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What do I need to know about YouTube?

Why kids LOVE getting sucked into YouTube -- and how you can manage this popular pastime.

You've heard of YouTube rabbit holes, right? That's when you go on YouTube to watch a Saturday Night Live clip and emerge later to find that your kid is married with three kids. And if you can't resist YouTube's siren call, our latest research confirms that kids are powerless against it. In fact, kids would rather watch online videos than do almost anything else—which is a teensy bit scary considering YouTube celebs have more influence on kids than movie stars. But, trust us: We've been down a few rabbit holes ourselves. We'll point you toward the good stuff, teach you how to use YouTube's settings and features, explain what influencers, unboxing videos, and challenges mean to your kid, and help your family get the best out of this complex entertainment and educational platform.

Quick Take

  • YouTube is an important way kids learn about the world. It's a one-stop shop for information about everything kids want to know about. It's also a big source of news, which for kids includes internet culture, memes, and online trends.
  • YouTube is really influential. Kids can learn anything from algebra to the latest dance craze. But they can also pick up misinformation, extreme viewpoints, age-inappropriate concepts, and risky ideas (see: the Tide Pod Challenge).
  • You can't control YouTube, but you can manage it (and you should). YouTube offers a few features, including subscriptions, the ability to disable autoplay, and Restricted Mode, that can help you reduce your kid's exposure to mature content.

What does the research say about YouTube—and what does it mean for my family?

YouTube embodies the open-web philosophy of its game-changing parent company, Google, which is all about providing a platform for whatever anybody wants to create and share. That's cool and all, but the anything-goes concept, combined with content selected by algorithm vs. human beings, means your kid will definitely come into contact with inappropriate videos. Recent research sheds some light on where kids are going on YouTube and what they love about it. Here are four key findings, plus our takeaways to help manage kids' experience.

  • It's where a lot of kids get their news. Our research report, News and America's Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News, found that for kids who go to social media for current events, 41% of tweens and 47% of teens like YouTube the best.
    Takeaway: On one hand, it's great that kids want to be informed; on the other, YouTube isn't the most accurate source for news.
  • Kids love it. According to our latest census, watching online videos is now tweens' favorite media activity. (Four years ago, it ranked fifth in enjoyment.) Today, the percent of 8- to 12-year-olds who say they watch online videos every day is more than double what it was in 2015.
    Takeaway: You can't underestimate the role of YouTube's algorithm, which is optimized to hold users' attention for as long as possible.
  • Inappropriate content is common. A 2018 YouTube study by the Pew Research Center found that 61% of parents who let their kids 11 and younger watch YouTube have encountered inappropriate content.
    Takeaway: Keep an eye on what kids are watching and steer them toward the good stuff.
  • It has a big impact on kids. Feeling in the know and being a part of a community is a powerful combination for kids. It's these feelings that stir kids' support of YouTubers like PewDiePie (the Swedish gamer whose anti-Semitic rants netted him even more followers) more than famous Hollywood stars.
    Takeaway: When you talk to your kid about YouTube, you'll get further if you acknowledge its value in your kid's life.

Is it possible to find good stuff—and keep my kid from straying—on YouTube?

Big yes to the first question. Thumbs way down on the second. Although kids find out about new channels and YouTubers from friends, the algorithm that recommends videos related to the main video is a key way kids navigate the platform and discover new content. But these videos can be problematic. While related videos are connected to the original, they may be longer, more mature, or otherwise inappropriate. (You can thank YouTube's business model for that: The longer users watch, the more YouTube makes in ad sales.) To limit these risks, log in to your account and:

Disable autoplay. Either in the app or on your browser, go to the Up Next section and toggle off Autoplay. In this mode, nothing plays until you make a new selection.

Manage the History. Go to History in the Library section. You can turn off and clear the Watch history and Search history. This erases all the previous data Google was tracking to identify related videos and lets your kid start fresh. You can also delete individual videos from the History when you don't want Google to use them for related videos.

Use Restricted Mode. Click or tap on your profile pic to get to your account settings. In the browser version, Restricted Mode appears at the bottom of the drop-down menu. In the app, tap Settings to get to the screen where you can toggle it on. Restricted Mode cuts down on inappropriate videos but won't eliminate them completely.

