Illustration by Areeshah Qureshi
Illustration by Areeshah Qureshi

The most-watched YouTube video to date is ‘Baby Shark Dance’, said Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, in a Bloomberg interview last year. It currently has over 10 billion views on the streaming platform. That’s 2.1 billion more than the number of people on planet Earth.

In a 2020 Pew study, YouTube emerged as the most popular platform among children. But while there is no doubt that huge numbers of children around the world are watching YouTube videos, and many are watching harmless entertainment such as ‘Baby Shark Dance’, there is growing concern about some of the unsupervised content being accessed by children.

Over the last few years, YouTube has toughened its approach to policing content for children but, with 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, vetting malicious content is difficult.

YouTube Kids, the kid-targeted version of Youtube claims to take full responsibility of the content shared with viewers under 12 years of age. Anything obscene, inappropriate or even slightly violent is removed. But this does not take into account everything that is problematic being shared with children. There are loopholes and not all the videos passing through these filters are trouble-free.

Kids are spending more time on the streaming platform YouTube than ever. It’s not just content considered inappropriate for young children that is affecting them

Eshal, a preschooler spends three hours daily on YouTube, says Ayesha Malik, 28, her mom, and a teacher. Likewise, her classmate Fatima spends an average of four hours on YouTube daily. “She returns from school and, after lunch, watches YouTube, a habit that began in Covid-lockdowns that we cannot seem to break,” says her mother, Tehreem Khan 34, a government officer.

Nine-year-old Zayan got hooked on YouTube when he lived abroad with his family. “Without house help, I was busy doing chores and it would be easier to get things done if Zayan were occupied,” says Mehreen Sohail, 33, his mother and a housewife.

“Now, that we are in Pakistan and I have house help, I have more time for him. So we have reduced his screen time to 40 minutes per day.”

But it’s not just ‘objectionable’ content that’s always the problem. Children and parents may not realise that a lot of YouTube content they are viewing is, essentially, an advertisement, because sponsored videos have the feel and look of organic content. Children are highly vulnerable to advertising and remain an important target group for marketers, both because of their impact on their parents’ buying decisions, and also as future adult consumers. Their advertising literacy, knowledge and skills related to advertising, are not yet fully developed.

While animated, ‘edutaining’ video channels such as Cocomelon and ChuChu TV attempt to teach basic manners and inculcate a civic sense among kids, the stars of social media, also known as vloggers or real-life ‘kidfluencers’ on YouTube, especially Dubai-based ones having views in billions, have become important influences for consumer decisions of young audiences.

Since these kid-influencer videos are sponsored by different kid-focused businesses, such as toy stores or amusement centres, the little vlogs are all about fancy stuff that is beyond an average person’s reach, no matter where in the world they live. Ask a friend who took a kid to Dubai and ended up overspending on toys.

Promotions aside, the huge birthday parties and other extravagant celebrations that these young influencers hold, are no less than a royal affair. You may spend on kids as much as you like if you can afford to, but flaunting your purchasing power to those who cannot afford luxury is problematic, as children cannot tell glitter from gold.

For the uninitiated, ‘Roma and Diana’ and ‘Vlad and Niki’ are two of the most-followed YouTube kid channels and their videos are no different than billionaire-lifestyle vlogs.

Expensive toys, a super-luxurious Dubai lifestyle, first and business-class travel and fancy cars — these shows have everything that a kid from an average-income household cannot access. Imagine what happens when these kids begin to aspire to all of that.

Though this doesn’t violate any of the standards set by YouTube, it is still very likely to affect children psychologically. In this digital age, coupled with the pandemic and lockdowns, kids have gotten more into gadgets than ever. Since the screen is one of the main sources of learning for the little ones, they instantly pick up what they see their favourite kid celebs doing.

“A child clearly understands the difference between cartoon and real-life characters,” says Ozaira Zia, a grandparent and former associate professor of psychology at a university in Lahore. “When the latter are seen waving a magic wand, however, it becomes a problem. These videos expose children to some big names in toy manufacturing and retailing. First comes affordability, followed by availability.

“Even if you can afford the gorgeously gift-wrapped toy your kid has just watched being unpacked by the influencer, it could take a lot of time to reach the stores near you or get shipped to your place. Your little ones will soon get frustrated and move on to another toy that they see in the next video, while you have probably already spent money online. It’s a vicious cycle.”

The availability of fully participative parents, seen 24/7 with ‘kidfluencers’, and involved in everything they do, is another unrealistic expectation this content creates in young minds who are oblivious to the fact that they are paid to do this. “In reality, even a stay-at-home parent cannot spare this much time for kids’ activities,” Zia points out.

“Some content doesn’t make any sense,” adds Sohail. “For instance, a girl making chocolate handprints on the wall or putting insects in her parents’ food.”

The idea of right and wrong is best taught at this stage, but ‘kidfluencer’ content takes no responsibility in this regard. “From wasting food to spoiling their siblings’ school books, everything is casually considered as forgivable acts of annoyance to be laughed off,” says Tabinda Zia, 33, an executive accountant and mother of a toddler.

“There is no concept of ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you’, and hardly any educational content other than sponsored visits to expensive aquariums or museums,” she says. “Even if the videos are commercial, advertising should not compromise the basic set of values a kid must learn.”

Zia is concerned that, with these influences on children, disciplining kids has become difficult. “I am not against parents becoming friends with children, and playing games together, but the child stars in these videos often disrespect elders,” she says.

A toy manufactured anywhere in the world and advertised through YouTube channels is likely to reach a cross-section of homes with different incomes and budgets. For instance, the push-pop rubber bubbles toy recently became a crazy and costly fad around the world, thanks to the internet.

Do toddlers get stressed to a point where they need tangible stress relievers? As opposed to what these toy manufacturers claim, no parent would agree that pop-its and slime can actually calm their little ones down.

Taking into account children’s underdeveloped marketing literacy and vulnerability to embedded advertising practices, these channels must be pushed into assuming some responsibility and to combine education with entertainment.

With stricter controls in place, YouTube Kids could yet become a safe place for the young subscribers, even when parents are not around.

The writer teaches linguistics, writing and communication at Forman Christian College University, Lahore, and can be reached at maheenzia03@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 5th, 2022

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