Will Internet Mechabots Destroy My Toddler’s Mind?

Exposure to unsettling YouTube content is not necessarily damaging to children.

Posted Nov 20, 2017

Source: Atsurkan/Shutterstock

In a shocking, fascinating, and disturbing recent piece on Medium, James Bridle details the maddening proliferation of YouTube videos aimed at very young children. These include endless variations of nursery rhyme compilations, authorized and unauthorized clips of beloved children’s characters, and low-budget original animation.

The sheer number of these videos is unsettling. Clearly, they are responding to a market desire. As Bridle notes, the fact that the length is a selling point, labeled in the names of these videos, suggests parents and caregivers reaching for them to keep children occupied for an hour or more at a time.

According to the most commonly cited national survey, young children’s overall time with media has been relatively flat over the past five years at two hours and 19 minutes.

However, the amount of time that children under eight spend with handheld devices specifically has increased tenfold in just five years. Video streaming apps, unlike traditional TV, have features like autoplay and automated suggestions to encourage binge-watching with little parent intervention. Time on device equals ad revenue.

So, there are a lot of these kiddie videos. But that’s not the scariest part.

Buried in the pile, Bridle points out, is content that is highly violent, sexual and otherwise disturbing. Some of it seems to be produced more or less accidentally, with some degree of automation involved. Other videos may be interpolations of parodies created by trolls. Or combinations of all of the above. It’s hard to figure out, but it’s undeniable that a kid or a parent could click on this stuff accidentally while searching for child-friendly material.

I know this for a fact because it happened to me. When my older daughter was a toddler, I was searching for “potty training” videos on YouTube. I found positive messages from Elmo, Daniel Tiger, and a hyperenthusiastic Japanese panda. I also accidentally showed her an episode of an unbelievably obnoxious, obscene, and foul cartoon apparently aimed at dimwitted adolescents. She loved it, of course, and demanded to see it again and again.

Here’s the reason to not be too freaked out, yet, by the deep weirdness of kiddie YouTube.

Bridle writes:

Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.

Wait wait wait! Frighten? Sure, it could, yes. Traumatize? Abuse? That’s an overstatement.

Media effects research has its critics. But many researchers do argue that exposure to graphic media violence can contribute to desensitization, a loss of empathy, attentional problems, and less often, aggression.

Media violence is extremely common. Young children are most likely to encounter it through “background” television being watched by adults, including the news, not through short YouTube videos.

If your child does come across a disturbing video, all is not lost. My daughter, who has every advantage in the world, suffered zero negative effects from seeing something inappropriate on YouTube. She loved it, actually. TV is not DDT and parents have far more power as mediators than we may realize. Research by Eric Rasmussen at Texas Tech and Erica Austin at Washington State University, shows that it is parent-child conversation that determines to what degree children absorb messages from the shows they watch, whether pro-social or anti-social.

The existence of this gross YouTube stuff is not proof that children at scale are being traumatized by it, much less “abused.” Many, maybe most, might come across it with little effect. Others might be upset by something they see, but still, have a trusted adult in their lives who can comfort them and help them process it.

Some children, unfortunately, are not being supervised closely or safely. In the worst-case scenario, they might be watching hours of such videos every day—say in an unlicensed home-based daycare or under the care of an elderly relative. Content is not the only problem here. Even if they were watching PBS all that time, the sheer amount of media exposure with a lack of caregiver engagement would still be a problem in itself.

Do I wish that the creators of these platforms would make it harder for my kids to find so much violent and disturbing junk to watch? Yes, just as our grandparents did when they bought televisions. And we may need similar citizen movements to regulate the algorithms that deliver this mess.

Still, even if every bizarre YouTube video were filtered or erased, we would still face problems such as a lack of quality childcare and support for parents that goes beyond troubling media.

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