Making YouTube Safe for Your Child

It's been a wonderful week or so surrounding Safer Internet Day (Tues Feb 9th). I've had great fun presenting talks related to this subject from digital parenting to apps and coding and particularly enjoyed listening to parents and the specifics of their digital struggles at home.

It's been a wonderful week or so surrounding Safer Internet Day (Tues Feb 9th). I've had great fun presenting talks related to this subject from digital parenting to apps and coding and particularly enjoyed listening to parents and the specifics of their digital struggles at home. It prompted me to focus on how much of an issue YouTube has become for parents, so I thought I'd share my thoughts and suggestions here in the hope that they are useful to some of you.

It will come as no surprise to most parents that recent research by Childwise stated that YouTube had taken "centre stage" in children's lives. They found that half are accessing it every day and almost all using it occasionally. That's certainly something I hear echoed from parents all the time. Often with comments like:

"All he seems to want to do is either play Minecraft or watch YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft!",

"I'm really worried, she's on it all the time and I really don't know whether the videos she's seeing are suitable".

On the other hand, I also regularly hear comments like:

"I'm staggered by how much she's learnt from YouTube",

"She's only 13 and maybe she's destined to be a doctor - she's found out all this medical stuff from watching YouTube it's great to see her having such an easy way to explore something she's interested in",

"Watching YouTube has inspired my son to create YouTube videos. My husband's been making them with him which has been such fun - they're getting more creative and it's a great excuse to bring up discussions around online safety".

So it's definitely got it's plusses and minuses!

I think there is often an instinct in parents to wish YouTube had never come along and fight against our children using it but quite frankly it's here to stay so I'd advise the smarter approach is to learn how to live with it and get the most benefit from it.

The biggest parental concern surrounding YouTube is how to make sure the content is appropriate. We worry they might innocently stumble across something they find really disturbing, or might seek out content we'd never otherwise have permitted whether full of bad language, violence or porn.

Let's be honest, most of our (innocent) flowers were born full of curiosity with a tendency to find toilet humour and anything 'rude' hilarious. If YouTube had been around in our day we can easily see how we might have typed some 'choice' word into a search box to see what would happen. After all didn't we think typing 55378008 into a calculator was hilarious (go on, if you've forgotten, give it a try and don't forget to turn the calculator upside down)! The horror of what they might accidentally then see in YouTube however is horrifying and keeps us parents awake at night. Not to mention what happens if they start actively looking for inappropriate content (see recent NSPCC study into the impact of online porn).

So what can you do? If your children are still young my first recommendation would be to get them into YouTube Kids - a separate app specifically designed for children. This app has all sorts of parental controls - you can remove the search box altogether, set time limits, choose the age range of your child so appropriate content is recommended etc. There is a lot less chance of a child getting into trouble here but for older children I recognise they may not be willing to go 'back' to this version.

In those cases, I suggest:

  • Create an account for your child to use (but don't give them the password) - this allows you to view the history making it easier to keep track of what your child is doing
  • Turn 'Restricted Mode' On: this option, along with the option to Lock Restricted Mode on this Browser (so a child can't turn it off without the Google account password) are at the bottom of ever YouTube page
  • Turn off Auto-play: this is an option at the top of the side-bar on the right of the YouTube screen and prevents the next YouTube video loading and playing automatically. This helps to stop children addictively viewing one video after another without having to actively choose what to watch and can avoid leading to something 'similar' that is inappropriate.
  • Get involved: ask your child about what they watch on YouTube, try to find some time to watch with them and understand what they enjoy and why. Suggest things they might like - potentially giving you the opportunity to steer them towards educational content they'd really enjoy, and if they are keen to create content for YouTube consider embracing this as something creative and active you can do together. Use this shared time as an excuse to talk about your concerns naturally and raise their awareness of staying safe online generally (being careful what they search for and share, protecting their identity, remaining wary of 'strangers' etc).
  • Research what they are watching: if you're really worried and they won't talk to you about what they are a viewing looking at their history and recommendations will give you a good idea. For any particular video you can find out quite a bit about the creator as well as looking at the suggestions and comments associated with each video to get an idea of whether you feel it is appropriate. Try not to overreact if it's poor quality rather than actively inappropriate - 'pick your battles' is always a good parenting tip to my mind! Also keep in mind that adverts on YouTube videos are typically a good sign - only YouTube partners (who go through a vetting process) can have adverts on their videos so the content tends to be higher quality.
  • Consider other devices and locations: don't forget to do all the above on every device in your house that has access to YouTube (computers, TVs, phones, tablets, games consoles) as well as those used out of the house and please try to keep screens out of bedrooms - in my experience its something you'll wish you hadn't caved on, however much pressure you're under.

Also, one of my colleagues recently summarised Fundamentally Children's advice to parents regarding YouTube here, which you may also find interesting.