My four-year-old daughter enjoys watching some great kids' shows including Noddy Toyland Detective, Ruby's Studio, Julie's Greenroom and so much Daniel Tiger, but once in a while, she'll ask to watch YouTube on the iPad or phone, and when I oblige, she smiles and gets this sneaky-looking glimmer in her eye. Uh oh, I'll think. Where is this going today?
The world of YouTube content for kids is like a bizarro abyss — preschoolers devour the manic, mindless clips, while parents glance over, puzzled and sometimes slightly disturbed, wondering what is this? You click on one innocuous-seeming Peppa Pig video, hand over the phone, and then 12 minutes later, they have been taken down a rabbit hole of "Daddy Finger" choruses in every language, glitter slime, surprise eggs for days, and grownups playing with baby dolls and talking in high-pitched voices ("Uh oh! You pooped again? So messy!").
And something weird happens to children when they watch. Once, when my daughter was younger, we let her watch YouTube during a long car ride. When I felt she had enough and took the phone away, she wailed for the next half hour, yelling, "Slime and babies! Slime and babies! SLIME AND BABIES!" Super creepy.
Sure, the toy itself is cool, but half the fun of a Hatchimal is the surprise. This tutorial shows you how to make your own version of a 'Hatchimal' with papier mache. Your kids will know the difference, but it's a fun project nonetheless.
With kids' videos among the most watched content in YouTube history, scientists, videomakers and marketers are scrambling to figure out the algorithm for what makes young viewers so obsessed with them. The Atlantic has an in-depth piece on how the videos that preschoolers click on can reveal a lot about their development and psyches.
It turns out, the reasons for why young kids are so entranced by videos on YouTube are not entirely surprising, but now you'll know what's happening inside their brains as they sit there with their mouths open while you hear for the umpteenth time, "Mummy Finger, Mummy Finger, where are you?" (I'm sorry.)
They love being in charge. If you have a toddler, you already know this. On-demand YouTube programming gives them a sense of agency.
They have short attention spans. "It's sort of like rapid-fire channel surfing," Michael Rich, a professor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Center on Media and Child Health, told The Atlantic. The short videos are basically brain candy.
They like things being enclosed and unwrapped. Behold, the surprise-egg craze.
They're attracted to bright colours. They can be mesmerised by a weather map as long as it's cartoon-like.
They like the familiar. Yep, your child, at least for now, probably prefers a terribly drawn singing elephant over your favourite beautiful Pixar film with a complex plot. Young kids are "predisposed to becoming obsessive about relatively narrow interests," The Atlantic's Adrienne LaFrance writes.
They like to watch the same things over and over in a quest to understand it. They're soaking up all that repetition, and the ability to learn something new is rewarding.
There's no consensus on whether kids' content on YouTube is good or bad for development. For now, most experts say to treat it like cake — small portions are generally OK, but it's better to give them something more substantial, like real toys.