The way your children watch YouTube is not that surprising – but it is a concern

Do you take away your teenager’s phone to manage their behaviour? Maybe when they arrive home late from a party or receive a bad report card?

Confiscating, time-limiting or permitting additional access to technology has become a popular parenting strategy. Surveys show that 65% of American parents with teenagers confiscate phones or remove internet privileges as a form of punishment.

It’s no longer simply a tool of distraction – technology access has become a means of behavioural control. But my recent research suggests that this approach might not be the best idea.

I’ve spoken with 50 Australian families with 118 children aged 1-18 about this issue. The data will be published in 2018. Among my sample, a family with two children owns on average six to eight devices. Some children also had devices from a very young age – the youngest was a one-year-old who received a tablet for her first birthday. The youngest mobile phone owner was six years old.

My qualitative investigation suggests that using technology as a bargaining chip can have adverse effects. It may impact the trust you build with your child and how they use technology.

The effect on younger children

For children 12 years and younger, I saw that parents often use technology as a reward for good behaviour. For example, allowing a two-year-old time on a tablet for using the potty “successfully”.

While it’s important to recognise a child’s achievements, kids can begin to associate technology with being “good” and making their parents proud.

As one eight-year-old explained while sitting on the couch with an iPad either side of him,

I’m a really good boy, that’s why I have two iPads!

This strategy also places emphasis on “use” as opposed to “quality use”.

Quality technology use is commonly understood as use that emphasises creativity and problem-solving. It’s important not to encourage kids to think about screen time in terms of gratification alone. Instead, it should enhance learning, help develop one’s sense of self, or facilitate positive connections.

The effect on teenagers

In my study, parents with teens often removed or limited technology use as a punishment. For example, taking a phone from a 13-year-old because he was rude.

In separate discussions, parents and teens talked about the backlash to such actions. While parents often interpreted their protests as the punishment “working”, teenagers in my study explained it differently.

If their phone is taken away, they often withdrew from their parents. Instead of focusing on what they’d done wrong, they fixated on not having a phone and finding someone else’s to use in the mean time.

On top of this, teenagers characterised it as a privacy issue. One girl explained,

I don’t know what my mum does with my phone when she has it. She probably searches through it!

Worryingly, some teens interpreted their punishment in ways that could compromise the important messages that parents give children about safety on the internet.

Research shows that healthy family communication is crucial in reducing risky online behaviours such as cyberbullying, contact with a potential predator, or exposure to sexually explicit material.

In response to her phone being confiscated, for example, one 15-year-old girl expressed what many teenagers told me:

I don’t tell my parents much now about what happens to me because I don’t want my phone taken off me.

Three key points for parents

Our relationship with technology is complicated, so how should it be treated by parents?

Technology shouldn’t be used to fix all problems

Children told me that “the punishment needs to fit the crime!”

Using technology to encourage appropriate behaviour is not the answer unless it is in response to a technology-related incident. Say, a teenager bullying someone online.

If the incident has nothing to do with internet use, use a strategy that will help them understand and improve on the actual behaviour of concern.

Be a positive technology role model

Being a positive technology role model for children means encouraging quality technology use.

For example, setting aside some phone-free time each day so you can be “in the moment” with your child. If you watch online videos with them, make the clips useful, like learning how to design a new garden. Positive interactions can also be demonstrated, such as playing online chess with a friend.

When the punishment doesn’t work

My research suggests that there’s a point when using technology to manage behaviour simply doesn’t work anymore.

It can get too difficult to remove the smartphone each time your child needs to do their homework, for example. It could even cause animosity or unnecessary aggravation.

It’s important to develop a range of strategies that guide child behaviour. These do not always have to be in response to bad behaviour and they do not always need to be extreme. Instead, they could be used to nudge and guide your child towards comprehending their own actions.

We need to shift the focus away from parenting that relies on threats and rewards, to one that nurtures meaningful parent-child and child-technology relationships.

Imagine a 3 year old in front of a screen watching Peppa Pig (their favourite TV character) hanging by a noose - the victim of a lynch mob. As the video continues the child sees Peppa explicitly swearing, violently stabbing her brother; and then Peppa’s family acting out a sex scene inspired by 50 Shades of Grey.

Parody and unauthorised online children’s content is an issue writer James Bridle brought attention to recently with his article Something is wrong on the internet.

