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This Is How to Keep Your Kids Safe from the YouTube Kids Scare

This Is How to Keep Your Kids Safe from the YouTube Kids Scare

This particular corner of the Internet can be a scary place for kids–but open conversation can go a long way in keeping them safe.

It’s one of the biggest challenges facing parents today: How do you keep your kids safe online while still letting them explore? And YouTube is ground zero for this issue. In the last few years, we’ve heard about YouTube’s scandals—including Logan Paul filming a man who hanged himself in Japan or the debilitating work-lives of YouTube employees in the Philippines. At the top of the most-dangerous list is the inappropriate content readily available for, or even strategically aimed at, kids. Even though there is plenty of G-rated entertainment on YouTube, it’s no mystery why many parents are concerned about what their kids are viewing.

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Here's How to "Deal" with YouTube and Kids

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with this issue, says Jill Murphy, vice president and editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media. One of YouTube’s biggest problems is the inability to control a child’s search results.

“Searching YouTube is essentially like searching Google,” Murphy says. “The results are not only looking to offer you accurate information on what you’re looking for, but also suggest some unrelated, but often tempting, things to watch. With so much content and so many options, it can be hard for any age to stay focused.”

One helpful option for families is YouTube Kids—launched in 2015—which allows parents to create profiles for their children who are preschool-age through 12 years old. Each type of kids account is designed to offer certain content: creative, playful, and exploratory videos for ages 4 and younger; songs, cartoons, crafts, and more for ages 5-7; and gaming, science, music, and more for ages 8-12. YouTube admits it cannot filter out all inappropriate content or manually review all videos, but parents can turn off the search function or only allow their kids to see videos that Mom and Dad approve.

Despite these filters, Murphy says, there is still no guarantee your child will be 100-percent protected from questionable content because YouTube doesn’t delineate age guidelines for content consumption. For example, related videos that appear on your child’s screen are based on what he gravitates toward, and there are no safety precautions for those. Younger kids tend to love room tours, vlogs, and “unboxing” videos—in which YouTubers show off the products they receive from brands—but there is no way to guarantee these are age-appropriate.

The best way to strive for safety, Murphy says, is to discuss content-viewing guidelines with your kids. Many parents overhear their child watching something they don’t like, run over, and demand it all be shut down, she says. A better approach is to encourage open conversation.

“Sit down, watch a few videos with your kid, and have conversations about what is or isn’t appropriate. Start media literacy at a young age,” she says. “Include [your kid] in your boundary- and rule-setting because, otherwise, it’s quite enticing for a kid to [watch] what they’re not supposed to watch.”

Another tip is to watch the videos by content creators who your kids like, and who might be posting things your child shouldn’t see, Murphy adds. Understand why your kid wants to watch these videos and continue having conversations about them. (It’s also worth noting that creator videos are basically infomercials, so you might want to discourage this consumerism.) Keep in mind that some content creators post for shock value, which can have serious consequences for your kids.

Ariella Toeman, a mom of three in Westchester County, watches YouTube together with her 8- and 10-year-olds. The kids are not allowed to freely browse, but her 12-year-old has a computer at school and a phone is his hand and can access the Internet anytime, Toeman says.

“We talk a lot about watching things that are appropriate. Once you see things, you can’t take them back out of your memory. You can’t take back those visuals—they stay with you forever,” she says. “So, we say, if things feel a little bit awkward, we don’t watch them. If things make us feel bad, we don’t watch them. If they feel weird, if we don’t really understand them, they’re not for us.”

Using Third-Party Parental Controls to Protect Kids on YouTube

“I swear no one at Google has kids—but [YouTube] is the primary source of truth for kids,” says Doug Crawford, director of curriculum at Protect Young Eyes, an advocacy and education organization based in Michigan. (YouTube is a subsidiary of Google.) While YouTube offers a restricted mode (turned on in the user’s profile) for parents to control what kids see, “YouTube’s controls are configured differently on different devices, making it difficult for parents to always get it right, and then it’s hard to lock things in without some third-party parental control solution like CleanBrowsing, Mobicip, or Covenant Eyes,” he explains.

While YouTube can be a great source of learning material, Crawford says parents need to keep in mind that its search function is inherently unsafe for kids—even if they’re watching kid-friendly content. Watching YouTube on restricted mode is the only method he recommends for kids.

“Don’t tell me for a minute that YouTube doesn’t love kid content and will do everything it can to keep lots of it going, all while pushing the limits of child safety,” he says.

Murphy agrees that YouTube doesn’t make it easy for parents to set parameters—so you need to get creative in figuring it out. She encourages parents to look to the parental controls on their kids’ devices before turning to third party systems. Plus, kids will always try figure out passwords and get around locks, Murphy points out. There are even TikTok channels dedicated to showing kids how to do so.

For some kids, Murphy concedes, third-party parental controls might be necessary. For example, if your child has trouble distinguishing inappropriate content or if you suspect he might be the victim of cyberbullying, there is no shame in using third party parental controls or checking his search history. Set these boundaries if you need to, she continues, but try not to use them as a substitute for real conversations with your kids.

YouTube Doesn't Have to Be Your Enemy

Adults use Google to find what they need to know, while kids turn to YouTube, Crawford explains. The site is so pervasive that 82,248 videos are watched every second as of Jan. 15 (this stat is updated daily), according to Protect Young Eyes’ surveys of high school students reveal that when given the option to choose their No. 1 online activity, teens choose YouTube over social media and gaming at a 3-to-1 ratio. Among tweens and teens, YouTube is the most-used online platform—not Instagram or Snapchat, as parents might believe.    

Murphy points out that because many parents didn’t have this technology growing up, they might be reluctant to let it into their kids’ lives. And parents’ lack of familiarity prevents them from understanding how important YouTube is as a social lifeline for kids. Despite all of this, YouTube doesn’t have to be an enemy.

“All of their friends are talking about [YouTube]. Kids have devices at school. They’re going to watch it at school…so eliminating it without taking the time to talk about why something bothers you or hearing from your kid about why it’s appealing to them is not necessarily a path Common Sense [Media] would recommend,” Murphy says. “Teach your kids to live with it, rather than shutting it off.”

Toeman, like many parents, acknowledges the struggle: “I’m trying to raise my children in an open-minded, realistic way that accepts technology as part of our lives, but doesn’t love it—which is a hard balance.”

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Jacqueline Neber

Author: Jacqueline Neber is a social journalism MA candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. When she’s not reporting, you can find her petting someone else’s dog. See More

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