Do You Know What Your Toddler Is Watching On YouTube?

Comprehending Internet’s Haze

Words by Vikram Babu
Animations by
Laurent Hrybyk

“As for children, we are all responsible for creating the conditions of the hazy brains and electronic confusion. Turning a kid into a passive rather than an active thinker should be regarded as a crime against humanity.”
Christy Wampole, The Other Serious

The three-hour workday and the family of leisure that Keynes forecasted never materialized, instead the American workforce — blue and white — is subject to an ever more humiliating and arduous workday. The now always reachable and equally replaceable employee loses what little barrier existed between the physical office and home life. A number of kids will go home after school to an empty house. They will set about to eat, wash up, play and almost certainly, watch television or go on the internet for a few hours. The kids with after school activities will be engaged in some project less dulling. As gadgets proliferate, their mobile devices will fill in gaps of time, waiting for breakfast or on the school bus. Such is the beauty of user interfaces that a toddler with a few gestures, could launch YouTube but couldn’t turn on a television. Before long, she graduates to the next device, and upward until on average she consumes eight hours of media each day — ten if you factor in multitasking — in her teenage years. The new Apple TV hopes to improve interactions with kid friendly gestures and Siri commands, until they are left to entirely babysit themselves, holding the promises of delivering on command, “Babysit me Apple TV!”

As a term, “babysitting” has been around since at least the 30s. Like a hen warming her eggs to incubate their development, the practice of engaging someone else’s kids went electronic with the advent of the television, and digitized with the internet when streaming overtook television earlier this year. When television parenting became popular for the overworked, sociologists warned us about over consumption, the same still holds true. Work doesn’t just shape our desire for kids, it bears on childhood — even Marisa Mayer will only take a limited maternity leave — with sensitive parenting affected from a deficit of income, time or both.

So who’s going to take care of your kids?

Kids are a new thing in my life. I’ve only babysat my brothers’ kids — three nieces, two nephews — a handful of times, often unexpectedly and usually in tandem with my mom, a television and an iPad. It’s fascinating and frustrating to watch children grow, wondering who they’ll become and what society they’ll inhabit. But writing about younger generations seems an obsession, with endless pathologies and speculation, contrasting our experiences with theirs. Like technology, the gift of children, the promise of the next generation, is the hope that they bring a better society while we grow obsolete. Not one for hope, I can’t overlook how video depreciates reading and comprehension. Verbal SAT scores began dropping around the 60s with the advent of television. Perhaps we’re just all a little hazy in this regard but OECD clearly states that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.

“Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of two years.” The American Academy of Pediatrics

So are you going to talk to me at dinner or just stare at your screen?

A new pedagogy exists for parents today, one backed by childhood development insights, that nurtures the whole optimal child with involved parenting. My six-year-old niece has enrolled in no less than three summer camps in Palo Alto. She’s recently taken to woodworking to make artisanal toys, weaving artisanal wicker basket and piecing together tech toys. I used to teach kids at an alternative school devoid of desks, tests or rows. We wrote our own curricula, had students cook and engaged in project based learning. I saw a number of those students raised on a steady diet of television and isolation, video games and snackables. Each morning they rolled into school late, dulled from a long night of gaming and the best I could provide was a stable emotional setting.

I can count how many hours of television I watched each day growing up: one. My mother tolerated little leeway. She had simpler notions of child rearing: rest, nutrition, exercise, literacy and even occasional boredom. So my youth was occupied with pained music lessons, extracurricular sports, compulsory calligraphy and library reading. Luckily, the summers were spent aimlessly running around the coastal town of Kanyakumari, India. It was a childhood of imagined stories, every animal a character, every object a story in a fictitious world. Maybe that seems limited or stifling, but such plainness didn’t stop Sundar Pichai from becoming Google’s CEO. It isn’t that my mom didn’t give me choices, but that an informed choice should involve something other than television.

Perhaps because technology is protected by a myth that it betters society, we’d rather let progress or decline continue unimpeded. But I haven’t found evidence to suggest — beyond a basic technological literacy — that television, internet or devices improve a child’s emotional and intellectual development. Technologies are best understood by uses and a useful critique for it should come from its social outcomes. Lowered comprehension, uncreative minds, consumption obsessed and a distracted generation should be a strong indicator that the unregulated deployment of internet technology has dulled them. Perhaps it’s best we ignore tenuous futurisms of technological promises for pragmatic immediate realities instead.

“The ad says that the gadget will make us happy, and that, through its lens, we’ll all evolve into a better version of ourselves. Like most advertising, it’s an empty promise.” —Nannette Alang

Do you know what your toddler is watching on YouTube?

