Go Beyond Digital Babysitting: A Review of the YouTube Kids App

Product: YouTube Kids is a standalone app with parental controls for both Android and iOS mobile platforms. Different from the standard version of YouTube, the Kids app is kid-friendly, even enabling children to freely explore vetted YouTube video content.

Glows:  The app is completely free to download, mobile friendly, and simple to navigate. Children can set up their own profiles, and even search for content by either typing or by using voice controls (voice search can be disabled). Parents have control features, too, including a screen timer, and access to a logged history of videos watched.

On YouTube Kids, children can follow their interests and passions. There are two layers of age-appropriate “Experiences”: Younger and Older. The “Younger Experience” content, for preschool and elementary school ages, includes sing-along videos, cartoons, and some original content. The “Older Experience” is less restricted, for children 8-12. (Curiously—and confusingly, children age 8-12 may still be in elementary school.) Older Experience content includes music videos from artists like Rihanna and Justin Bieber, shows from Cartoon Network’s, educational videos (Khan Academy, TED-Ed), as well as original content from kid-friendly YouTube superstars.

Grows: The passcode verification system is easy for kids (or their older siblings) to unlock. Videos are filtered by a combination of reviews by “humans” (yes, it says that!), as well as algorithmic (digital) filters. That said, no filtering system is absolute, and there is a disclaimer on its website: “No system is perfect and inappropriate videos can slip through.”

YouTube creators (also known as “influencers”) are not necessarily professional children’s media specialists with your child’s best interests at heart. Sometimes they may veer into inappropriateness, descending into controversial waters. Finally, there are still ads—unless you have a paid YouTube Red subscription.

Bottom Line: YouTube Kids lacks a good content filter (just Younger and Older), and the human/algorithmic filtering system can be flawed (especially with the dearth of videos that gets uploaded daily!). While YouTube Kids seems to afford independence and agency over children’s entertainment experiences, the app seems to be messaging permission to parents that it is okay to use screens as digital babysitters. Criticism of the platform aside, the content it unlocks makes it a worthy app to install on your child’s device.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

A Global Village of Videos

Commentary videos are a popular genre of video on YouTube. Here, YouTubers can be seen talking about unboxing toys, playing video games (Minecraft, Fortnite, Roblox), and sharing cosmetic and make-up tips. The popularity of commentary videos leads me to think about the positive, long-term effects this may on children’s language development.

Like many children, our 8-year-old son has picked up phrases he hears from YouTubers, like, “As you can see…” Sometimes he can be found in his room—without a device—pretending he is a YouTuber presenting to his imagined subscribers. His “shows” include tips on how to draw animals, as well as school lessons he learned at school. What’s more, he uses British vocabulary such as “rubbish” for garbage.

As it happens, many popular YouTube stars are British-based. Of note is Stampy Cat a prolific Minecraft YouTuber who has amassed just over 9 million subscribers! For more on YouTube Minecraft commentary videos, check our last year’s Connected Camps’ blog piece here.

Co-Viewing over Digital Babysitting

YouTube Kids should not be reduced to being a digital babysitter. My wife and I—both educators—advocate for what PBS and Joan Ganz Cooney (co-founder of Sesame Workshop) have championed since the early 1970s: co-viewing. Back then, when seminal shows like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood entered the public airwaves, screen time meant television. PBS’ view was that not all screen time is the same. Sound familiar?

Rather than have children just watch television, co-viewing means that parents should watch along with children. Then parents should converse with children about what they watched, facilitating connections from the screen to the real world.

For more on PBS and co-viewing, and how it can apply to content watched on platforms like YouTube Kids, follow this link: https://weta.org/kids/television/coviewing

From Viewing to Reading

One of the most exciting and unintended consequences from our son’s viewing of YouTube videos was how it sparked his interest in reading. Most obvious was how he viewed nonfiction content on topics like space and dinosaurs, and then read about them in books. Unexpected was his new interest in reading fiction.

Recently, for his birthday, we purchased two graphic novels published by HarperCollins: DanTDM: Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal and PopularMMOs Presents A Hole New World, both books featuring his favorite Minecraft YouTubers! Without the teacher’s required nightly reading log, or our prompting for him to read more, it was his interest in his favorite YouTubers has spurred him to want to read more.

Image curtesy dandy on SketchPort.

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