The creepy videos that put me off my children watching YouTube alone
Spider-Man is sitting in an empty bathtub, squeezing large water balloons until they explode in slow motion.
No, it’s not a scene from a Marvel Comics blockbuster, this is what I saw when looking over to see what my three-year-old son was watching on a tablet.
He’d started watching nursery rhyme videos on YouTube, but somehow, it set him on a path to discovering creepy videos starring off-brand Spider-Men, and to my shock, thousands of these videos exist.
YouTube has a dark underbelly when it comes to kid’s content, as highlighted by an article on Medium written by writer and artist, James Birdle: Something is Wrong on the Internet.
Reading James’ article was affirming because it proved I wasn’t crazy in thinking YouTube was rotten.
I could no longer walk away for a second while my son is on YouTube.
The set-up of the modern living room may have changed with more devices replacing the traditional one television in the room, but the rules of watching things with your kids is more important than ever.
Supply and demand
An entire industry has grown within YouTube aimed at trying to capture views in the multimillions as parents around the world use a tablet to keep their kids entertained. It works because there’s a huge demand for content.
If your kid sits quietly watching something on a tablet for longer than 10 minutes, it’s a gift.
I can’t begrudge any parent who uses this tactic during their long, sleep-deprived day.
You can finish a coffee while it’s still hot, unstack a dishwasher or eat a meal with two hands. Some parents might try more extreme activities like reading the chapter of a book!
We try to limit our son’s screen time to an hour a day, if he’s lucky, but we need the spare minutes a tablet provides to get things done.
When I see people frowning at the parents of kids in cafes on tablets and phones, I think, “If you only knew”.
The good, the bad and the disturbing
There are versions of Wheels on the Bus that have as many views as Taylor Swift’s new music video.
It has created a boom for the people who make these videos, each hoping to reach the point where they get enough views and subscribers for YouTube to pay a dividend.
When YouTube creators reach certain milestones, YouTube pays a share of their advertising revenue, which turns a hobby making videos online into a career.
There are lots of wannabe Wiggles on YouTube doing an OK job at producing low-budget videos fast, but there’s a lot creators riding the wave hoping to cash in on algorithms that help drive traffic to videos on YouTube by including popular characters kids are searching for.
You get odd mashups of characters from Frozen fighting Spider-Man and Minions for no reason. A lot of these videos have disturbing imagery and are designed to capture views; they show little regard for the viewer.
Disturbing superhero mashup with 64 million views
It’s questionable whether certain videos, most using digital animation, are created by people at all.
It becomes like Blade Runner trying to figure out what’s human and what’s auto-generated by a computer, which would explain the dehumanising content of the most troubling videos.
Cracking the shell
Another trend in this space is unpacking videos where people unwrap gifts.
Most of the time they are eggs with a toy inside, sometimes it’s PlayDoh. These videos appear to be harmless on the surface but they suck kids in big time.
These videos take their time to generate hype for what’s being unwrapped and spend an agonising amount of time opening each trinket.
This unwrapping video has had nearly 300 million views.
I watched one of these videos with my son and the expression on his face reminded me of the adults I’ve seen slumped over poker machines at casinos.
These videos tap into the addictive side of a child’s senses and the lack of creativity or entertainment on offer is a huge red flag.
The solution is simple: watch YouTube with your kids.
Banning something outright sends an extreme message and you need to deploy those boundaries sparingly for the consequences to mean something to your kids.
Plus, you’re helping to teach them about technology — a skill they’re going to need in a tech-heavy world.
The argument of unplugging is a tricky one because structuring a kid’s day is a grand balancing act of different activities that often get slain by a short attention span. A week’s worth of play can be smashed in one day.
You can spend hours at the park getting plenty of exercise but you have to call it quits at some point.
It used to be easier for parents to supervise what kids were watching because there were set channels on the one television in the household. YouTube is portable and the number of channels are infinite.
Talk to your kids about what’s good and bad about the videos they find.
Kids have a habit of incriminating themselves when they find something they shouldn’t be watching, so you create an inbuilt alarm system if you can’t be by their side the whole time.
And none of it is wasted time, parents already carry enough guilt for every waking decision they make.
I adore it when my son asks questions and I get a vibe for his odd little mind at work when he’s watching something.
I get to see his sense of humour at play when things make him laugh. I dig it when he gasps at seeing Batman for the first time.
Technology is going to be part of a kid’s life whether you like it or not.
Like with most parenting, the most important part is showing up.