When children ask to go on the internet they usually mean "go and watch YouTube videos". And while this opens an Aladdin's cave of characters, ideas, stories and adventures to young minds, for parents it can also ring alarm bells. Unlike the safe-zones of CBBC and other known broadcasters, online video is often an unknown entity.
This is for good reason. Not least because much of the most popular content can be alien to parents. We can sometimes struggle to see the appeal of watching someone else play a videogame rather than play ourselves. Or understand what is so exciting about a stranger opening recently purchased toys.
But the numbers don’t lie, tens of millions of children watch this content everyday. The challenge for parents is how to curate safe and positive content in this context. And that's why we've put together some guidelines and tips on how to ensure your kids enjoy YouTube content in the safest way possible.
It’s important to have a shared family account for YouTube so that you can easily track what videos are being watched and suggested. You can then turn Safety Mode on via the Safety button at the bottom of the YouTube page. You can also click the Lock Safety Mode option to avoid it being turned off.
Responsible video creators on YouTube can flag their content as only appropriate to certain ages. This will restrict access to the video if your account settings indicate you are not old enough.
It’s worth noting though that, at the time of writing, these restrictions are not applied when you are viewing a video that is embedded on a third-party web page or elsewhere. In that context anyone can watch the video, so be aware of where your child is accessing the content.
An approach that has been successful in our houses has been to restrict our children to watching certain YouTube channels. If they want to start watching a new one we watch some videos ourselves first to vet the content.
Recognised brands are useful here as they carry with them more rigorous standards in terms of appropriateness — although at the same time can be more commercial. DreamWorks TV, Mother Goose Club, Talking Tom and Friends, Jim Henson TV, Reading Rainbow, National Geographic Kids, and Thomas the Tank Engine are good examples. Then there are other now well known independent YouTubers like Vlogbrothers and Stampylonghead.
It’s important to not only check out recent videos but also browse the channel’s back catalogue. Even now mainstream YouTubers like Stampylonghead retain videos in their back catalogue with swearing. These older videos will often be suggested by YouTube for young viewers to watch next if they are already watching the channel.
Subscribing to channels that you feel comfortable with then creates a feed of safe videos for your children to browse and watch in the My Subscriptions area of YouTube in the web or app interface.
There are also a range of apps that provide carefully checked lists of videos that are safe for children of different ages. Kid-safe Tube TV, Kids Video Player for YouTube, YouTube Videos for Kids, Playlist for YouTube, the list goes on.
However, be aware that these apps and services vary in quality. A more comprehensive and usable solution is the YouTube Kids app. This not only offers better search of safe videos but strong parental controls to limit viewing time too. It also groups content together into more traditional channels like Shows, Music, Learning and Exploring.
Currently this is only available in the US, although a UK release is promised shortly.
If you want some extra protection you can use web filtering software such as Symantec’s Norton Family Premier (for Windows and Android) or McAfee Security’s Safe Eyes (for Windows and Mac). These are an extra way of ensuring your children don’t come across content that is unsuitable.
Common sense media
While these suggestions will help parents manage good content on YouTube for their children, there is no substitute for watching and enjoying these shows together. One of our children, a seven year-old, was on cloud nine when we suggested we spend half an hour watching Stampy the other day — he enjoyed sharing it with us and we learned a few interesting things about Minecraft.
Another simple and positive step is to keep YouTube screens out of bedrooms and in shared family spaces. It can be a juggle to accommodate this activity downstairs but it not only eliminates any secretive viewing but also creates a context for children to discuss and question content they don’t understand.
By sharing the highs and lows of YouTube viewing, parents and children can build both understanding and trust. The settings and tools here provide a framework to ensure that continues and to avoid some of the unexpected pitfalls. On balance though we're happy that YouTube is a part of our children’s viewing habits.
At internetmatters.org parents can find all the advice they will need to keep their children safe online. Designed specifically for parents, the site offers a wealth of up-to-date, unbiased information and advice about how to deal with online safety. Parents can learn about the latest issues and technologies, get great tips on how to talk about online safety with their children and get the best advice on dealing with issues and taking action. Created with experts, Internet Matters provides detailed information, but also signposts to best-in-class resources from individual expert organisations. Our goal is to ensure parents can always access the information that they need, in a format that is clear and concise.