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How Do You Tame the YouTube Beast? (Asking for… Ahem, Other Parents)

Ottawa, October 2021
Ottawa, October 2021

Why is some online content gaining so much traction among fourth graders? And how did YouTube, TikTok, Roblox, and other platforms insidiously make their way into our lives—or rather, into Mark’s life?

I feel like an old lady, this out-of-touch parent, the one who just “doesn’t get it.” Like Mark puts it with a nine-year-old tween smirk, “it must have had a tough life for you back then, without Internet…”

Oh, sweet summer child…! It seems like only yesterday that I was arguing with my parents, claiming that I wasn’t giving up on reading books just because I also enjoyed playing Tetris and Super Mario Land on my Game Boy. And it was true, mostly because 1990s Game Boy consoles required four AA batteries and there’s only so much Tetris you can play before you have to write down “buy batteries” on a shopping list (sorry if the Tetris Theme is stuck in your head now).

Unfortunately, tablets can last up to 10 hours per charge and Mark’s favourite “Tetris” is YouTube—welcome to social media and products designed to pull you in with infinite scrolling mechanisms, autoplay and notifications. I mean, this is a whole new level of brain hacking. Sometime, I feel powerless—as a parent, a user, and as a citizen.

Just like with Fortnite in Grade 1 (!), Mark was introduced to gaming platforms (mostly Minecraft and Roblox) and YouTube at school. Not as part of the curriculum, obviously, but at some point during socially distanced breaks in grades 2 and 3.

And like in many other families, his screen time has soared in the pandemic.

When the world stopped to flatten the curve “for a couple of weeks” in spring 2020, we dedicated time and energy to educative math games, cardboard fort projects and other fun, creative activities. But COVID-19, school closures, lockdowns and restrictions outlasted our determination to design the perfect pandemic-friendly stay-at-home learning environment for Mark. We eventually gave him almost unrestricted tablet access. Not only it kept him busy and entertained while we were trying to work and deal with the situation, but it was also his only way to socialize with friends. The next thing I knew, he was playing online with classmates, shouting instructions to a neighbour over the phone while tapping on his tablet. Given the pandemic context, I found it both innovative and heartbreaking.  

And this is how—the story may sound familiar to other parents—the tablet and a reliable “business” high-speed Wi-Fi connexion, courtesy of two parents who’ve been working from home for over a decade, became Mark’s main source of entertainment in 2020 and 2021.

I’m okay with not getting what makes him laugh, what’s so cool about so-and-so. I even got over the fact that he enjoys shooting “bad people” when playing online or with LEGO bricks—“yeah, yeah, I know guns kill people, mom, these aren’t real, you know…” After all, I clearly remember my parents disapproving of many things I found awesome—these late 1980s morning TV Japanese cartoons (my dad, the artist, just didn’t like character designs) and Disney comics, then cheesy TF1 sitcoms in the 1990s and Cosmopolitan magazines I would hide at my mamie’s place because my mom found I was too young to read about “50 blowjob tips” (mind you, she was probably right).

If Mark’s corner of the Internet was just “too silly” for 38-year-old me, I’ll be fine with it. But as you probably know if you’re over 18—and if you’re Mark, why are you reading this?!—there’s a fine line between “silly” and “sinister” online.

First, I get annoyed when Mark is trying to talk and act like TikTok or YouTube “influencers.” Second, I don’t want him to learn about the world through social media because in the real world, most people don’t find pranks that funny and non-stop self-promotion isn’t the best way to make friends. Third, sooner or later, he will get introduced to social media—currently, he doesn’t have any email or social media account, so he doesn’t post, share, etc.—and we’re opening a can of worms I don’t feel ready for.

How do you explain to a kid that content and information are so easily used and manipulated for nefarious purposes? That his favourite websites are designed to be addictive? That in the real world, teens aren’t that cool, companies aren’t that selfless, and that half of the things heard online is bullshit? That something isn’t valuable just because others say so? Hell, most grownups don’t even realize that!

Right now, my main concern is to make sure Mark doesn’t get addicted to his tablet. Remember that we’re talking about a kid who comes back from school at 3 p.m. when our workday is far from over, and life isn’t back to normal yet in Canada—for instance, after-school activities are either on hold either completely booked.

After weeks-long arguments, I found the “Show your data” under “Your Digital Wellbeing tools” (on Android) very helpful—I showed him how long he spends on his tablet and on different websites. Now all we have to do is check data together to see if he can keep on playing a bit longer or if it’s time to do something else. “Fair enough,” like Mark says.

I’m also trying to debunk misinformation and talk about whatever is going viral. Internet is a really cool tool and there’s plenty of fun, interesting content online, most of it not on Google’s first page and not mentioned at recess. Now, instead of getting annoyed when Mark is watching idiots on YouTube, I explain why I’m annoyed—your YouTube “star” is exaggerating, this is simply not true, etc.  

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check why Mark just took a couple of crackers to play “the Squid Game” challenge…

So, how do you deal with social media and all at home?

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