Kids watch a lot of YouTube over the holidays. Let’s help them make it count. 

Claire Christensen, senior education researcher and an expert in media for young children, explains how to empower parents to help manage screen time.

The irony was not lost on me. I was interviewing a busy single mom about her children’s screen habits … by video call, of course. A familiar motion sickness ensued as she lugged her laptop room to room, chatting while waking her baby, slapping shoes on her preschooler and her kindergartner, then loading everyone in the family pickup for a grocery run. The call ended with a resigned confession: This mom, like a million other moms, depends upon screen time.

Too often, a screen is the best babysitter available — easy and free. Of course, this mom does her best to guide the kids to child-friendly apps and to stay within easy earshot, but what her kids watch is largely a mystery to her. Such is modern parenthood — reliant on screens, desperate to educate and protect kids, terrified of the unknowns.

The data support this perspective. A remarkable number of young children are watching a remarkable number of hours of online video. One study found that children under age eight spend more time watching online videos than doing any other screen-based activity, averaging 39 minutes of online video viewing a day. Another study asked parents of children ages 11 and under if their child watches YouTube. Eighty percent said yes, and 53 percent of those whose kids watch YouTube said their child watches every day.

In interviews like mine with the busy mom, and in national surveys, most parents say they believe, or hope anyway, their child is learning from YouTube. Unfortunately, studies suggest young children may not be exposed to as much learning material as parents think or hope. One study found that only 1 in 20 videos children watch online are of “high” educational value. Much of what they watch online is entertainment-based content trying to sell them something.

The solution is not for parents to become more engaged or to worry more — we are all doing our best and worrying our most.

The solution is not for parents to become more engaged or to worry more — we are all doing our best and worrying our most. Parents face an impossible challenge: monitoring and selecting videos from the vast array of user-generated content submitted by individual creators rather than studios. 500 hours of such video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. It is impossible for any human, let alone a busy parent, to screen or monitor all of it.

The solutions, as I see them, are to empower parents with a few simple guidelines and better tools, and to advocate for change with streaming video providers. In this regard, I have a few recommendations:

  • Connect with your child about what they’re watching. A simple conversation with you can make almost any experience more educational. You don’t have to watch together. Try to read the description beforehand listen in during the video so you can ask open-ended questions before or after.
  • Respect your child’s interests. Allow them some autonomy (within boundaries, of course) to ensure they are engaged in their own learning. Does your child like a particular character? Then, all means, lean into that Elmo obsession: Studies show children learn best from familiar characters
  • Select channels you feel good about. Selecting channels be easier than selecting individual videos. Try to focus on channels specifically designed to teach. I can recommend channels like Alphablocks or Jack Hartmann, among others, that include higher-quality learning content. There is huge opportunity here new channels to enter this space.
  • Tech can also help. Options include the YouTube Kids app, a supervised YouTube account, or curated apps outside of YouTube, such as the PBS KIDS Video app or Sensical.

Even with these tips, there’s still so much more parents and kids need from tech providers, like tools to identify developmentally appropriate educational content, screen out undesirable content, or even just filter videos by duration! There is a urgent need for innovation to address these challenges.

One such innovation coming from SRI is APPROVE, a new machine learning tool that automatically identifies grade-appropriate literacy and math content in online videos. This tool aims to help parents filter online videos by grade and learning topic, making browsing more educational for kids and less stressful for parents.

In the end, video is not the villain. There’s plenty of great content and children can and do learn from high-quality educational videos. As research, technology, and parental guidance catch up with American children’s media use, parents will have better tools to help them and their children make the most of online video that supports early learning.

Read more from SRI