Does your preschooler watch videos online?
Preschoolers have unique brains that need many different experiences to grow and learn. They learn best when they have hands-on, real life opportunities like playing with blocks, helping to cook, folding laundry, being read to, and jumping in puddles. Before pressing the “play” button on a device you should first consider what their brains and bodies really need. Will this screen time support or challenge their sleep, exercise, learning, and independence?
If you do decide to let your child watch videos online, you’ll want it to be a safe, age-appropriate, and engaging experience that doesn’t take advantage of how preschoolers’ brains work. However, most online video platforms consistently lack high quality, safe content for preschoolers. The big platform is, of course, YouTube. But the Google-owned website was never designed for children to use. In 2019, CCFC’s advocacy led to a record-breaking $170 million fine against Google for illegal data collection on YouTube. More importantly, Google was forced to limit data collection and stop all behavioral advertising on child-directed channels and videos. Now, ads that have been specially tailored to your child’s interests, viewing habits, location or other information like your family’s financial status are no longer permitted on videos that have been designated for children. Yet even after making these major changes, YouTube and other video platforms are still not preschooler-friendly at the get-go. This guide will take you through things to look out for on online video platforms and how to choose specific videos for your preschooler.
Download our checklist to help you select online videos for your preschooler.
YouTube is the most popular video platform for children, but it was not built to keep children appropriately engaged and safe. Here are some possible YouTube alternatives.
- YouTube Kids
- PBS Kids
Read reviews of some of these apps here.
Navigating Online Video Platforms
There are many dangers on the internet for young children including exposure to predatory behavior, illegal data collection, and inappropriate content. Some platforms do have settings or features to make your kid’s experience more child-friendly, but they aren’t always straightforward. On YouTube, these features must be turned on manually and on other platforms it can take a bit of guesswork to find safer settings. Here’s what to look out for to make sure you’re using any online video platform to best serve your child.
Look for “child-directed” videos
Videos designated as “child-directed” have a few important features to keep your children safe. In addition to narrowing down to content more likely to be age appropriate, “child-directed” videos have better privacy protections: no personally identifiable data collection, no personalized ads, and no comments that could allow strangers to connect with kids.
Disappointingly, YouTube does not indicate which videos have been declared by their creators to be child-directed. The comment section will provide clues – if there are comments, the creator has declared it for all ages and the protective settings are not enabled. Still, some videos have comments disabled and are not child-directed, so the absence of comments doesn’t mean all comment-free videos are safe. As best practice, avoid videos with the comments turned on, but don’t assume your child’s privacy will be protected if the comments are off.
If your child’s privacy and avoiding creepy, personalized advertising is important to you, an easier solution is to use YouTube Kids. On this platform, all content is considered child-directed, so those privacy protections and safety protections apply to every video. However, even when using YouTube Kids, you’ll want to use the same care and criteria for choosing online videos described below because not all content on YouTube Kids is actually age-appropriate and lots of it is not educational.
Limit the ads… if you can
Ideally, video platforms for children would be entirely commercial-free, or, at the very least, would minimize advertising that may frustrate, disrupt, or confuse your child’s experience. When they watch TV, preschoolers can only sometimes identify clear advertisements when they’re aired in between shows. Children have an even “lower awareness of advertising on websites compared with television.”1
On platforms like YouTube, advertisements appear as programs themselves, sneaky pop-ups, sidebars, and windows you must click away from in order to access videos. Preschoolers don’t (and can’t) know they’re being advertised to, making them more vulnerable to this type of manipulation.
What’s more, a November 2020 study by Dr. Jenny Radesky found that 22% of videos viewed by children on YouTube contained ads promoting products that are not appropriate for young children such as violent video games, dating services, and alcohol.2
These advertisements can easily lead children toward scarier or more harmful content and away from whatever they were watching originally. Many of the ads feature clickbait that seem like a game, so it’s very easy for them to get swept away.
Watching videos on ad-free platforms like PBS Kids and/or using an adblocker extension on your web browser or device are your best bets for avoiding ads (especially the inappropriate ones).
Beware the influencers
It’s illegal for kid’s TV shows to have product placement or sneaky marketing. Advertising like that takes advantage of kids’ ready trust, and research shows that children have even more trouble understanding they are watching ads when they are disguised as content.
However, there are no such laws protecting kids from sneaky advertising on the internet. And marketers have swooped in to that gap in protective policy. Dr. Radesky’s team found that “almost half of videos viewed by children 8 and under featured or promoted products for children to buy.”3
Some of the most popular videos for young children, called unboxing videos, feature YouTube stars enthusiastically opening and reviewing toys they have been paid to promote. These videos are designed to take advantage of trust between kids and recognizable social media personalities, who work to first “build a relationship” with their audience, then use that relationship to influence audience preferences.4,5
Preschoolers are likely to consider paid influencers – especially kids – as friends and are vulnerable to this kind of messaging. One study even found that children were more likely to nag their parents for toys after watching unboxing videos – and throw a tantrum if their parents said no – than if they watched traditional toy commercials on television.6
And if your child watches one influencer, it’s likely that the recommendations for future ones will be relentless. It’s best to avoid unboxing videos and other influencer content altogether. YouTube Kids is supposed to prohibit influencer content, but many influencer videos slip through the cracks, so be on the lookout.
