What if the smartphone isn't the problem? What if our kids' increased anxiety comes from another source entirely? Or what if we as parents are projecting our anxiety onto them instead? Much of the hype around kids, technology, and anxiety needs further investigation. Let's take a deeper look.
“What are they doing on YouTube anyway?”
Your kid has been staring at his tablet for hours. When you ask what he’s watching, he answers “YouTube.” When he first logged on, you saw him watching another kid unwrapping some brand new toys on YouTube. Thirty minutes later, you hear your child laughing hysterically. You wonder, “What is he watching now? Is that toy video really that hilarious?” Just like we find ourselves browsing the internet or working away only to realize we have 14 open browser tabs, the same happens to our kids.
How can I deal with YouTube? Or what are the parental controls for YouTube? Or…How can I get my kid off YouTube? These are among the most common questions I hear from parents when I speak in communities. You check back in after an hour, and wonder, “Why are you watching that?” Even YouTube Kids has been criticized for inappropriate content such as recommending disturbing videos and pornography. Ugh! Recently the Google-owned app has released parental controls that let parents select trusted channels and topics for your child to access such as “learning,” or, “education.” Parents can even set a maximum number of channels to help customize a kid’s YouTube experience and keep them from falling down a rabbit hole of video content. But before you start setting up controls, you want to understand what your child is interested in some of the challenges they might run into. And if they want to start their own channel…that is another big conversation (or two or three.)
You might be wondering what they’re watching on there. Here are a few popular channels and YouTubers your kids might be into:
(sourced from my local parent community)
- Dude Perfect
- Khan Academy
- Britain’s Got Talent
- The Miles Chronicles (LGBTQ+)
- LadyLike (makeup, fashion, and product tests)
- Troom Troom (pranks and crafts)
- Liza Koshy
- Roblox videos
- Game Theory
- James Charles (makeup)
- FUNnel Vision
- Casey Neistat
- David Dobrik
- Cody Ko
Parents have a love-hate relationship with YouTube
YouTube is a fantastic learning tool. Whether you’re looking up how to tie a Windsor knot, how to remove ants, or how to make the perfect souffle, you can find a video for just about anything you’re seeking to learn. One mom, Charlotte says, “I Love YouTube! It’s the new Encyclopedia Britannica! Unfortunately, you can also see disturbing things as well, so I have to monitor and prepare the kids not to believe everything they see and hear. I’d definitely let them create a YouTube channel if it was for something good.”
On the other hand, we’ve all had experiences with how disturbing some of the content can be. Some sick people are clearly attempting to get young children to view pornography by using characters that kids would like, with content that is not for kids. Kate says, “I had to ban YouTube for my 4-year-old daughter right about the time I found the ‘Spiderman Effs Elsa’ and ‘Spiderman Pees on Elsa’ channels playing while she looked on, confused. Sick people out there and it’s not worth having YouTube if there is even a chance for her to come across the Elsa rape scene again. I was SICKENED.”
Other parents have mentioned Pokemon and other anime channels that appear to be OK but when they dig further, parents describe it as ”basically softcore cartoon porn.” Parents are worried, because one wrong click and your child has seen things they can’t unsee.
Another parent, Nina, didn’t like all the materialism for young kids. She said, “My daughter is way too into toy videos. She’s only four and has been begging to make toy videos and put them on YouTube. Part of me is considering letting her do it, but I also don’t want her getting deeper into that nonsense. For older kids, I think having a YouTube channel is fine, as long as the parent helps manage it.”
A few parents have mentioned new behaviors elicited from their kids that they didn’t particularly like that seem to be inspired by YouTube. For instance, Celi said, “My almost 7-year-old was loving YouTube Kids way too much! She was mostly watching commercials about Shopkins, and then Surprise Dolls became an obsession. She talked about how rare some were and actually stole one from another kid at school! That was all it took for us to ban YouTube kids in our home. Maybe when she’s older and better able to manage, but for now I’d rather have her doing more and watching less.”
