YouTube Awareness: What Are Your Kids Watching, Anyway?

By Eric Braun

YouTube Awareness: What Are Your Kids Watching, Anyway?One thing most of us love about summer is the opportunity to spend a little more time with our kids. We may take vacations or day trips, or just find a little more time to hang out without homework or the school schedule getting in the way. But one thing many parents are not looking forward to this summer is the sight of our kids staring at screens even more than usual (yes, it is possible!).

Ugh. For many preteens and teens, lots of free time = lots of screen time. Video games, phone games, and social media are one thing, but at my house, the biggest culprit is YouTube. My kids can log some serious YouTube hours, and since they’re usually wearing headphones, it’s hard to know when they’re watching inappropriate content. One thing we can do as parents is be aware of what kids are attracted to and keep up a dialogue about what they’re watching. Here’s a rundown of some of the more popular types of YouTube videos. I am sure I’m missing some big ones, so please add your thoughts in the comments.

With all of these types of YouTube videos, much of the content can be inappropriate, but it depends on the channel kids are watching. Many are fine, too.

[Note: due to the explicit content in some of these examples, we are not linking them directly.]

Let’s Play
I, like most adults I know, find these Let’s Play videos to be asinine, but kids love them—mostly boys, but plenty of girls, too. Basically, it’s a video of a person playing a video game and commenting on what they’re doing. Why would kids want to watch someone else play video games? A lot of times, they’re hoping to figure out how to solve part of a puzzle game, unlock secrets, or just beat the game. Minecraft is surely the most common Let’s Play—you can find many thousands of Minecraft Let’s Play videos.

Depending on the game, some of the commentary can get pretty salty, especially for games like shooters that are geared toward older kids. And of course, many of the games themselves are rated M for Mature or T for Teen. Inappropriate content abounds.

What’s an example? PewDiePie is the biggest YouTube star of them all. He has more than 45 million subscribers.

This is a broad category but a popular one. Here, I’m talking about skits, parodies, songs, stop motions, and other content that people are writing and performing to make kids laugh.

Language and sexual, violent, or other kinds of inappropriate content can be an issue on many of these channels.

What’s an example? Sketch comedy duo Ian Andrew Hecox and Anthony Padilla’s channel Smosh is wildly popular and has more than 22 million subscribers.

Somebody opens something, like a toy or gift, and kids watch. That’s about it. Sometimes it’s a product review, where the YouTuber tries out something and tells you what he or she thinks about it. Sometimes it’s something weird or surprising, and the point is to see how kids react. These videos got hugely popular but may be waning in popularity now.

The biggest thing to be aware of with this type of video is insidious commercialism. Is the content in the box sponsored by a company? Is the YouTuber paid to review the product positively? It’s not always clear.

What’s an example? Lamarr Wilson is a former educator and tech consultant with about 785,000 subscribers.

Haul Videos
Similar to Unboxing videos, in a Haul video someone goes shopping and talks about what they got. They may discuss the price, the deal they got, and details of the products. And just as with Unboxing vids, there is plenty of gray area with regard to advertising, sponsorship deals, product placement, and so on.

What’s an example? Bethany Mota, who has more than 10 million subscribers, posts about health and beauty, fashion, makeup, and other areas and is considered a pioneer of Haul videos.

In Reaction videos, viewers get to watch the emotional reaction of other people as they experience something or—more commonly—watch something such as a movie trailer or TV show. A cousin of sorts to Unboxing and Haul videos, they’re about vicarious experience, but often we’re laughing at the person reacting. It might be elders reacting to something from pop culture or babies or young kids reacting to something surprising. Of course, many Reaction videos are also advertisements for whatever the subject is reacting to.

What’s an example? The Fine Brothers, who have more than 14 million subscribers, are well-known for their reaction videos as well as comedy and other types of videos.

It almost seems quaint compared to some of the other stuff on YouTube, but vloggers are like bloggers, but with video. Generally, vlogs are opinion-driven and restricted to a topic the vlogger cares about, such as books. Of course some vloggers present offensive or inappropriate material, but many are inspiring. After all, it’s someone with a passion who organizes his or her thoughts and presents them to an audience—sounds like writing!

What’s an example? John and Hank Green, the Vlog Brothers, are a smart, witty, and positive force on YouTube, with nearly 3 million subscribers to their vlog channel.

A subcategory is satirical vloggers, who vlog in the persona of a character they invent. Colleen Evans, vlogging as Miranda Sings, has 6.5 million subscribers. The character is quirky and inept but narcissistic and obsessed with fame—a fun skewer of the “me” side of the Internet and YouTube in particular.

Makeup & Fashion
This broad category ranges from straightforward advice to following a YouTuber’s morning routine to product reviews to skits and more. Many hosts are fun and encouraging, but viewers often get hammered with idealized images of beauty and lifestyle from these videos. Many are pushing products and are sponsored by companies.

What’s an example? Eva Gutowski’s channel MyLifeAsEva has almost 6.5 million subscribers who eagerly await her videos on morning routine, beauty advice, and comedy.

Prank videos are extremely popular, much to many parents’ dismay. While some are probably harmless and even witty, many are offensive and play upon our worst tendencies—they’re often racist, sexist, or worse. Most are staged, but kids watching—especially younger kids—don’t realize that, and the pranks are often designed to teach “lessons” that likewise aren’t real but rather conform to the YouTuber’s beliefs. One YouTuber goes around grabbing girls’ butts to get a reaction and eventually gets a date. Another white YouTuber deliberately provokes fights with black people in order to show how “racist” they are in their reaction to him.

What’s an example? Joey Salads has over a million subscribers.

YouTubers film themselves taking some sort of challenge, such as tasting food while blindfolded. Many of these can be gross—like drinking a gallon of milk in an hour, which often leads to vomiting—and many can be risky—like the cinnamon challenge (eat a teaspoon of cinnamon in under a minute). Challenge videos are appealing to kids because the viewer can safely enjoy the risky or gross-out behavior, but parents need to be aware that many kids are tempted to try the challenges themselves.

Bottom Line
Because there’s such a wide variety of content within each category, it’s important to check in with kids about what they’re watching. Watch their favorite videos with them. Ask if they have any questions about what they see. Ask questions about what they take away from the videos they watch and what they think the poster’s biases may be. Help kids discern what’s authentic from what’s staged or unrealistic. Younger viewers especially may need help identifying sponsored content.

Keep in mind that any YouTube video that gains enough views will have commercials in it, so kids who watch a lot will be exposed to plenty of advertising. Corporate channels produce videos that are commercials disguised as entertainment.

Summer is a great opportunity to spend more time with your family. Use a small part of that time to get to know what your kids are absorbing through those screens and headphones they never seem to be detached from.

Minneapolis writer Eric BraunEric Braun is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. His book The Survival Guide for Money Smarts, coauthored with his wife Sandy Donovan, will be available August 2016.

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