With many schools closed, families have suddenly found themselves juggling their work-from-home responsibilities with the needs of attention- and entertainment-starved children. It can be a difficult balance to maintain, and even the most screen-averse parents are being tested in what has quickly become the new normal for families.
There are plenty of highly curated, subscription-based streaming video services available, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Disney+, but one of the largest and most accessible video platforms continues to be Google’s video-sharing hub, YouTube. With that reach and accessibility, however, comes more than a few concerns — particularly for parents.
Horror stories regarding family-friendly viewing sessions that took an unexpected, R-rated turn are both numerous and a very real problem on YouTube, which relies on a mix of automated content filters and user-submitted reports to determine which videos do (or more importantly, don’t) show up for young viewers.
Unfortunately, YouTube’s filters are an imperfect system, and along with the occasional inappropriate video slipping through the filters, the subjective nature of what is or isn’t acceptable for kids of a particular age can also cause problems for parents.
So what should a parent know about YouTube when it comes to kid-safe content? In short: Plenty.
Any parent interested in braving the everything-goes environment of YouTube’s content library can make the experience safer by using YouTube Kids.
YouTube offers a curated version of its library aimed at younger viewers that eliminates most of the videos for older audiences, and can be further restricted based on particular age ranges set up by a parent. The YouTube Kids library is available as an app that can be installed on various devices or via a dedicated site (YouTubeKids.com) separate from YouTube.
As YouTube points out when setting up a YouTube Kids account, inappropriate videos can still slip through the filters occasionally. Maybe more problematic, however, is that some of the videos deemed appropriate by the filters — such as “unboxing” videos that are essentially extended toy or candy commercials — could be just another type of content parents are trying to avoid.
Fortunately, YouTube Kids gives parents quite a few options when it comes to configuring what kids are able to see on YouTube Kids.
In addition to establishing three age ranges for available videos, parents also have the option to create profiles for each child with personalized settings. Parents can also block certain videos or entire channels, and even turn off kids’ ability to search for videos, which will result in a more limited, but more carefully curated library of videos.
Beyond that, parents can also view the list of videos that a child has watched after the fact, allowing them to shape what they view going forward by seeing what they’ve watched already.
But once you’ve made the environment (relatively) safe, what’s worth watching? The answer to that question will likely depend on what the parent — and child — are looking for.
The videos available on YouTube Kids to each age range are typically divided into four categories that differ depending on the selected age designation.
The “Preschool” content is a cornucopia of nursery rhymes and educational content for kids ages 4 and under. Select episodes of various PBS and Disney Junior shows pepper the offerings and offer some familiar ground for parents who grew up with Sesame Street, Barney and Friends, or the adventures of Mickey Mouse and his pals. Episodes of more recent kids’ classics like Peppa Pig and Doc McStuffins are also available, as well as plenty of sing-along music videos (that includes Baby Shark, so consider yourself warned).
The preschool offerings also include some excellent educational videos — grouped in the “Learning” category — for teaching kids’ sign language and other age-appropriate (and in some cases, ambitious) skills.
While that’s all well and good, parents should decide early on whether they want to introduce their preschool-aged children to some of the more prominent “influencers” of YouTube Kids. Channels like the popular Ryan’s World and Blippi have made millionaires out of their titular hosts, who have turned a mix of DIY educational content and merchandise promotion into their own personal brand (and toy lines), and tend to be either loved or hated by parents with equal amounts of passion.
Outside of the preschool setting, YouTube Kids has sectioned off its library into two additional age ranges: “Younger” (ages 5-7) and “Older” (ages 8-12).
The range of videos available to kids expands significantly with each category, offering kids in the oldest range the widest library of content. Along with everything in the two younger categories, YouTube Kids’ “Older” setting also offers a range of modern music videos approved for younger viewers and an entire category of videos under the “Gaming” banner.
Kids surfing for content in the “Older” category will find music videos from kid-friendly acts like Jojo Siwa and a host of Disney Channel stars, as well as videos from more mainstream performers like Taylor Swift and Alicia Keys that have been vetted by the site’s filters. (There are even a few ’80s and ’90s hits for kids with Gen X parents.)
Gamer kids will also find plenty of content related to Minecraft, Roblox, and Fortnite, among other popular video games — which can be a good thing or absolutely terrible, depending on how you feel about user-generated gaming videos produced by kids.
Given all of these options for customization and supervision, it might seem like YouTube offers the answer for distracted parents looking to gain some work time in exchange for some screen time. But it’s better viewed as one of many options — some of which might be even better in the long run.
Limiting kids’ access to YouTube via the YouTube Kids portal is certainly a big — and good — first step in “safe” screen time, and further limiting the library of available videos via age settings, customization options, and search availability gives you even more control of what your children are watching. YouTube’s filters aren’t perfect, though, so it’s worth knowing what some of the other options are.
PBS Kids offers a surprisingly robust free streaming app for smart TVs and an online portal with a library of shows and interactive games — particularly for younger children. With no user-submitted content in the library, you can be certain that all of the content in its somewhat small library has not only been thoroughly vetted for age-appropriate material, but also has some educational value, given PBS’ mission and longstanding legacy.
Other apps and content portals include Sesame Go, which offers educational content for preschool-aged children from Sesame Street for iOS and Android devices, and the free Disney Now app and online portal, which offers Disney Channel and Disney Junior movies and TV shows, albeit in an ad-supported format. (The ads are typically for other Disney products.)
Finally, most subscription-based streaming services offer the option to create kid profiles for younger viewers. The profiles will only provide users with age-appropriate content, but it’s worth noting that the filters determining exactly what qualifies as “age-appropriate” can be as hit-or-miss as YouTube’s standards (and sometimes even less reliable). Although you’re not likely to see an R-rated movie turn up in your kid’s Netflix library, it can be a little surprising to discover what got lumped into the PG pool at a time when there was only G, PG, and R ratings.
Ultimately, every parent will have their own definition of “safe” content. YouTube Kids has a lot to offer in that regard, but taking the time to acquaint yourself with all of the options available in that — or any video platform — will go a long way toward preventing problems down the road.
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