Conversation starters with kids
As your kids are getting started with finding videos they enjoy on YouTube, set up some ground-rules early on. You might want to consider allowing just a few channels to start. These will be channels that you’ve personally watched together with your kids to make sure they’re age-appropriate and suitable for your child. If your child has been watching YouTube for a while and you’re just getting the conversation started now, here are some ideas to get your kids to engage in a valuable discussion:
- Tell me about what you’re watching on there. What do you like about it?
- Why do you think he/she likes making these videos?
- Have you seen any videos you didn’t like? What didn’t you like about them?
Remember to ask questions in a non-confrontational way and to make sure you’re not ready to judge them to help create a safe space for your children to share.
More YouTube Parent Strategies
One mom said her 10-year-old son mostly watches video gamers and subscribes to channels under her account, so she sees exactly what he’s doing because the updates wind up in her email. Other parents pre select a bunch of youtube videos with or their kids or on their own and then give their kids the choice to just watch those. Some parents make playlists with prescreened, approved videos. You may want to check out these YouTube reviews by Common Sense. Some parents only let kids explore on YouTube when they can be with them, or at least in the same room…and others may even restrict YouTube so that kids can only use it with adult supervision. If you choose to do this, it is no substitute for mentoring. Look for interesting channels and individuals to follow with your kids. Talk with them about the “suggestions” they see and why they should pursue a more intentional set of choices, and not let an algorithm choose their next view.
Whether or note you choose parental controls, you’ll still need to talk with your child about how to use YouTube appropriately on other devices and in other settings, and offer guidance on navigating the waters of YouTube when you are together!
You found your child watching inappropriate content—now what?
This rule applies to more than just offensive YouTube content and is an excellent rule for all of the tricky parenting moments—don’t freak out. Freaking out is always a terrible idea, and in the case of kids accidentally (or even intentionally) landing on naughty or just plain weird YouTube content that’s not appropriate could lead to confusion down the road. Approach these situations with curiosity and ask how they ended up watching the video. Talk about how the video(s) made them feel, and if something isn’t appropriate for their eyes, calmly explain why and let them know how to handle it if they land on it again.
Use the opportunity to listen and learn from your child It may have been recommended as a video to watch next, and naturally, they clicked on it and started watching, maybe even unsure what they were looking at. It’s in these parenting moments, you might identify areas where you want to rethink where they watch videos (or with whom.) You may also want to start viewing content with them and discuss what they like and what they don’t about the channels they’re watching.
YouTube can be both inspiring and educational for all of us. It can teach us how to make a new recipe, or how to build a treehouse. Approaching it with curiosity and a healthy dose of mindful attention can help your children learn to do the same.
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Social media comes in a variety of forms, but the goal is the largely the same for kids. It serves as a “third space” for teens and tweens—an additional place outside of home and school. It’s a place where young people can “hang out,” even when they are not with their friends.
Most grownups think of social media as Facebook and Twitter. While those are the most popular ones worldwide, they may not be the ones that your kids favor. For instance, Facebook has fallen out of favor with many (though not all) younger kids because to them, it’s “for old people.” Think back to when you were a kid. You didn’t want to hang out where your parents hung out—it wasn’t cool.
There are literally hundreds of different social media platforms, and the goal is usually one of three things: To chat, share, or play. Some platforms do more than one thing. Here are some of the most popular examples:
- Chat/Messaging: Snapchat, Whatsapp, Kik
- Share pictures/videos: Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube
- Play: Minecraft, Fortnite, Roblox
How can you keep up with all of them? Well, you don’t really have to—you just need to know which apps/site(s) your child is using. Then you can learn a little bit about the platform, how your child is using it, and with whom they are connecting.
In my experience working with parents, this is a big worry for them. They fear that kids will be talking to strangers, making themselves vulnerable to predators. The reality is that while kids may use services such as Whisper to talk to strangers, most kids interested in interacting with peers they already know. To them, social media feels like a peer space. They don’t want to be talking to adults—they want to extend and enhance the time they spend with the friends they already have.
