Q: I have a question about parenting with technology: At what age should I let my child watch YouTube or videos on my phone?
Answering the specific age at which children should be allowed to watch YouTube is complicated.
Why? After, and most importantly, just obeying the law, there are many considerations.
YouTube, Facebook (who owns Instagram), Snapchat and other tech companies bar children under the age of 13 from participating on their platforms because of COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, managed by the Federal Trade Commission). Of course, there are many parents who don’t mind “bending the rules,” but I am not one of them.
To be clear, it is a very poor model for a parent to break a law just because he doesn’t agree with it or he simply cannot stand another minute of his child’s hounding him about it. The law says 13 years old!
YouTube is the Wild West. Anyone can see anything, and I mean anything—from racy clips to ones with inappropriate language to violence to just plain bad ideas.
Of course, there are lots of fun, harmless, funny, interesting, entertaining, even educational videos on YouTube, too. But you are in dangerous territory when you let your children go free range on YouTube.
The content on YouTube is not regulated for what you feel is appropriate for your child. While it may seem harmless, you have no idea what language is being used, what references are being made, what ideas are being promulgated, what values are being communicated … even though it’s a baking show or one that teaches how to wear makeup. It is someone else’s idea of what is okay for your family.
Even children 13 years old are not often mature enough to handle some of these videos. Certainly, teens will say they are ready, that they won’t watch “bad stuff.” But the truth is their ability to discern and decide what is okay for them is far from developed. Their desire to see what they shouldn’t will trump turning it off.
I am reminded of a parent who insisted her 4-year-old was ready to watch the original “Wizard of Oz.” She thought Dorothy and Toto; I thought “I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog Toto too!”
A week after the viewing, the child began having countless fears and sleepless nights that lasted for months. Children and even teens may not know how content may affect them, even if they think they can handle it. The subconscious works in interesting ways.
We know how addictive screens are. YouTube is the worst. One video concludes, and another comes right on. You want to keep watching. More and more. Even though the first video may have been harmless, the next may not be.
Kids, especially teens with their evolving brains, which lack a fully functioning pre frontal cortex, are highly suggestable and prone to copying what they may see on YouTube, for good and for bad. The dumb thing seen on YouTube they think is really cool. Hey, let’s try it!
That’s the deal with influencers. Our kids idolize how they act, speak, dress. They emulate their behaviors, including their pranks and bad choices. Typically, some kids lack the brakes to stop themselves.
Very recently, YouTube introduced their platform YouTube Kids. It is far less dangerous, and is described as “ … an app specifically designed for kids, making it easier for children and parents to find content they are interested in.” I would rather see your toddler or young child play outside! It is, in my opinion, not necessary.
The bottom line is beyond 13 years old, there is no one answer. Each family will have different ideas about YouTube viewing, based on their family ideas and their own child’s development and behavior.
What is most important is your open communication about YouTube, allowing your child to share his desires and to feel heard, and for you to share your opinions.
Escaping the reality of our kids’ world today, which will include YouTube, is close to impossible. So, it is your job to come up with a plan, with boundaries, and with a tenable solution considering everyone’s needs and input.
One last caveat, I firmly believe that “But EVERYONE is doing it” is never a good reason to cave in.
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through her website, betsybrownbraun.com.