As Online Videos Dominate Young Kids’ Screen Time, YouTube Exposes Them to Age-Inappropriate Content
Even before the coronavirus pandemic sent parents, educators, and kids entirely online for work, school, and socializing, the amount of time young kids spent watching online videos had doubled since 2017 to an average of 39 minutes per day in early 2020. For kids who are watching videos on YouTube, one in five videos viewed by children age 8 and under contained ads that often included pervasive and inappropriate advertising, violence, and other questionable content. These are among the key findings in two new research reports published today by Common Sense:
- The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight, 2020 is the latest report in a series of nationally representative, probability-based surveys documenting media-use patterns among children from birth to age 8 in the U.S. The report also explores differences in media use by age, gender, parent education, household income, and race/ethnicity.
- Young Kids and YouTube: How Ads, Toys, and Games Dominate Their Viewing, conducted in partnership with the University of Michigan, analyzed the YouTube viewing of children age 0–8, including the quality of content and pervasive advertising that children view on the main platform (which still contains vast amounts of content targeted to children despite the launch of YouTube Kids in 2015). Nearly 200 parents who participated in Common Sense’s 2020 census provided a list of the last 10 videos their children watched on the main YouTube site.
“This explosion of online video viewing matters when we consider the amount of content children are exposed to on platforms like YouTube,” said Michael Robb, Senior Director of Research at Common Sense. “In our content study, we saw firsthand what kids are seeing in many online videos: an abundance of advertising and other content that we found disturbing, but not much that qualified as truly educational.”
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When the key findings from both reports are taken into account, the narrative shows that watching online videos on sites like YouTube now constitutes the largest proportion of children’s total TV and video viewing, and whether they are following recommended videos or being served banner ads, young children are avid users of this platform that was originally designed for use by teens and adults.
“Although great content for kids exists on YouTube, it’s not rising to the top. In our study, most children were watching the videos with branded products or outrageous content that creators have posted to get more views, which leads to more ad revenue and getting featured in recommendation feeds,” says YouTube report co-author Jenny Radesky, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, and researcher at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
“There’s so much potential for YouTube to offer positive role models, diverse perspectives, or cool creative ideas to the young minds that love this platform, but unfortunately those videos were uncommon in our participants’ viewing histories.”
According to the census report, kids watch an average of 39 minutes a day of online videos, more than double the amount of time devoted to online videos in 2017, when the survey was last conducted. More than a third (34%) of children 8 and under watch online videos every day, up from 24% three years ago. The study found that access to mobile devices is driving much of the growth in online video viewing, as nearly half (46%) of 2- to 4-year-olds and more than two-thirds (67%) of 5- to 8-year-olds have their own mobile device (tablet or smartphone).
When looking at the sample of online videos viewed on YouTube, 95% of early childhood videos included some form of advertising and one in five videos viewed by children 8 and under contained ads that were not age-appropriate. Inappropriate ads ranged from violent video games, lingerie, alcohol (e.g., whiskey), and politics. Even in age-appropriate videos, inappropriate ads appeared 9% to 22% of the time.
The study also found that young children are primarily watching entertainment, not educational content. Almost a quarter of videos (24%) were classified as educational, though most only touched on basic educational concepts, or filled the videos with toys or vicarious experiences. Only about 4% of videos had a high educational value, meaning they taught topics at a developmentally appropriate level and went beyond simple or surface concepts. Roughly three-quarters (76%) of videos children watched have no or weak educational value.
Exposure to any of the negative content types (e.g., physical and interpersonal violence, scariness, stereotypes, sexual content) in the YouTube study did not differ by child age, sex, parent education, income, race/ethnicity, or other characteristics. However, that violent content appeared frequently enough in the sample of videos viewed by 0- to 8-year-olds raises concern that it is accessed too easily on the main YouTube site.
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Additional key findings from The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight, 2020 include:
- Since 2017, the gap in screen use by income, race, and ethnicity has grown substantially and is largely affected by the growth in use of mobile media devices among lower-income and Black and Hispanic/Latinx families. Children in lower-income households spend an average of nearly two hours a day more with screen media than those in higher-income homes (3:48 versus 1:52). In 2011, the difference in screen time between children in lower- and higher-income homes was an average of 40 minutes a day; in 2017 it jumped to 1:39 a day; and in 2020 there is a 1:56 difference in daily screen use between the two groups. Similarly, Hispanic/Latinx (3:03) and Black (4:09) children spend more time with screen media per day than White (1:52) children do, and the difference between groups has been growing. There are similar differences with screen use by parent education.
- Efforts to close the digital divide in home computer and high-speed internet access have stalled. Access to high-speed internet in the home has been stuck at the same level since 2017, with more than a quarter (26%) of lower-income families lacking it. And more than a third (37%) of lower-income children do not have a computer in the home. At a time when remote learning has become essential, this failure to stem the divide could be devastating.
- Black parents are much more likely than White parents to perceive educational benefits for their children from screen media. Parents in lower-income homes are also more likely to see positive effects of screen media than parents in higher-income homes. Thirty-nine percent of Black vs. 19% of White parents say the media their child uses helps their learning “a lot,” as do 38% of lower-income vs. 17% of higher-income parents. Indeed, half of Black parents say that learning is a “very important” reason their child uses screen media, compared to 31% of White parents.
- The amount of time lower-income children spend reading has increased. Both the frequency and amount of time spent reading among children from lower-income households have increased. The proportion of lower-income children who are daily readers—that is, they read or are read to every day—has increased by 10 percentage points over the past three years, from 40% to 50%.
Additional key findings from Young Kids and YouTube: How Ads, Toys, and Games Dominate Viewing include:
- Almost half of videos (45%) viewed by children younger than 8 featured or promoted products for children to buy. Of these videos, 22% were considered high in consumerism because they centered on toys, involved YouTubers promoting their own merchandise, or prominently featured branded products.
- Out of all the different negative content types, children younger than 8 are most likely to see physical violence, with 3 in 10 videos (30%) containing at least mild physical violence. Interpersonal violence, including bullying, meanness, pranking, or other manipulative behavior, was seen in 20% of videos. Mild or moderate sexual content was present in about 65% of videos.
- Diverse representations and/or positive role modeling were seen in only 24% of videos. Although YouTube could potentially be a window into a diverse set of families and perspectives, 3 in 4 videos are missing diverse representations and positive role models.
- Almost all parents report monitoring their young children’s YouTube use at least somewhat. The majority of parent respondents said they monitor their child’s YouTube main usage “very much” (63%), 34% “somewhat,” and 3% “not at all.” Coviewing was least likely during videos in the early elementary and tween/teen categories, which contain the highest amounts of violence and consumerism.
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