Subscribe to specific channels. When you subscribe, you'll see these channels in the feed, and it also helps YouTube's algorithm decide what else to show.

Don't use YouTube. Believe it or not, YouTube isn't the only place for kids to watch cool videos. Try one of the YouTube alternatives from the list below.

Are there any parental controls on YouTube?

YouTube is technically for teens 13 and up, so the controls it offers are geared for users to set for themselves, not for parents to set for kids. On the YouTube app, you'll find settings that remind you to take a break, restrict your viewing time, and stop notifications. If you want parental controls that you can lock down, you have to use the YouTube Kids app, which lets you set time limits, turn off search, and curate your kid's feed.

In January 2020, YouTube made some changes to the platform in response to its violations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The changes require creators to designate whether their content is for kids, which should help the algorithm serve up more kid-friendly videos in the Up Next section. The changes also mean that you can no longer add kids' videos to a playlist or make comments on them, which distinguishes them from content meant for viewers over 13. A big white space where the comments used to be sure makes kids' videos more age-appropriate. However, we liked the playlist feature for its ability to help parents curate content just for young viewers. YouTube's actions are probably the tip of the iceberg. As the Federal Trade Commission continues to crack down on online companies playing fast and loose with consumer privacy laws (especially those that protect kids), and as more platforms come into compliance with stricter rules, such as those being enacted in California, you'll probably see more platforms disable or change features.

Remember, your device offers some ways to limit time on YouTube and other apps. On iPhones, go to Settings/Screen Time/App Limits/Add Limit; find the YouTube app and set a daily amount. On Android phones, use the Family Link app to set your kid's daily viewing allowance. Both operating systems also offer some content-restriction tools, which may not work perfectly but are a good idea.

What's the best way to keep tabs on my kids' YouTube-watching?

You can check their Search history and Watch history, but they'll probably open up more if you simply ask. YouTube has such a huge range of content, and there's lots of questionable stuff, but most kids are just looking to laugh or learn something. If you're lucky and your kid wants to tell you about their favorite videos, introduce you to YouTube personalities they like, or show you some cool channels they've found, just be prepared for anything. What kids like to watch on YouTube can be highly specific to their tastes—and not yours.

Then again, because YouTube is an important way kids learn about the world, many use it to search for and view videos of things they're curious about—and they may not be ready to share with their parents. This is developmentally appropriate, but you do want to make sure that your kid isn't watching inappropriate content or learning inaccurate information. It's tricky, but if kids don't want to share with you, get the names of the channels they're watching and look at them later. Watch a few videos by the same creator to get a feel for the content. Here are some ideas to get your kid to open up about what they're watching:

Ask who their favorite YouTubers are and why. You might be surprised that your kid likes certain folks, like Emma Chamberlain, as much for their humor as their intelligence.

If your kid's a gamer, ask who they like to watch play. Though watching people play video games on YouTube may seem weird, for some kids it's like any spectator sport. The gamers who play the titles your kid likes reveal new and unique aspects of games that your kid didn't know about—and that they can use when they play.

Counter negative messages. Whether it's in the comments, the subject matter of a video, or ideas expressed by YouTubers, kids will likely encounter swearing, sexist and racist comments, and more. Keep reinforcing messages such as the importance of treating all people with respect. If your kid seems influenced by extreme viewpoints—and it seems more than a phase—it's worth exploring with them in a curious and nonjudgmental way.

Steer them toward the good stuff. If your kid is getting into stuff you think is too mature, help them find more appropriate videos to watch. Read our YouTube channel reviews and check our "Best of" lists for ideas.

Share your faves. Show them videos you like—for example, music from your high school years, TV shows you watched growing up, and historic events that have significance. Watching your videos may loosen up your kid to share more of theirs.

One more thing!

Many kids go through a phase of imitating YouTube. Even preschool-age kids will pretend they're hosting their own videos. It's normal. Ask them to put on a show for you. Now, if your kid wants to create their own YouTube channel for real, you can try to help your kid do it as safely as possible. Also on that page: alternatives to YouTube (good luck with that, though…).

To learn more about what kids are seeing on YouTube and how the rise of online video has impacted kids' screen time, check out the 2020 Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Zero to Eight.

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at Walmart.com, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.