Turn off autoplay
Online video platforms can feel like one infinite loop rather than a place to watch just one or two videos. Preschoolers, on the other hand, need concrete beginnings and endings. Researchers found that video platforms that use autoplay, for example “significantly reduced children’s autonomy and likelihood of self-regulation, extended video-viewing time, and led to increases in parent intervention.”7
This means that if a video ends and your child is not lured onto the next video, they have a much greater chance of transitioning away from the screen without a tantrum.
Unfortunately, some platforms don’t offer the option. PBS Kids, for example, automatically plays the next video – no matter what. YouTube Kids has an internal timer (in the app version only) that locks the app after a certain amount of time, playing more videos until the timer expires. This makes it important to look over and approve the content cued up after a video. Talk beforehand with your child about a plan to transition off the screen and to a concrete activity like going outside, reading a book, or having a snack.
“Recommendations” are the stream of related videos that pop up next to or after your child watches a video. This is a deliberate design choice to keep people of all ages on the platform, but it’s another way that children are exposed to inappropriate content. Recommendations that pop up next to a child-directed YouTube video may not be child-directed, making it easy for kids to inadvertently navigate to other content. In fact, Dr. Radesky found that one in four videos watched by children under 8 were actually intended for older audiences but easily accessible to them. Of the videos that young children watched in the study, 30% contained at least mild physical violence, 20% interpersonal violence (bullying, pranking, meanness), and 6% of videos contained mild or moderate sexual content.8
Recommendations on YouTube put this inappropriate content within reach of kids even if they aren’t searching for it.
YouTube uses the entire trove of data Google has collected about you – the videos you watch, the websites you visit, your search history, the locations you visit in real life and more – in order to serve recommendations of videos that are most likely to keep you watching. That means not only can your children be exposed to inappropriate content via recommendations, but that the recommendations are likely to make it even more difficult for your child to disengage when it’s time.
The best way to ensure that your child isn’t exposed to inappropriate content while viewing online videos is to choose a platform where all the content has undergone human review. That means not using YouTube, which relies heavily on imperfect algorithms to weed out inappropriate content.
YouTube offers no way to turn off recommendations using the platform’s settings. Instead, this can only be done using a browser extension such as AdBlock (check out this helpful video).
On YouTube Kids, when you set up your child’s profile, select “Approve Content Yourself” instead of “Preschool.” That way, you can choose specific shows or collections of videos for your child to watch. Platforms like Cakey allow for you to do this as well. This can be a little tedious, but it helps limit the shows that are recommended to your child to ones you have approved.
“Recommendations are designed to optimize watch time, there is no reason that it shows content that is actually good for kids. It might sometimes, but if it does it is coincidence. Working at YouTube on recommendations, I felt I was the bad guy in Pinocchio: showing kids a colorful and fun world, but actually turning them into donkeys to maximize revenue.” Former YouTube engineer Guillaume Chaslot
Choosing Preschool-Friendly Videos
Preschoolers get mesmerized easily, but it doesn’t mean that their brain is actually engaged. Child development expert Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige notes that young children are particularly vulnerable to getting sucked in by the screen:
“Young children are swayed more by what they see than are older children and adults who have a more developed capacity to think critically and to step away from what they are seeing if they choose to. Young kids live in the moment; they get engrossed with the images in front of them, and they are pulled in completely.”9
Here are some tips for selecting videos that are genuinely engaging and age appropriate for young children:
Be skeptical of educational claims
There is no evidence that videos are educational for babies. For preschoolers, high quality videos in small amounts can have some benefit.10 Research tells us that there are specific features that make a video experience educational and appropriate. Unfortunately, many videos that have not been designed with children’s development in mind still make bold learning claims.
For example, some videos are labelled as “learning videos” or “educational” and make specific claims, like “your child will learn the ABC’s, phonics, colors, shapes, feelings, counting…” etc. However, the words “learning” and “educational” are not regulated, so anyone can slap those words on any video without any evidence.
In videos like these, it is possible that your preschooler could be introduced to new ideas, to review their understanding of concepts, or learn new vocabulary, but they won’t truly understand colors, shapes, and feelings until they have used them in real life.
