Navigating the YouTube Landscape

YouTube. The very name can send shudders down a parent’s spine. That internet monster with endless tentacles that reaches for your children to devour their sense of reality and shape their social awareness. YouTube is yet another example of the culture coming into our homes and taking our children captive right under our noses. But let’s be honest, you actually like YouTube. Well, at least sometimes. Based on statistics you probably watched a video from YouTube today. I did. I hear about YouTube from parents a lot, and I’m often asked questions regarding if it is “okay” for their kid to watch videos on YouTube. That is why I’m writing this today.

I’m keenly aware of YouTube because it has become a favorite app of the many young people with whom I work on the Autism spectrum. Whatever the passion of the young person, there is a YouTube channel devoted to it. Young people are loyal to their favorite “YouTuber,” fiercely defending them against anyone who dares criticize the person, and many young people feel as though they have a relationship with their favorite YouTube “celebrity.” Many young people characterize being a “YouTuber” as a viable career, and before you laugh, you might be surprised if you check out the annual income of some of the most popular YouTube personalities. But what happens when a young person wants to watch YouTube for two, five, ten hours a day? “Is that healthy?” parents ask. Before I jump to an overall answer, let’s examine some of the pros and cons of this cultural technological juggernaut.


·         YouTube shares knowledge and important information. Can’t deny it, folks, there is some great stuff on YouTube. Topics from nature to world history abound, along with information regarding the junk your mother always told you which turns out to be false (Nope, a tooth will not dissolve in Coke overnight; Sugar does not make kids hyper).

·         YouTube allows ordinary, everyday people to share their passions and create an online classroom to teach others. I found out I could use a form of Superglue (gel form, without acetone) to attach orchids to tree bark and rocks. I also fixed our dryer, patched our roof, and replaced the headlights in both cars, not to mention a ton of other stuff simply because an honest person decided to make a short video to help someone else. And trust me, when you save yourself $300 by avoiding a service call, you are grateful that YouTube exists.

·         A way to catch up on things or relive memorable events. Remember that spine-tingling scene in…You get the idea. Want to watch it again? How about a hundred times? Whether it is a sports play, scene from a film, a musical performance, or a speech, there it is. Savvy parents can use YouTube to piece together a series of events to enhance their children’s sense of history, such as the civil rights movement or the “miracle on ice.” Do you believe in miracles? “Well, as a matter of fact I do, son. See, there was this hockey coach named Herb Brooks…”.   

·         A way for kids to get to know the world. Wanna see the lizard that walks on water? What is it really like to survive 24 hours in the Sahara? Wanna go to the deepest part of the ocean? Did you see the guy who sold everything to dig wells in Africa? Well, watch this. Have you noticed that young people of today value the experience of things over the simple facts? This is a good and bad thing, but at this point of our discussion, YouTube provides the good side of this urge to be there, see it with my own eyes, and do my own research.


·         YouTube puts adult content in the hands of anyone. I have parents tell me that their kid learned all the cuss words because of various YouTube videos that were supposed to be “kid-friendly.” Welcome to our world. I reassure them that they would have heard them eventually, but I get their point. Parents feel like they should at least be able to keep the culture at the front door, but when it seeps in there is a sense of violation and anger.

·         YouTube is addictive. For many young people, especially those on the Autism spectrum who tend to have the ability to hyper-focus, YouTube becomes a sort of drug that lulls the young person into a make-believe world. The feed just keeps on rolling and one video flows into another and it is easy to spend hours just sitting and watching.

·         Distortion of Reality. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Steph Curry never misses;” or “Lionel Messi always scores a goal on every kick.” I can’t really blame them, YouTube is one big highlight reel that can make anyone look invincible and perfect. I’ve heard from coaches that YouTube has killed the urge for kids to practice because the child doesn’t believe that athletes practice or train – they Just Do It. It isn’t just about sports. Kids can watch someone play guitar perfectly, build a masterpiece in MineCraft, or create the illusion that baking a cake is effortless. The result? Surprisingly, instead of being inspired to go “do” whatever it is they’ve seen, kids and teens often feel depressed or get a sense of despair. “Why should I do it, it has already been done? And besides, I’ll never be able to make it as good as that guy.”

