So this MoMo thing turned out to be a hoax, and parents are breathing a sigh of relief. Sure, that MF is creepy as all hell, and the idea that this little monster was popping into children’s videos saying unspeakable things was enough to give parents nightmares.
It turns out, the real nightmare is very real, and has nothing to do with a Japanese bird-woman. Here are the real reasons you shouldn’t let your kids watch YouTube.
1. Terrifying Algorithms
Now, I’m not usually a fear-monger, but this is legit scary. Now that YouTube gives a bunch of “Recommended Videos” once the video you watch is over, kids get the chance to continue watching indefinitely. Videos are monetised through ads, so video-makers are motivated to make videos, and there’s not much oversight as to what goes on in the New Wild West.
I haven’t had the stomach to read into it too much, as it scares the bejeepers out of me, but what happens is that the kid starts with a favourite cartoon character in a completely benign clip and before they know it, they end up watching something absolutely horrible. This article is a brutal summation of the awfulness of YouTube– major content warning here. But if you let your kids watch YouTube, you should read it.
2. Floppy Noodle Syndrome
This is not an actual diagnosis, but it very well could be. Lack of time spent playing outside means that many children have weak core muscles, leading to challenges sitting properly and doing pretty much everything. It affects their quality of sleep and their ability to learn in school.
Children need hours of active play per day in order to have a healthy mind and body, and they are falling woefully short. We are only now beginning to see the long-term effects of a lack of quality outdoor play time, and it’s pretty disheartening.
Because of the algorithms and the endless queue of videos a child can watch, they are spending longer than ever on YouTube. Kids often lack the executive functioning to know when they’ve been watching videos for long enough (or too long), and that they should get up and move. It falls to the parent to put strict limits on screen time, and to force our children to get up and run around.
Inactivity leads to more inactivity, as children start lacking the strength and stamina to really engage in vigorous outdoor play. Children start losing interest in exercising, as it becomes increasingly difficult. Good news is that it can be reversed– children can build up that strength and stamina again.
3. Fine Motor Challenges
The big problem with screens (well, one of them) is that there is such a limited benefit to the skills that children use with a screen. Generally, kiddos are just pointing at a touch screen and moving their finger around to make whatever they want to happen. Sure, there is some measure of hand-eye coordination that happens with screens, but that one skill development can happen in many different ways. Kids who don’t use screens can develop hand-eye coordination just fine.
The fact of the matter is that kids need to fuddle with stuff. They need to cut paper and ribbons and fabric; they need to untangle yarn and stir a bowl of cookie dough. They need to dig in the ground with a stick and showel snow. They need to stack rocks on top of each other and build a lean-to with twigs. They need to wrestle with each other and play clapping games and secret handshakes.
A longitudinal (read: following people over time) study of children showed that the more screen time children had, the weaker their fine motor skills were. Teachers and occupational therapists coulda told us that– teachers are having to backtrack fine- and gross-motor skills that children *should* have at a certain age, as children are arriving in grade school without fundamental fine-motor skills, partially induced by Floppy Noodle Syndrome. Grade school teachers are having to teach children how to hold a pencil or how to cut with scissors, and they are spending time building up the strength that the kiddos could already have had. And that’s a bummer.
4. Lack of Outdoor Time
I’ve alluded to this already, but there’s a special place for outdoor play in childhood. When children are playing outside, they are learning how to navigate uneven terrain. They get opportunities to run and hide and build and create using all sorts of novel materials and surfaces. Research has even shown that children benefit from touching (and even eating!) dirt. Microbes in the soil enter through our skin and have an antidepressant effect. Sunlight on the skin is so important for wellbing, and has a mood stabilising effect (just remember your SPF).
When they’re out of their backyard and in their neighbourhood, they are using their navigation skills, and are developing a greater sense of where they are in the larger world. When they’re away from home and away from you, they are developing a sense of where they fit in to the world as individuals, rather than as an extension of you and their family.
They can negotiate with peers (in an age-appropriate way, natch) and develop consensus among a peer group without adult interference. They learn to solve problems and disagreements without running to an adult. This helps them to get a feel for putting their personal values into practise– for example, a child may think that they believe that everyone should get a turn, but what happens when they’ve had a turn and now want another turn. Do they insist that everyone get one turn, or do they sneak in for a second go before everyone’s had one?
Outdoor play generally involves more risky play, where children have to evaluate more factors before making a decision (eg, can I jump from here to there, or is that too far for me?). These types of decisions can be very good for a child, and are tremendously helpful in the future when they are faced with actual difficult decisions.
You may be wondering what is developmentally appropriate outdoor play for your child, and that’s a great wonder! Let’s talk about it more later!
5. Avoidance of Unpleasant Emotions
Screens are used by children and adults alike to numb unpleasant feelings. There are probably some (very limited) situations in which this is not unhealthy in adults, but it is almost always unhealthy in children. Children (and adults) need to learn to face unpleasant emotions and physical sensations, rather than numbing the feelings. This is part of mindfulness practise, which is definitely associated with more robust mental health in folks of all ages.
6. “Mind Go Away”
I told my 7-year-old that I was writing this article. She wasn’t too impressed at first because she is a big fan of YouTube (sigh!), but after we discussed it a bit, she had this to add, about the effects of screen time:
It’s when your mind goes away and it takes a little while to come back. Your mind goes away when you’re focused on only the screen. It can be a little challenge to come back when someone is telling you to do something, like your parents telling you to pack up when you are still playing on your device.
Couldn’t’ve said it better myself.
So, where do we go from here? First step is to put all portable devices (phones and tablets) on airplane mode, or completely disable wifi. Children of any age should not be accessing the internet on their own. Period.
So, what about the actual awesome YouTube content? I watch YouTube daily to listen to music and to show my kids cool stuff. As I am writing this, I am listening to Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” suite on YouTube with my children (they are waiting eagerly for “In The Hall of the Mountain King”). Earlier, I showed them Cats the Musical, and it was as amazing to them as I thought it would be. There is a wonderful world out there to explore, and YouTube can be part of that. This is not to say that you or your children should never watch YouTube, but that there should always be an adult watching YouTube with the children.
If you need to plug your kids in so that you can get a break, no judgement, man. Put on Netflix children or give them a tablet with disabled wifi. Let ’em go for 30 or 60 minutes, then unplug them and let ’em play. Boot them out into the backyard, or tell them to go read or do a craft. Technology can open up the world in wonderful ways, but we gotta be savvy about it, and we can’t delude ourselves that hours upon hours of screen time is educational. In order to have educational benefit to a child, a device needs to be used super-purposefully, and most parents are not equipped for that. That’s okay, because your job is to be a parent, not to be a teacher.
Your job is to make sure your kids play and run and explore and read and do crafts and make mistakes. Schools are using technology for educational purposes, so you don’t have to worry about doing that at home.
And if you and your kids have an interest, by all means check it out on the ‘Tube– together.