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A Parent's Ultimate Guide to YouTube
Smosh, Good Mythical Morning, Markiplier -- the names may not mean much to you, but chances are your kids are on a first-name basis. Their funny hosts, off-the-cuff commentary, silly antics, and bewildering (to adults) subject matter put them among the most popular YouTube channels for young teens, garnering millions (and, in the case of game commentary PewDiePie, billions) of views. In fact, according to a survey of U.S. teens by Variety, the top five most influential celebrities are YouTube stars. But information about these personalities' shows -- the content, quality, and age-appropriateness, for example -- isn't easy for parents to find.
It would be great to be able to just download YouTube Kids and have your kids watch it instead of regular YouTube. However, the YouTube Kids has problems of its own. And the bottom line is: kids want to watch the original. But it's tough to manage. Anyone can create YouTube channels, they crop up seemingly out of nowhere, they don't follow program schedules, and they're cast out among thousands of other videos. There are also serious concerns that YouTube collects data from young users, in violation of the Childrens Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
So if your kids really love it, you'll have to strategize. Reading Common Sense Media reviews of YouTube channels is a good way to get a sense of their age-appropriateness and quality. And digging into the videos themselves -- watching with your kids or on your own -- is wise. You never know what's going to come up on a particular channel, since all the content is user-generated.
Try these ideas to help your kids regulate their habits and increase the chances that their experience will be positive. Also, read our detailed review of YouTube.
Watch with your kid. Simply ask your kids what they're watching and join them. In general, kids are tuning into certain channels or following specific YouTube personalities because they're entertained by them (not because they are actively searching for "bad" stuff). Many kids naturally want to share the videos they like. But be prepared to watch some weird stuff such as unboxing videos.
Watch by yourself. If kids don't want to share, get the name of the channel they're watching and watch it later. Watch a few videos by the same creator to get a feel for the content.
Be sleuthy. If you're concerned about the content your kid is watching on YouTube -- and you've tried talking to her -- there are ways of tracking her viewing habits. If she has a YouTube account (which only requires a Gmail address), her YouTube page will display her recently watched videos, recommended videos based on her watch history, and suggestions for channels similar to the ones she's watched. Even if your kid deletes her "watch history," the recommendations all will be related to stuff she's watched.
Subscribe. Encourage your kids to subscribe to their favorite channels rather than hunting around on YouTube for the latest ones from a specific creator. Subscribers are notified when a new video is uploaded, plus all their channels are displayed in the Subscriptions section, making it easier, and faster, to go directly to the stuff they like. Consider choosing subscriptions together, and make an event out of watching the newest uploads with your kids.
Investigate the creator. The name of each video's creator appears beneath the video window and usually has a bit of information about the person behind the video and/or the channel itself. Google the creator's name to find out whether he or she has a Wikipedia page or another Web presence (most YouTubers use other social media including Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram to promote their brand). You might find out that your kid's favorite YouTube personality has an impressive reach. Check out our recommendations of positive role models on YouTube.
Look at the suggestions. The suggested videos listed on the right-hand side of the page are related in some way to the main video. Evaluate them to see if they seem age-appropriate, and that will provide an indication of the appropriateness of the main video. Learn how to make these suggested videos a little safer.
Consider the ads. There are tons of ads on YouTube. Even if your kids stick to kid videos, they'll see commercials for stuff that may not be appropriate. You can try to reduce or manage exposure to advertising, but the best option is to talk to your kids about viewing all marketing critically so they don't get sucked in.
Read the comments. YouTube comments are notorious for being negative, but it's worth reading them to get a sense of the channels' demographic and the tone of the discussion. Channel creators can moderate their comments to reduce the amount of negativity. Well-groomed comments are a good sign.
Watch the trailer. Many creators make highlight reels and trailers -- basically video ads for the channels themselves (which usually appear first on the channel page). Definitely watch them if they're available to get an overview of the host and the content.
Finding Good Stuff
Turn on Restricted Mode. Be aware that YouTube is technically only for teens 13 and up, and what the site considers age-appropriate may not match your values. But YouTube offers a filter called Restricted Mode that limits the iffy stuff. Go to your account settings page and toggle on Restricted Mode at the bottom of the page. (It will remain on for logged-in users on the same browser.)
Dig a little. Most kids find out about new videos either from their friends or by clicking on the related videos (which may or may not be appropriate). But YouTube itself offers several ways to home in on quality content. Go to YouTube Spotlight for curated content in a variety of categories. Read about YouTube news on the company blog, and find out what's trending all over the country. Also, read our reviews.
Watch later. YouTube gives you the ability to save videos to watch at a later time, which improves the odds that your kids will be exposed to stuff you've preapproved. You can create playlists, too, virtually designing a customized programming schedule of content for each of your kids or for different subjects they're interested in.