Even though they are communicating mostly with their peers, kids can sometimes lack a full understanding of the scope of their social sphere. They sometimes share things intended for a few of their friends and forget that their parents (or even a wider peer group) might see what they’ve shared. It helps to gently remind them from time to time—that you saw one of their posts, for instance. You might use it to open a discussion about who else might have seen a text message. Or what has happened to you when you’ve sent a text to someone in error. This is not to scare them, but to just be a little more aware of the effects of unintended communication.
Young teens’ and tweens’ identities are in flux, so they are especially attracted to the social media photo communication applications like Snapchat. They get the chance to test out personae. The backside of this is that sharing photos can lead to surface judgments and virtual beauty contests. It also can be stressful and time consuming keeping up ongoing Snapchat Streaks. It’s important to teach young people how to manage these challenges.
Despite all of these challenges, social media can be important to the development of your kids’ social skills. Learning social norms and appropriate behavior is difficult for kids—even in the real world. The help you offer to them is no different, despite the medium. Here are some of suggestions for Helping Kids Manage the New Rules of Digital Etiquette.
If you are a regular reader, you know that I favor mentorship over monitoring—and using empathy as the keystone of your strategy. Here are some other resources to help you with each:
- Mentoring vs. Monitoring: Should I Spy?
- My TEDx “Empathy is The App”
- Dealing with witnessing your own exclusion on social media.
In addition to needing peer hangout time, kids do crave spaces to think about the role of social media in their lives. I just published a new curriculum, co-authored with Karen Jacobson, full of challenging and fun activities to help kids think about and manage the new and ever-changing challenges of the digital world. While it’s pitched towards teachers and group leaders, parents could get a lot out of it too. It’s called Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age: Social Emotional Exercises For Plugged in Kids. (You can buy the curriculum here.) I’ve been leading workshops with these exercises at schools around the country. Students have responded very enthusiastically!
Young people really crave opportunities to discuss these issues…Let them lead, but ask them about the latest app, or something they’ve seen their peers do in social media, and give them a chance to reflect. You’ll both learn so much!
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I just returned from speaking at SXSWedu. I had an incredible time—what an experience. SXSWedu is unlike most education conferences because of the diversity of speakers and attendees. There were app developers, policy experts, publishers, school leaders, teachers, students, and activists all at the same conference in Austin, TX. Not quite as huge as the Interactive and Music festivals that follow, but large enough that it could feel overwhelming at times, or at least cause twinges of the “fear of missing out.” Luckily, my interactions and experiences were so engaging that I had little time to consider what might be happening elsewhere at the same moment. I can’t possibly do justice to my whole experience, nor will I try to make you hungry by detailing all the amazing tacos I ate in Austin. But here are a few of the conversations that I got to dip into that will inspire my writing, speaking, and consulting going forward.
There were a significant number of people who share my obsessions: 1) empathy in the digital age; 2) thoughtful digital citizenship; and 3) parent engagement with educational technology innovation. I was privileged in that my talk was one of the very first sessions of the conference. My Future 15 talk, “This is Their Hearts on Smartphones” offered an update on my TEDx from earlier this year. Afterwards, I got to meet some inspiring people, whom I know I’ll be talking to and learning from again.
I’ve been dying to meet Carl Hooker since we got to work with some other great folks on webinar on engaging parents with edtech. (Free and archived here). Carl and I talked about the huge need for parent support in teaching digital citizenship, professional development for teachers, and student workshops. I got to see him do his incredibly relevant and hysterically funny workshop on parenting in the 21st century called, “Raised by Siri.” Getting to compare notes and strategize about doing this work with a like-minded educator like Carl filled me with inspiration and excitement.
I was also thrilled to encounter Jessica Millstone, a brilliant fellow digital citizenship expert I’ve been hoping to meet for years! She’s at Brain Pop, one of my favorite ed tech companies. We got to chat at a EdTechWomen’s lovely meetup for women in educational technology where we enjoyed hors d’oeuvres, skyline views, and the company of smart women who develop, consult, and innovate in the world of ed tech.
