To Tube or not to (You)Tube?

As parents, we all face the conundrum: what do we do about screen time? One recommendation is to avoid it. Because I don’t believe in extremes, I try to avoid banning things outright, and I live by the motto “everything in moderation,” the question of how to use it becomes another topic altogether.

I grew up in a technological household. We had every new gadget that emerged on the market. I was the first kid on my block to have the internet. My partner, on the other hand, has immigrant parents who make their own cheese and wine and are generally unplugged from the internet.

I was the first kid on my block to have the internet.

On the issue of whether or not our son should be allowed to spend time on an iPad, we were inherently divided. He was strictly against it, and I was willing to allow him to explore. I managed to convince him that dabbling with it could be beneficial for our son.

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It started innocently enough. I downloaded some educational apps and guided him through how to use a tablet. He was swiping away in no time and learning a lot with apps like ABC Mouse and Endless Alphabet. One day I saw YouTube Kids in the app store. Score!, I thought. I didn’t know there was an app that could display kid-friendly YouTube content to my child. So, I allowed him to settle on the couch for a while and explore.

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Fifteen minutes later, I walked over, and he was watching a kid named Ryan, open a giant egg with toys inside. What in the world is this?, I thought. The intensity on my son’s face was unparalleled. Whatever this was, he was hooked.

Whatever this was, he was hooked.

Next, I did my homework. Apparently Ryan had the most popular channel on YouTube and made millions of dollars for his family making toy videos they directed. The buck didn’t stop with him, however. The “unboxing” phenomenon was widespread. There were hundreds of channels and thousands of videos of children and ADULTS (!!) opening up toys and playing with them. I wasn’t sure what to think, but my partner was pretty clear on it: our son should not be watching other kids play with their toys. It was a time suck and a shallow activity.

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My research also uncovered that it could potentially inhibit creativity by showing our children how to play with their toys instead of allowing them to create their own scenarios. I saw it with my own son, as he started copying these videos. He would mash-up different characters, something he discovered on YouTube. I was on the fence. Maybe this was a good thing?

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When he got a gift from a relative and exclaimed, “Let’s open this bad boy up!” (something he clearly heard on YouTube), I chuckled. But when I got home that night, I deleted YouTube Kids from my son’s iPad. That phrase sounded odd coming from my two-year old’s mouth. I didn’t feel confident about where the YouTube wormhole was leading him.

Let’s open this bad boy up!

The next time my son was on his iPad, he looked for the app and noticed it was gone. “Mommy erased it,” he said and resumed using his educational apps. I patted myself on the back.

But he never forgot. “Can I watch toy videos?,” he would ask periodically. “Can I see Ryan?” I wouldn’t budge. I happened to agree with my partner. I was frightened by the intensity with which he watched these videos. It reminded me of addiction. His intense stare, the ferocity with which he insisted that we let him watch, the personal bubble surrounding him that drowned us out when we were calling his name, and the tantrums he would throw when we turned it off: All of it scared me.

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Believe me, I get it. Sometimes we need to get stuff done; we need moments to ourselves. And maybe your child doesn’t turn into the Tasmanian devil after repeated exposure to toy videos. In some ways, YouTube Kids is better than an educational app for those moments when we need uninterrupted free time, because a toddler will often get frustrated or ask for assistance when something in the app comes up that they can not navigate on their own.

Sometimes we need to get stuff done; we need moments to ourselves.

Nevertheless, I refused to cave in. Instead I trained my son to utilize the apps better; encouraged him to spend time on Leap Start; put on a movie; or gave him play-dough, sticker books, Legos or craft materials to play with independently. I would even tell him to read a book, and he would leaf through the pages retelling the story from memory, because he didn’t know how to read yet. He did well, and to this day, he is very good at playing independently for long stretches of time.

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At that point, I felt confident I could revisit the YouTube toy video phenomenon. I had taught my son how to entertain himself in other ways and gave him tools to self-regulate. I found that Ryan’s parents had evolved; there were a lot of educational videos on their channel, most likely due to his mother’s career as a Chemistry teacher.

I began to realize some benefits about Ryan’s influence. He was making it cool to be exploratory and knowledgeable about science. That I could get behind. His parents were setting a positive example with their newfound fame (I can’t make that claim about other channels).

He was making it cool to be exploratory and knowledgeable about science.

As it currently stands, I let him watch toy videos once in a while. When he does, it is for a brief period, and I check in periodically. I have also made it clear how I feel about the videos. I expressed concern that he forgets everything around him. “I won’t turn into a zombie,” he promises. (In a lazy parenting moment, I had used that language).

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His interactions with the app have improved. He doesn’t argue when I turn it off. He knows he has a limited amount of time, and he recognizes it as a rare event. I can confidently allow him to use his iPad without worrying that he will open the YouTube app, since he knows it can only be used on occasion.

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I realize the irony: If I had never downloaded the app in the first place, he never would have been exposed to it. Nevertheless, I don’t want to ban it outright, since I know he will be faced with online culture when he is with peers. I would rather teach him healthy habits associated with social networks early on.

The solution that worked for my family was somewhere in the middle of the two extremes exhibited by our disparate upbringings. I still cringe when he asks me if he can meet Ryan, but I also notice he wants to do science experiments more frequently. Like most things, there are benefits and potential consequences. It is how I use positive parenting that really sets the tone for how my children interact with anything. ★

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Jamie Parganos started the Wonder Mommy blog to create a community for moms to share their stories and support one another. She is also CEO and Founder of Mommy Hacks, a subscription box service designed to help you win at parenting. Before founding her companies, she worked as a program director in the New York City public school system. A mom who wears many hats, Jamie is also a professional singer. She lives in NYC with her partner and two children, ages 3 and 10 months.

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