My audit of these videos shows that in an odd way they actually resonate with a young child’s level of development. This helps us to understand why they get so many views.

However the inappropriate and unsafe messages they communicate to children has worrying implications. Being aware and taking a few key steps can help minimise these experiences in your household.

What children are viewing

Young children have rapidly become prolific users of the internet, including watching online videos. While many of the videos are suitable, others use unscrupulous gimmicky methods to profit from a young and impressionable audience.

This is a very mild version of an edited Peppa Pig video.

My experience is that these videos fall into three categories.

1.     Parody cartoon videos: These depict well-known characters in violent or lewd situations. For example, there are videos of Elsa (from the Disney movie Frozen) angry and using a machine gun, and Paw Patrol characters (a Nickelodeon show popular among pre-schoolers) visiting a brothel.

2.    Disturbing imagery: Other clips depict disturbing imagery, characters or storylines. These include for example, Dad Punches Kid in Face, a video which depicts a father punching his young child in the face for “being naughty”.

3.    Sneaky advertising: Equally worrying, other videos elicit sneaky advertising tactics to persuade children to buy new products. For example, Ryan’s Toy Review is one such video channel with more than four billion views. While the content of this category of videos is generally not violent or sexual, it equates to children sitting in front of never-ending ads day after day.

Why kids watch these videos

The way that children engage with the questionable online videos can be perplexing, and worrying, for parents.

However, when put in the context of what we know about key behavioural characteristics of children as they develop, it’s not that surprising.

The videos often feature something that children are really interested in - toys, playing, and/or popular characters they know. If a child is a fan of the characters, or even owns some of the toys depicted in the video, the connection will be even stronger.

Many of the videos portray odd events. From a child development perspective, things that are unexpected – like an adult wearing a nappy, or their favourite wholesome character being evil – are a great source of humour for young children.

Everybody loves to unwrap stuff!

Many of these videos centre on taking a new present or toy out of a box. As any kid on Christmas morning will tell you, guessing what’s inside the wrapping is half the fun. It will also likely conjure up happy memories for the children of receiving a present themselves.

Some of the videos feature child presenters – children enjoy watching their peers on the screen, and they get pleasure from watching others open presents. The problem is that it can also fuel an incredible desire and anticipation for these particular toys or products.

Shady knock-offs, and no filters

Regardless of their amusing appeal to kids, children are seeing video content not produced by reputable content producers. Instead, they are knock-offs created by anonymous users with names such as Brick Manand Melon Troll. These channels game internet search algorithms to automatically play their video as soon as the last clip the child is watching finishes.

Even though a child may be on a video sharing platform for kids, this does not mean that all inappropriate content will be effectively filtered out. For example, a child might search “Peppa Pig” and whatever videos are titled or tagged with “Peppa Pig” appear on their search list. Based on the original search, more suggested videos then appear. Parents state that it is in the suggested videos that the worrying content often appears.

Online videos are a lucrative business, and to capitalise on this process, the algorithms are now informing what is produced. Hashtags and keywords now play a big part in the video content.

Recent research shows that as a result, children are increasingly exposed to videos containing advertising and disturbing images that are indistinguishable from regular programming.

A layer of ethics

An algorithmic approach removes a layer of ethics that is included when humans make decisions in production of content.

YouTube Kids is a very popular site on which kids watch these videos, and owner Google has pledged to improve its algorithms. Google statesthat amongst other changes, in the last week it terminated more than 50 channels and has removed thousands of videos under their newly revised Community Guidelines.

Another issue that must be addressed is allowing the option to turn off suggested videos automatically playing.

What parents can do

More than 300 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute, which makes this issue difficult to manage. Amendments from Google will likely take a while.

It is therefore important parents use strategies to protect their family. Five steps parents can do right now are:

1.     Report and block anything inappropriate,

2.    Install an ad blocker (very easy to do and free),

3.    Turn on restricted mode

4.    Draw up a personal video playlist for your child much like a music playlist),

5.    Watch online videos with your child (not necessarily all of every video but enough to be familiar with what they are watching).

The online world is in a constant state of innovation, but it can be a positive part of life if we watch changes that occur, understand the effects on users and address concerns.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

ArticlesDr Joanne Orlando