After my talk, I also met Professor Nick Bowman—and I got to attend his panel as well. He’s a professor in the Communication Department at West Virginia University, researching how individuals construct their relationships with social media. I can’t wait to hear more about his research and to share some data here. As a former professor of Media Studies, I love to catch up with academic colleagues to hear the latest in the field.
Privacy vs. Parents: Diving Into the Controversies
SXSWedu has been the site of controversial discussions about privacy in the past, so it was great to hear from experts about the latest recommendations for best practices. Two years ago at SXSWedu, the controversial student data collection/analysis repository inBloom was a major presenter. Parents around the country were very concerned about how inBloom might use and share student data. Ultimately, pushback from concerned parents caused inBloom to close. This story is the perfect cautionary tale of educational technology NOT meeting parental concerns—exactly the kind of breakdown I am working to address.
Since my parent engagement work helps schools understand parental concerns better, this erosion of trust between parents, schools, and policy makers is very instructive to my work. So you can imagine that I was very excited to dive into discussions of privacy at SXSWedu, including a summit on Privacy and Student Data.
It was at this summit that I caught the latest research from Pew Researcher Amanda Lenhart. The Pew research on the “Internet and American Life” is one of the sources of data I share most frequently in my parent talks. Amanda Lenhart presented updates from Pew’s studies of teenagers. One key data point is that teenagers “do take steps to actively manage their reputations online.” Based on my own conversations with young adults, I find this to be true as well—and use it to reassure the parents and teachers with whom I work.
Meeting app/curriculum designers in person
One of the best reasons to go to SXSWedu was to meet people who research, develop, create, and market the tech tools used by students and educators with whom I work. I had a great time at Edutopia’s party chatting with Ronnie Burt from EduBlogs, a tool that allows students to blog and share their experiences—and Henry Lyford from Edmodo, a collaborative tool used by numerous schools that I’ve worked with. I learned so much from them about how they incorporate teacher and student feedback into their work! Getting to talk to app creators is such a great chance to learn about the feedback process, and to see how important our experience as everyday users is to these companies.
On the empathy front, I was delighted to meet Rachel Zindler and Hannah Rosenthal from Teaching2gether, a new organization that is doing some amazing work around inclusion and rethinking special needs education. Teaching2gether did a great session that helped educators feel empathy for all of their different learners by offering simulations of various learning differences and physical disabilities so educators could experience how they would impair engagement in a typical classroom. The experiential strategy made for great conversations and allowed the audience to engage at a much deeper level than is typical for a panel presentation.
At this session, I met another app designer: Michele Walker, a guidance counselor and mother who created the app Choiceworks to help her own quirky kids thrive in school and at home. Since I use Choiceworks at home, Michele is a hero to me!
Finally, as a co-author of a brand-new curriculum, it was exciting to meet Andrea Lovanhill, who works with the highly regarded anti-bullying curriculum, Second Step. I loved that we met on an escalator and she took the time to have a quick lunch with me so I could learn more about Second Step.
Overall, experiences like this left me feeling like the trek to SXSWedu was highly worthwhile. So many great people were willing to talk and engage—it was an honor to be on the program and get to share my work in such smart company. This post only describes a fraction of the encounters and fantastic conversations I had at SXSWedu. I look forward to continuing the conversations and collaborating with my digital citizenship comrades in the very near future!
I had so much fun on Milwaukee’s The Morning Blend (NBC Milwaukee). The wonderful host, Molly Fay has three kids, and she, along with her viewers, wanted to know how much parents should monitor their kids posts, texts and shared images. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big believer in mentoring over monitoring. And if you do spy, (or check on phones, history, etc.) letting your kids know what you are looking for is a better way to get the results you want.
As I say on the show – you want to help your kids do the right thing, not catch them being bad! The best way to accomplish this is not by putting an app on their phone–but with ongoing dialogue and support. Here’s the segment: