Even before the coronavirus pandemic sent parents, educators and kids online for work, school and socializing, the amount of time young kids spent watching online videos had doubled since 2017 to an average of 39 minutes per day in early 2020.
Online video sites like YouTube and TikTok have officially overtaken any other form of screen time for children ages 8 and younger. Common Sense Media also found one in five videos viewed by these children on YouTube contained ads that often included pervasive and inappropriate advertising, violence and other questionable content.
These are among the key findings of a new report, “Young Kids and YouTube: How Ads, Toys, and Games Dominate Their Viewing,” published by Common Sense Media in partnership with the University of Michigan. Researchers analyzed the YouTube viewing of ages 0-8, including the quality of content and pervasive advertising that children see on the main platform — which still contains vast amounts of content targeted to children despite the launch of YouTube Kids in 2015.
The analysis found that during their online video viewing, kids are also seeing content that’s inappropriate for their age level, from advertising to violence to sexual content.
“This explosion of online video viewing matters when we consider the amount of content children are exposed to on platforms like YouTube,” said Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense. “In our content study, we saw firsthand what kids are seeing in many online videos: an abundance of advertising and other content that we found disturbing, but not much that qualified as truly educational.”
The study shows that watching online videos on sites such as YouTube now constitutes the largest proportion of children’s total TV and video viewing, and whether they are following recommended videos or being served banner ads, young children are avid users of this platform that was originally designed for use by teens and adults, Robb said.
Lindsey, a Scottsdale mom who asked that we not use her last name, rarely lets her children, ages 3 and 5, go “free for all” and watch YouTube or YouTube Kids.
“The videos change their personalities. I have no evidence other than observation, but I notice a negative change in attitude when they’ve watched it,” says Lindsey. “If we ever watch YouTube, it’s on a big TV screen that I control and turn off after the video. I find it especially unsettling that other videos automatically play.”
Sammy Williams of Ahwatukee has a similar observation about her 7-year-old son, who she says is a “total sweetheart, except when we let him watch YouTube videos.” She likens his behavior during YouTube to a gambler sitting in front of a slot machine.
“Getting that dopamine hit of the next video is like waiting for the jackpot. It puts him in a trance,” she says. “I rarely have trouble getting him off other screen activities, but there’s something about the YouTube video format that makes it impossible.”
Good content for kids does exist on YouTube, but experts say it’s not rising to the top of what kids are consuming.
“In our study, most children were watching the videos with branded products or outrageous content that creators have posted to get more views, which leads to more ad revenue and getting featured in recommendation feeds,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and researcher at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital who co-authored the YouTube report.
“There’s so much potential for YouTube to offer positive role models, diverse perspectives, or cool creative ideas to the young minds that love this platform, but unfortunately those videos were uncommon in our participants’ viewing histories,” she said.
According to the report, more than a third (34 percent) of children 8 and younger watch online videos every day, up from 24 percent three years ago, and access to mobile devices is driving much of the growth in online video viewing. Nearly half (46 percent) of 2- to 4-year-olds and more than two-thirds (67 percent) of 5- to 8-year-olds have their own tablet or smartphone.
When looking at a sample of videos viewed on YouTube, 95 percent of early childhood content included some form of advertising, and one in five videos viewed by children age 8 and under contained ads that were not age appropriate, Robb said. Those inappropriate ads ranged from violent video games and lingerie to alcohol and politics, he said. Even in age-appropriate videos, inappropriate ads appeared 9 percent to 22 percent of the time.
The study also found that young children are primarily watching entertainment, not educational content. Almost a quarter of videos were classified as educational, though most only touched on basic educational concepts, or filled the videos with toys or vicarious experiences. Only about 4 percent of videos had a high educational value.
Better YouTube channels for kids
Common Sense Media and the University of Michigan found only 4 percent of the videos young kids reported viewing on YouTube had a high educational value. That’s unfortunate, because many YouTube channels do provide interesting, informative and appropriate content for kids, including these channels reviewed by Common Sense Media.
Ages 3 and up
- Mother Goose Club: Celebrated videos teach preschool skills in songs, rhymes.
- ChuChu TV: Exceptional channel teaches young kids with songs, rhymes.
- Little Baby Bum: Songs, rhymes and vibrant animation for preschoolers.
Ages 5 and up
- Khan Academy: Educational videos are an exceptional resource for students.
Ages 6 and up
- EvanTube HD: Engaging young host shares a variety of fun content for kids.
Ages 8 and up
- Barbie: Doll-powered vids promote positivity and self-expression.
- HiHo Kids: Diverse, funny cast of kids try new things, meet new people.
- Dude Perfect: These guys deliver trick shots, clean laughs, fun battles.
Age 10 and up
- Channel Frederator: Fascinating color commentary for cartoon superfans.
- SoulPancake: Thought-provoking videos have lots of positive messages.
- Life Noggin: Big questions answered through eye-catching graphics.
Ages 11 and up
- Studio C: Clean comedy sketches get laughs without profanity.
Age 12 and up
- Crash Course: Lively hosts, funny images bring academic topics to life.
- Minutephysics: Complex STEM topics explained with simple sketches.
- SciShow: Answers to serious, silly, and some sexy science questions.
Age 14 and up
- Tyler Oakley: Sweet, honest Oakley offers messages of acceptance for teens.
Young Kids and YouTube
Additional study findings in the study “Young Kids and YouTube: How Ads, Toys, and Games Dominate Their Viewing,” include:
- Almost half of videos viewed by children younger than age 8 featured or promoted products for children to buy. Of these videos, 22 percent were considered high in consumerism because they centered on toys, involved YouTubers promoting their own merchandise or prominently featured branded products.
- Out of all the different negative content types, children younger than 8 are most likely to see physical violence, with three in 10 videos containing at least mild physical violence. Interpersonal violence, including bullying, meanness, pranking or other manipulative behavior was seen in 20 percent of videos. Mild or moderate sexual content was present in about 65 percent of videos.
- Diverse representations and/or positive role modeling were seen in only 24 percent of videos. Although YouTube could potentially be a window into a diverse set of families and perspectives, three out of four videos are missing diverse representations and positive role models.
- Almost all parents report monitoring their young children’s YouTube use at least somewhat. The 63 percent of parents said they monitor their child’s YouTube main usage “very much;” 34 percent said they monitor it “somewhat,” and 3 percent admitted they do not monitor their child’s YouTube usage at all. Co-viewing was least likely during videos in the early elementary and tween/teen categories, which contain the highest amounts of violence and consumerism.
- For more information on how parents can better monitor children’s YouTube usage and minimize exposure to inappropriate content, read Common Sense Media’s Ultimate Guide to YouTube, aimed at parents: commonsensemedia.org/blog/parents-ultimate-guide-to-youtube