YouTube and YouTube Kids have now replaced TV as the chief source of entertainment for both kids and teens. This media juggernaut (which has over 300 videos uploaded to its platform every single minute!) has kids of all ages flocking to it and it has left many parents confused and concerned about its appeal and also worried about what they may encounter on this platform.

Most adults find themselves scratching their heads wondering why their children and teens dedicate hours consuming all sorts of video content. Much of what’s available on YouTube isn’t vetted (YouTube do have some checks and balances in place but obviously cannot approve every single video) and this concerns both parents and professionals working with children. The content kids are consuming on YouTube is often weird (have you ever watched an unboxing video of a toy egg with a mystery toy inside, or a video of someone else playing a video game, or making slime?), wild (adolescents doing crazy pranks and tricks all in the name of becoming a YouTube celebrity) and grossly unregulated (some of the most popular videos on the platform target toddlers and preschoolers and are basically toy infomercials).

In addition, there are a raft of cyber-safety risks YouTube poses kids. These concerns include exposure to inappropriate content and concepts (on YouTube Kids there have been cartoons glorifying topics and scenarios such as suicide, self-harm and violence), the direct and indirect marketing towards children (paid ads must follow YouTube’s advertising policy but user-uploaded videos are not bound by the same policies), predators and paedophiles using the platform to groom and exploit kids. I explore each of these issues and many more in my mini-Masterclass YouTube- An Essential Guide for Parents.

Managing Technology in the Family

Why do our kids & teens spend hours on YouTube?

So why is it that our kids want to spend hours watching and scrolling through bewildering (at least in the eyes of parents) videos that garner millions (sometimes even billions) of views?  The simple answer- YouTube caters for our kids’ and teens’ psychological needs, is psychologically appealing and YouTube uses specific design technique to keep kids hooked on the platform. This is why parents report enduring techno-tantrums when they try and pry the device from their child’s clutches after hours of viewing videos of other people playing video games, watching slime tutorials, or singing nursery rhymes sung by animated characters (ChuChu TV I’m looking at you!).

// YouTube caters for kids’ three most fundamental psychological needs- as humans we have three basic psychological needs- the need for connection, competency and control. Our kids love to view other videos that their peers talk about or that are popular in the platform as they’re hard-wired for relational connection. They can experience competency by searching for videos on topics they want to learn more about, or watch videos to refine their sport skills (& a few even use it as an educational tool to revise or learn difficult concepts they’re taught at school).

// YouTube provides highly curated and personalised content thanks to the Google recommendation algorithm. It’s no accident that the suggested videos in the Up Next section are exactly what will appeal to your child’s interests as YouTube aggregates data from your search history, other online activities and viewing history to suggest related videos that are very appealing (and suggests other channels which would also appeal).

// Kids get hits of adrenaline and there’s anticipation about what they’ll find on YouTube. The format of YouTube is much more unpredictable than regular TV streaming services and less liner content than traditional TV shows.

// YouTube caters for the brain’s desire for novelty. YouTube is always new, interesting, rewarding and requires minimal mental effort. There are peculiar and downright odd events captured on YouTube- adults wearing nappies and their favourite cartoon characters doing strange things. Kids love this unpredictability as it’s often an escapism for their very organised and routinised lives. YouTube channels don’t follow strict program schedules so the content can pop up at any time (hence, why notifications work to keep kids hooked).  Novelty is psychologically appealing.

// YouTube gives kids a sense of control– as they choose what they want to watch and when they consume it (they’re not restricted to prescribed viewing schedules like regular TV). Kids want a sense of agency and YouTube meets this need.

// YouTube requires minimal cognitive effort-  it is easy to passively watch YouTube content so it can really entice kids. They get maximum rewards for minimal effort.

// YouTube is silly and playful- which we all know appeals to kids. This in turn releases serotonin and dopamine in the brain (which makes them want more).

// There’s an element of risk and chance– kids are unsure what they’ll view next as much of the content is made by amateurs.

// The auto-play feature and other design techniques get kids hooked on YouTube- Kids (and adults) enter the psychological state of flow when watching YouTube. They can become so engrossed with what they’re doing that they literally lose track of time. Hypnotic music, silly concepts and the auto-play feature distracts kids and lulls them into this state. This is one of the chief reasons why kids become agitated and frustrated when asked to switch off YouTube because they honestly feel like they’ve only just started watching, when the reality is that they’ve been watching for 3 hours.

// Low-quality content floods the platform (which kids love)- much of the content kids and teens are watching is made by amateurs, not professional TV production teams. Kids enjoy the unpredictable nature of this content and love seeing content created and ‘produced’ (I use that word loosely) by kids of their age.

// Kids have under-developed impulse-control skills– the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for impulse control, isn’t fully developed in our kids or teens (in fact it isn’t developed until the twenties for most kids). The limited impulse control skills they do have are compromised when their brains are flooded with dopamine, as this neurotransmitter literally hijacks the logical part of their brain, making it even more challenging to resist urges.

// Kids enter the ‘state of insufficiency’– one of the chief reasons kids and teens throw techno-tantrums is because when they’re using YouTube they enter the state of insufficiency. Basically, they never feel ‘done’ or ‘complete’. There’s always one more video “They have to watch”  The auto play feature and the recommendation algorithm are two deliberate design techniques that keep kids hooked on the platform (& the more time they’re on YouTube the more money the platform makes from advertising revenue).

Simple Strategies for Managing YouTube

// Turn off auto-play- this feature has been designed to keep kids hooked on the platform (YouTube earn more advertising revenue the longer people stay on the platform). Many kids enter the ‘state of insufficiency’ when they watch YouTube clips because they don’t feel ‘done’. For specific instructions on how to disable autoplay, click here.

// Subscribe to channels and manage your notifications– Encourage your kids to subscribe to specific channels as opposed to spending hours mindlessly trawling YouTube trying to find videos. You could work with your child to make these selections together. Subscribers receive notifications (which you can schedule for a set time of the day and limit to one notification/day) when a new video is uploaded. In addition, all their channels are displayed in the Subscriptions section, enabling kids to make the most of their time online. Find out more here.

// Create playlists– this will not only ensure your child’s online safety but will also help you to moderate how much time they spend on YouTube because you can limit their viewing time to the videos in specific playlists.

// Give them quantities and not a time limit– thanks to the recommendation algorithm, kids can all get lost in YouTube because the Up Next videos are filled with appealing content as they’re based on kids’ search and viewing history. Kids can get stuck in the ‘state of insufficiency’ and feel like there’s no end point. Instead, we can help them have cut-off points by giving them quantities of videos they can watch instead of an amount of time.

These are a sample of the many strategies on how to use YouTube in healthy and safe ways that I share in my mini-Masterclass YouTube- An Essential Guide for Parents.  Find out more here.