·         YouTube allows ordinary, everyday people to share their passions and create an online classroom to teach others. Recognize this from the pro list? Sadly, it is a con as well. Meanies, bullies, perverts, liars, “trolls” (ask your kid) all have somewhat free reign in the mega-sphere of YouTube. Violence, tragedy, and “shocking video” (that’s your local news too, by the way) are all available which desensitize a young person’s sense of compassion and limit their perspective. The danger is that young people don’t have the capacity to put information in perspective, which makes it easy for them to become overwhelmed which often results in the young person dismissing the reality of what they are seeing and cause them to put up a “wall” of indifference. Over time, this results in a lack of empathy and for some young people creates an urge to lash out at others in a similarly aggressive manner.


“Okay, so what am I supposed to do as a parent?”


I was raised in a culture that simply sought to destroy or remove any outside cultural influence. By banning movies, getting rid of a television set, not allowing any music but classical or a rousing rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” by George Beverly Shea, my parents and others like them believed that encircling children with the wagons of denial and forced separation would magically protect us from the evils of “the world.” With lots of rules, do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts), my friends and I lived in a real-life “bubble.” I have no bitterness towards my parents because they did what they thought was best and honestly, in a way, it was wonderful. We played games every night after dinner and went on bike rides. I developed a love of reading, writing, and Chopin’s Etudes. My times with my youth group at church and being at summer camp are some of my most cherished memories. The downside was that when I was forced to meet the demands of the “real world,” I was overwhelmed. Many of my friends were sucked in due to being denied everything as children, thus, they wanted everything – sometimes all at once. I was naïve and believed everything I saw and was told. I lacked discernment, especially in the dating and marriage department.

I don’t believe that we can ever stop the culture from reaching for our kids, but we can teach our kids and equip them to think and have discernment, while we provide limits. We can limit what comes into our homes. However, the answer isn’t to get rid of technology in your home, because the truth is that your kid will simply watch whatever when he’s with his friends and your denial will create a hunger for what he or she can’t have. The answer lies in Balance and Limits. Look at the pro list above. Pretty good stuff, right? Check your listings on your TV. Some pros and cons right? How about what is on the news right now. Pros and cons, correct? You get the idea. Nearly everything that our children come in contact with in this culture has potential positive and potential negatives. Do you know the one constant in whether or not young people become swallowed by the culture? That’s right: The parent. Parents who provide a balanced view and who create limits regarding what is viewed and for how long and watch what their children watch (relationship, sound familiar?) tend to keep children and adolescents balanced and prepared to face a topsy-turvy world. The parents adopt the role of a teacher and in essence, the parent is the filter of the information that flows to the child, but does so in a way that fosters relationship and thinking.

Don’t fear YouTube. Use it. Be a teacher. Build relationship. Find out what makes your kid tick. Laugh at the Asian zookeeper trying to keep the Panda cubs out of her leaf basket, and watch as your kids sit mesmerized when they see the “I Have a Dream Speech” by Dr. King. Let your grandkids know where you were as you show them Walter Cronkite shedding tears as he announces JFK’s death on live TV. Show them the world, and explain the greatness of visionaries. Set limits, use it as a reward to instill a work ethic, and carefully monitor who and what your kids are watching. For example, while you may like your 8-year-old kid to use headphones because you can’t stand the voice of the Game Grumps, think again. You need to hear what is going on and what is coming across the screen. Wise parents of young children only allow YouTube time when they the parent is present and within hearing distance. Parents of teens, you need to connect! Check in, build relationship, and keep an open door of sharing and dialogue. Young people of today are sharp and hunger for truth and experience. But they are often lacking in the discernment area. Parents are usually mistaken in believing that most schools of today teach young people to think – not so. That is your job! Use YouTube as a way to guide and point out discrepancies between what is real and show how the real world works. Point out and share dialogue with your teen regarding what the guy on YouTube basically made up during his rant about how he is going to “move to Europe if Donald Trump or Hillary is elected.” Sure you will, okay.

Culture and technology will never stop merging to form a formidable presence in the lives of our young people. But don’t see it as a bad thing. Later this evening I’m going to lecture to my class through the use of online technology to students scattered all over the United States, they can see me and I can see them – Amazing! Without technology, my ability to reach them would be limited, as would the information that I need to give them. We must be willing to stretch ourselves and learn and grow, and above all, connect with our kids in relationship as we guide and prepare them for life in the “real world.” Set limits, but also provide balance through teaching and relationship. Oh, and check out my YouTube channel…just kidding!