our children. Clearly, we can’t count on YouTube’s content creators and leaders (or their loyal followers) to teach the algorithm to recommend quality information and highlight civil, intelligent leaders.
YouTube’s most powerful, yet esoteric, draw is the potential for a creator to become an influencer. In today’s economy, every child wants to be an influencer because top influencers make millions just by producing content (selling or reviewing products, teaching, or recording your daily life). It’s incredibly challenging to become an influencer and many who do so burn out. Fans demand access and content. As a result, influencer’s lives and videos become more extreme with the demands of their fans. Nevertheless, our children rarely see the darker side of being an influencer from mental breakdown, to drugs, to bankruptcy (see Justin Bieber or James Charles). It makes sense that young people want to aspire to that life, especially when they only see the positives.
How do we respond to how our children use YouTube?
We have to do two things 1) rethink the assumptions we make about YouTube and 2) ask better questions when our children use YouTube.
Generally, adults write off YouTube as an entertainment app or a strange voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of strangers. But if we trivialize the app or whatever content our children may be consuming, we will not find common ground and therefore we won’t be able to steer them toward that best-case scenario mentioned above. Instead, we need to change our assumptions. 59% of Gen Z users cite YouTube as their primary learning tool. YouTube is not a collection of videos, it’s the information system for our children. We must engage our children with those stakes in mind as we seek to listen, to learn, and to empathize. Start with a “help me understand...” so that our children will lead the conversation about their interests. Then, we can evaluate where they are and how we can try to steer them towards the best-case scenario.
Currently, when we ask our children about YouTube we say, “what are you doing?” or “what are you watching?” This results in an instinctive dismissal because the majority of the time, they’re watching something we don’t understand. Instead, we need to enter conversations looking to ask, “how does this video/this creator make you feel?” And, “what do you intend to do with the information you’re learning?” These questions get to the heart of YouTube’s impact on children, and they get to what children take from the platform and how they use it in their lives. This will help our children understand when they are on YouTube as a passive, entertained consumer, and not an active, informed citizen. And, again, it will help us use their words to steer them towards the best-case scenario.
As we investigate our children’s mindset and actions, so to must we investigate YouTube’s. We should have honest conversations about YouTube’s goals of ad revenue via user generated content, user data, and an addictive algorithm. The best way to fight back against YouTube’s thousand coders is to get online with a strategy--know what you seek and know what you will do after acquiring it. That way your “time on site” is clearly defined by your interest and goals and not those of a billion dollar corporation. To help your child learn this skill, ask, “how (in what state of mind) did you get on YouTube? What were your goals?” That way, we can determine what extent of time online was intentional rather than algorithm-driven. This strategy helps create active, informed citizens. There’s a handy browser extension called DF YouTube that eliminates all algorithmically generated content from YouTube. Start here!
Finally, if your child strives to become a creator perhaps with ambitions of being labeled an influencer, support them. More often than not, it’s just a phase and not worth the disagreement. YouTube is great for learning and being creative. Embrace it. In all academic pursuits, hopefully your child is researching, iterating, emulating, and showing resilience. This process allows them to see that best-case scenario even if they may be striving for it in a time, place, and area of interest that likely won’t endure. And of course, if you have privacy concerns (which you should), ask them to start posting “unlisted” or “private” content using a pseudonym (and read this article for additional suggestions about controlling the data Google mines on all of us).
Let’s commit to preparing our children to use this wonderful application as active, engaged citizens, ready to learn, connect, and create. You’re a parent, so you know It’s hard to change a child’s habits, but with an app as powerful as YouTube the stakes are high. So, listen to understand, ask the right questions and--as in all things--act as a role model in your life online and off!