My two oldest nieces are around six with permanent tans and colorful eyes. They’re smart for their age even while their Moms worry whether their classrooms are holding them back with a style of “let-kids-be-kids” parenting. They’re rather girly, both brown haired with voluminous waves, live in predominantly white suburbs 750 miles apart and are obsessed with Frozen. I imagine the animated film follows the Disney formula of a girl without parents, who in time overcomes challenges, meets a man and rules a beautiful kingdom. I can’t speak to the cultural or intellectual value of Disney but I do acknowledge the entertainment and capital value of The Walt Disney Company, with revenues of $50 billion last year. Some predict it will be the largest corporation sometime next century and to achieve that, it will have to sell more to you and your kids.

For my nieces, who’ve cried for long, straight, blonde hair, Disney was there to oblige. I did succumb to their request, strolling the rows of Toys “R” Us with its off gassing plastics, to find a braided, blonde Elsa wig. Cultivation theory suggests that in time children imagine television and its representation of bodies and ideals as real, tending towards Mattel’s Barbie. Assuming that there are any redeeming life lessons beyond entertainment value, I wonder about the impact of the other 1,870,000 user generated Frozen YouTube videos. How from this repeated video haze of remanufactured content might my nieces have reimagined themselves as blonde haired, some 750 miles apart? I’m sure it will pass but I wonder what age is too early for a permanent bleaching? I hope she doesn’t see an ad for hair dye before then.

One afternoon, I was sitting next to my two-year-old niece, with her tight curls and wide brown eyes, when she cried ipah, ipah, ipah to me. For a moment, lost in the innocence of her youth, I assumed she was saying appa, Tamil for father, hoping she saw in me a semblance of my brother when she just wanted her iPad. I hoisted her beside me and watched. She spotted YouTube, opened the app, found a recent show and then in 30s intervals, hopped around through the playlist of kids shows and ads intended for people much older. That’s when I decided to write this. I’m not around her enough to know if what she watches is appropriate. We supposedly have YouTube Kids for that. Sadly, the app launch was quickly met with a filing to the FTC from a coalition of concerned consumer and child advocacy groups over raunchy content.

“An ad for protective glasses that featured a nail gun being shot into the eye of a mannequin head, videos on how to juggle chainsaws and knives and how to make toxic chlorine gas. There are also ads for alcoholic products and videos that include graphic discussions of pornography, jokes about pedophilia and drug use and explicit sexual language.” — Complaint to FTC

The technologist apologists reaction to the filing seemed, gadgets don’t harm kids, parental lack of supervision harm kids. “YouTube handles tremendous breadth, depth and scale of content — so while we work hard to get it right, sometimes your child may find content in the app that you may not want them to watch.” A surprising answer for a company whose aim is to quantify everything, is YouTube suggesting that parents should be more vigilant in flagging the 300 hours of video uploaded each hour?

Children grow quickly into passive consumers

The child you saw yesterday morning is not the same as the one you see today. They absorb information at an astonishing rate and, for this reason, parents should be legitimately concerned with what their kids watch. As kids form 700 synapses a second, creating kinships with familiar faces and connections to stories, I wonder why we’d want their earliest attachments to be with an iPhone and what sort of attachment pattern that will foster. I’m not alone in that concern, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an edict that children two years and younger should not watch any television. None whatsoever. Too late for my two-year-old nephew, who is dismally wrought by the 733,000 Hot Wheels reenactments on YouTube.

The media they consume is mostly one directional impinged on them by a consumerist society. I imagine that even playing with more primitive toys, they would imagine and interact within a narrative freely their own. Have toy guns and swords become the lesser of two evils?

When a kid consumes so much media that it displaces exercise, leisure reading & other imaginations, what will we say to this unsupervised impatient generation formed as passive rapid consumers of empty content and material possessions, later entering the world with EQs best suited to emoticons and swipes, absently middling in status updates, hazy and lacking in any deep understanding.

If you think this is an argument about a child submitting a school assignment with plagiarized wikipedia sentences, it’s more likely just me struggling with notification fatigue and the inability to focus for any significant length of time without reaching for my phone.

I think we might look back at this haze in time, much like we’d backtracked on high fructose corn syrup, and realize we placed a bad faith in technology, choosing to forgo deep reading, emotional connections, and stable parenting, for mindless entertainment, endless stimulation and preoccupation, leaving kids to adopt a tenuous and peripatetic modality of thought. Not that this is to pathologize adult outcomes but we’d be placing a lot of hope in individual resilience.

“Sensitive early care predicted competence at every age.”
David Brooks, The Social Animal
1. Screen time for children aged 2–18, should be limited to two hours a day.
2. Screen time displaces other experiential activities like playing and reading, diminishing proper development of children resulting in behavioral or sleep issues. 
3. More than 50% of media programs consumed by children are non-educational but Common Sense Media offers ratings for many programs.