Another video series, “Lotty Learns” claims that “your little preschoolers will learn to read with Lotty and friends! This kids’ learning compilation is perfect for learning ABC’s, Phonics, sight words and letter blending. These reading lessons will have your child reading in no time!”11 There is no research that supports that children can learn to read using videos. For most kids, learning to read happens between ages 6 and 8, and child development experts know that pushing academics for reading, math, science, social studies earlier won’t make preschoolers be able to read, write, or add earlier anyway.12
Look for good stories
Instead, researchers found that children learn most from the way people speak, the grammar they use, and the stories they tell.13 Clear sequences that have a defined beginning, middle, and end are great for preschoolers! For educational content, avoid shows that don’t have a story, jump all over the place, or try to cram facts, academics, or entertainment into a short video.
Documentaries or short “how it works” videos can also be great for preschoolers as a resource. The best documentaries for preschoolers are slow and introduce one concept at a time. A video should only be one of many tools (like books, play, museums) that they use to learn about the world around them.
Your child may also watch project-based videos, like science experiments and craft projects. These videos can provide some inspiration, but they really need an adult’s presence to bring them to life. Be sure to avoid prank videos or challenges that can lead children toward danger or unkind behavior.
Keep it slow
Select videos with a slow pace for your preschooler. Young children need experiences that keep up with them, but videos can sometimes move too rapidly, show too many flashy features, and display intense action sequences which are not good for preschoolers. In fact, faster videos (with many cuts, sound effects) had immediate negative effects on 4-year-olds’ ability to control their impulses, focus, and use their long-term memory to plan and make decisions.14 Instead, researchers suggest that moving at a slower pace has significant positive impacts on children’s behavior, the ability to focus attention.15 “Sesame Street,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” and “Kipper the Dog” are examples of slow-paced programs that are appropriate for preschoolers.
Look for role models
Children can model their behavior after actors and animated characters. Especially during preschool ages, children are testing their independence and experimenting with their own ideas of right and wrong. Similar to experimenting with bathroom words or swearing, preschoolers might mirror and test out behavior they see on the screen. Be sure they are watching kind, thoughtful characters so as to not reinforce harmful behavior as socially acceptable.
Make sure your child can see themselves reflected and celebrate differences
Consider the characters and people featured in the media your child experiences. Media can serve as both a window into other experiences and a mirror to reflect children’s own experiences back to them.16 Preschoolers are developing their foundational biases at their age and the messages from media can easily stick.17 However, much of children’s media can be overwhelmingly white and resourced, plus can perpetuate rigid gender stereotypes, prejudice around ability, and a lack of opportunity for children from marginalized communities to see themselves present in the media.
In a recent study, researchers found that diverse representations and/or positive role modeling were seen in only 24% of videos that preschoolers watched on YouTube.18 Find media where children not only see themselves, but see accurate and culturally responsive representations of those who are different from your child.
Find examples of problem solving
Children can get ideas for problem solving from what they watch on the screen. The programs do not need to contain step by step instructions for problem solving, but storylines that include challenges relevant to preschoolers (how to negotiate taking turns, finding something that’s lost, being helpful around the house) can give children opportunities to think creatively about a problem and offer solution examples.
Make sure that the videos support your child’s creative play
Kids gravitate to favorite characters – on TV or in online videos. These characters often are featured on lots of licensed merchandise, including food and beverages. If you are going to allow your children to watch programs with commercialized characters, set clear expectations with your children that you will not purchase products with the characters on them – both after they watch and before any trips to stores that are likely to sell licensed products. That will not only help mitigate the commercial pressure, but will also help improve their creativity. When kids play with toys associated with programs, play and imagination are stunted; children will generally copy plotlines that have already happened, as opposed to coming up new ideas.
Original thinking and imagination are critical for later in life learning.19 While it’s natural for children to imitate what they see on shows, watch out for if they exclusively, or repetitively, turn to their favorite shows in their offline play. You can play alongside them to challenge those pre-written scripts by asking questions and introducing new characters or plot points.
Limiting your child’s video watching is a huge step toward keeping them safe and encouraging them to learn in ways that work. If you do choose to let them watch, be sure to keep in mind what’s best for your preschooler and know how their brains might be processing what they see.
To assist you in choosing online video experiences that support your child and family as much as possible, we’ve created a checklist of things to look for before pressing play. Overall, your child will benefit most if you do as much due diligence as possible, including being sure that the platform:
- Puts kids’ safety first and doesn’t track your child’s personal data
- Disables, or at least limits, ads, influencer content, recommended videos, and autoplay that can distract, frustrate, and lead your child to unsafe content
Also, be sure that the videos themselves are:
- Slow-paced and tell simple stories
- Examples of friendly, prosocial characters that solve realistic problems
- Representative of your child and the range of human diversity in ways that do not tokenize, stereotype, or misrepresent different identities
- Limited in terms of consumerism, commercialism, and pressure to buy
When it’s time to watch, set guidelines for what they can watch and for how long. We recommend you watch together or pre-screen videos and stay nearby when possible. And remember to invite your kids to play, play, play without screens throughout the day!
This project was made possible by a generous grant from the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment.