When children ask to go on the internet they usually mean "watch YouTube videos" and since YouTube Kids app launched a couple of years ago, there has been a dedicated online destination for them to visit.
But while it opens an Aladdin's cave of characters, ideas, stories and adventures to young minds, for parents it can and should also ring alarm bells. Unlike the safe-zones of CBBC and other known broadcasters, online video is often an unknown entity and recent revelations have shown that some inappropriate content slips through Google's net. There are some videos on the YouTube Kids app you really wouldn't want your child to see.
These are few and far between, of course, but if you are worried, here are our guidelines and tips on how to ensure your kids enjoy YouTube content in the safest way possible.
If your child uses the main YouTube app rather than YouTube Kids, it’s important to have a shared family account so that you can easily track what videos are being watched and suggested. You can then turn Restricted Mode on via your account settings at the top of the YouTube webpage. 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.
On YouTube Kids, you can select the home screen age level in settings, which will restrict the videos that appear on the opening screens to pre-school, school age or all. If you don't want your child finding any further videos, including inappropriate ones that have incorrectly been approved by Google, restrict search.
The most important thing to do though, with both normal YouTube and YouTube Kids, is to ensure you supervise your child's viewing. At the very least, understand what it is they are watching.
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.
YouTube Kids does not allow for channel subscriptions. Be aware though, many videos on the app are preceded by adverts.
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.