Over the past few weeks, you've probably heard about recent discoveries that extremely inappropriate (and even abusive) content marketed to children has slipped through YouTube Kids filters and is being watched by very young children with incomprehensible amounts of frequency and popularity. (Just Google "Youtube kids" and click on "News" if you haven't heard about this yet.) People are making serious money by creating awful videos---both in production quality and in content, some of which is pornographic and/or abusive---and using keywords or characters that appeal to children. Copyrighted characters such as Elsa or Peppa Pig are being put into disturbing situations. I've read at least a dozen articles about it, and it only becomes more troubling the more I read. There are a lot of theories about why people are making such videos (possibly even an international conspiracy), and there really isn't a way to measure how these videos are traumatizing young kids, but that's not what I'm trying to address here. I'm deeply concerned even about the "safe" and "clean" videos that are racking up millions and millions of views.
When my son was a year old, I started using YouTube to entertain him a little, especially when I was pregnant. If he was crying in the car, I would sometimes hand him a video of garbage trucks picking up garbage. I soon found that there was an overwhelming amount of video content made specifically for babies like him, but the startling thing about it was how long these videos were and how many times they've been viewed. For example, a 54-minute-long "Wheels on the Bus" compilation by LittleBabyBum currently has 2,014,608,851 views. I don't know how many of those "views" are automated/produced by bots, but needless to say, millions of babies have been handed a phone or tablet and essentially been told, "Here's a super-crappy video that will hopefully keep your attention for the next hour. Bye." Most of us, self included, have been "those parents," willing to sacrifice quality for convenience, but maybe never calculating the true cost. I'm desperate for this to no longer be the norm.
We're getting to the place where we need to see that tablets and phones can't babysit our kids.
Here's another startling example: a friend told me that her kids were being very quiet one day, and she found them huddled around her phone. When she looked at the browser tabs open, she discovered that her very young kids had asked the AI on her phone for "pictures of butts." My kids had recently figured out how to ask Siri questions as well, but I didn't realize that by using this tool they would be able to find terrible things on the internet long before they're even able to spell or type. My friend's warning could've saved my innocently curious kids from stumbling onto porn at a preschool age.
Let me be clear: I am not trying to make rules or heap up Mommy Guilt. My kids have been watching a lot of Mulan lately, and I really enjoy the new Magic Schoolbus series. I have some apps on my phone that I will occasionally hand to my older children for set amount of time (after I turn on airplane mode.) And I actually love Youtube and watch it with my kids all the time. But the important thing is with.
Even on educational, child-friendly videos, I've seen commercials for horror films, or the suggested videos in the margins have had scary/gross thumbnail images. The kids have learned to look away when they see an ad. YouTube is truly an amazing resource that lets us see how cheese is made in factories or what cicadas look like when they emerge from their 17-year hibernation. The kids and I love to watch funny videos together too. However, anyone (self included) can very quickly find harmful content on YouTube, and especially now that I know people are putting up videos of Elsa and Spider-Man getting intimate, it's clear that YouTube as Babysitter cannot be an option.
So what should we do instead? If your kids are too young to go to school (or if you choose to keep your kids at home with you), what do you even do with them all day?
Well, I've written about this a lot because it's my life, so I need to figure it out ASAP, ha! I'm still constantly getting smacked in the face with the results of my bad parenting---and like I said, the kids and I have become really familiar with the Mulan movies lately---but I've learned a lot of helpful things. I'm constantly being humbled by how much easier my children are to parent when I've been actually parenting them with some consistency! If they've been spending a lot of time on the screens, they won't be super excited about reading with me or playing pretend.
There is no shortage articles about what to do with young kids (including more than half a dozen that I've written and linked to at the bottom), but if you don't want to click on those, here are my top 5 recommendations for how to keep kids busy and enriched all day:
1) Encourage art. Get some gel crayons, quality watercolors, and a cheap sketchbook, then make art with your kids. If you tell them they're making art as a gift for someone specific, they'll probably take it more seriously and do a better job. (Plus, then you don't have to keep all the masterpieces in your house, ha!)
2) Get a family pass somewhere. Weekly field trips to the aquarium or children's museum (and the places you can stop nearby or on the way) can be so good for a child. A Netflix subscription costs over $100/year, and a family membership to a quality museum---which often include reciprocal benefits that allow you into other museums---typically costs about the same. If money's tight, consider ditching the TV and committing to field trips instead. And if you're lucky enough to live somewhere nature-centric---I envy you---get a State Park family pass!
3) Invest in a quality family library or commit to regular visits to your local library. Reading together passes time quickly and feeds your child's creativity in other areas of play and discussion. Your kid might make his own Egyptian paddle doll with a popsicle stick or pretend that he's in a warship going to battle. The more their minds have to work with, the less work you have to do in coming up with ideas for play! I typically buy my books used from yard sales or on ThriftBooks.com, but supporting authors and enabling them to create more excellent content is certainly a worthy investment too.
4) Chores. Doing work keeps them busy, others-focused, and empowered to feel like a helpful part of the family.
5) Go outside with no agenda. Oh how I love to sit and read while my kids run around! Of course it's good to play with them, but it's also very good for them to play by themselves. My secret to encouraging independent play (even when my babies are six months old) is to be boring! If my kids are being clingy, I'll let them sit on my lap, but I won't do anything...I'll just sit. Eventually they'll leave of their own volition and figure out a way to have fun! Plus, if you eat outside, you don't have to clean up spilled orange juice or a thousand pieces of rice.
So in summary:
Let's reevaluate the role technology is allowed to play in our lives and especially in the lives of our kids. We don't need to be fundamentalists or alarmists to see that there is some serious danger for kids online. If our minds are being hijacked, as Silicon Valley tech insiders are saying, I can't even imagine what's happening to our kids. If they're going to watch something, let's choose resources that are high-quality enough for us to watch with them. And let's spend some time enjoying our kids. Why did we even have children if we try to avoid taking the time to love them and pour into them? (I'm speaking to myself here!)
Now go delete the YouTube Kids app and hug your children. :)
Here are some articles I've written about playing with little kids, if that's helpful!
How to Play with Little Kids When You Have Zero Energy
Hobbies, Habits of Grace, and Hanging Out With Toddlers
23 of My Favorite Resources for Helping Children Love Jesus
How Not to Despise Parenting Little Ones
DIY Co-Ed Scout Program
How to Play Pretend with a Bunk Bed Or Anywhere
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My name is Hope.
I'm 25, married to a former skater dude, and raising little people ages 5, 3, 1, and not-yet-born. I like lime green and sarsaparilla, and I wear my Crocs until they melt. (Florida problems.)
Quick links to some of my posts:
Articles I've Written on Other Sites:
Youth Ministry's Family Blindspot - Christianity Today