YouTube is my parenting nightmare

On the one hand, studies suggest screen time is bad for brain development and algorithms surface terrible things. On the other hand, "Baby Shark."

A baby.
(Image credit: Illustrated | LSOphoto/iStock, javarman3/iStock, YouTube)

When you become a parent, YouTube becomes a stalking monster from a horror movie. It's always there, always lurking for you, and the really awful part is you have a death wish. You want the monster to catch you. You want to relax into its grasp and let the baby watch that damn "Baby shark."

And the baby wants "Baby shark" real bad. The baby (well, in my case, babies) loves "Baby shark" at a deep, primal level. The baby wants nothing more than for "Baby shark" to devour his tiny, half-made brain, to chomp it into a frenetic need for constant, loud, colorful distraction. The baby does not want to develop an attention span. The baby hates the idea of "self-soothing."

So it's 1 p.m. and there are at least six hours until bedtime, and you desperately want a minute to think your own thoughts, and you know the baby is jonesing for a hit of "Baby shark," and the YouTube monster is there, slithering a tentacle around your finger, drawing your phone out of your pocket, typing o-r-i-g-i-n-a-l-b-a-b-y-s-h-a — no! Not this time. You pick up the rattle and perform another rousing rendition of "Do re mi" and hold out for the next nap.

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I am less than six months into parenting and already hyper-aware of what a battle the next two decades will be where screen time is concerned. How much time American children spend looking at screens is legitimately shocking, even for a supposed "digital native" like me. The average 8- to 12-year-old in America spends nearly five hours each day in front of a screen, a new survey reported at the end of last month found, and teenagers top seven hours per day. Those numbers do not include the time they use screens for homework, listening to music, and reading books, which means those totals are probably several hours too low.

All my work requires me to be at a computer with internet, and I enjoy watching The Office for the eighth time as much as anyone, but the great bulk of my life had nothing like this level of screen access. I didn't have a reliable home internet connection until college (in high school I walked to the library or used a rotation of AOL free trial CDs). We never had cable or good network TV reception, though I was a loyal video store client. Yet even compared to my peers who did have cable, gaming consoles, and functional internet service, the ubiquity of screens today is difficult to fathom. You could take a Gameboy to the playground or, if you were really lucky, a portable DVD player on a long car ride. Now, phones and tablets bring unlimited entertainment everywhere all the time.

I didn't really understand the situation until I was at a potluck a few years ago with a mix of strangers and friends. There was a woman there whom I did not know, and she had her 1-year-old daughter with her. This little girl was bright, charming, and on a single-minded mission to get everyone's phones. She'd grab a phone out of your hand and start scrolling, opening apps, looking for a game to play. She knew precisely what she was doing, and she did not want to do anything else. Her facility with the phones was impressive — and horrifying.

We don't really know, yet, what this much screen exposure does to children's brains, but the evidence so far looks very bad. A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics, a journal of the American Medical Association, looked at MRIs of children between the ages of 3 and 5 and found that excessive screen time (defined here as more than one daily hour of screen use without parental involvement) during the first few years of life led to measurable differences of brain structure. The kids exposed to more screens had less developed white matter, which is involved in language skills, literacy, and reasoning.

"This is important because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years," explained the study's lead author, Dr. John Hutton. "That's when brains are very plastic and soaking up everything, forming these strong connections that last for life." Too much screen time for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers correlates with everything from poor thinking skills and short attention spans to bad sleep, slow language development, and poor behavior, eating habits, and family relationships.

Then there's the actual content. As author and artist James Bridle detailed in a widely shared Medium post in 2017, "Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatize, and abuse children, automatically and at scale." YouTube is unique as a video hosting website — there are others, yes, but they don't come as a free, subscriptionless preset on nearly every device — and much of the children's content it has is wrong.

And it is wrong in ways that are easy for busy parents to miss. Familiar cartoon characters from Disney, Marvel, and the like are pressed into service in dark and unsettling clips that use YouTube's recommendation algorithm to get in front of tiny eyeballs. For example, Bridle says, there are many knock-off Peppa Pig videos that "tend towards extreme violence and fear, with Peppa eating her father or drinking bleach." Peppa is a character beloved of toddlers. (I strongly recommend reading the whole essay, which later formed the basis for Bridle's book, New Dark Age.)

This is all served up via the automatic delivery mechanism that has become standard on most streaming sites: One video ends, and there's an immediate countdown until the next begins. Step out of the room while "Baby shark" plays and the next thing you know, your toddler is watching Elsa from Frozen murder Spiderman while a voice that sounds like Microsoft Sam sings a creepy lullaby. YouTube has cracked down on some of its content and tweaked its algorithm since Bridle's article appeared, but it's hardly a safe place for children to consume content, even (especially!) content marketed to children.

Because of the nature of our jobs, if nothing else, both my husband and I are Very Online, which perhaps makes us more aware of this stuff than most. Thus, in addition to keeping our kids off the internet, we're doing our best to keep the internet from our kids, at least until their brains are a bit more solidified and they've cultivated some degree of good judgment.

It is not easy. My language of horror and addiction at the opening of this piece is no exaggeration.

At nearly half a year, we've shown our twins basically four videos: black dots moving on a white background, "Baby shark" (thanks a lot, in-laws), part of 1941's Sergeant York, and whatever we could summon most quickly in the seatback screen of a plane while they screamed ahead of takeoff. Even with such limited exposure, they are hooked. As soon as they got neck control they started craning their heads to look at any screen on offer — my laptop, my phone, my husband's Switch, anything. They want the screen so much, and because I know how effective it is at calming them when it seems like nothing else will, I often want to give it to them though I know I shouldn't.

I am fleeing the YouTube monster, but it is always on my trail.

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