How are YouTubers influencing children?

Dr Tamasine Preece gives insight about the power that YouTubers now have on children who look to them for advice on issues they’re most concerned about.

Many of the concerns regarding YouTube are not dissimilar from those expressed towards other sites such as Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. Content can often include strong language and problematic content relating to pornography, hate crime, bullying, self-harm and suicide. Young people who communicate with others via the comment boxes underneath a video can be abused and threatened with violence.

To help children stay safe parents should take the time to activate parental locks on all Internet-enabled devices as well as initiating age-restrictions on the young person’s YouTube account. Users usually have to verify the age in order to view adult content but the content is unrestricted after it is uploaded until it is reported to or noticed by a site moderator. Children should also always avoid sharing personal details about their location or school.

Identity-play and mental health

Being part of the online community gives young people the ability to watch and talk with others who share their concerns or life-experiences. Popular YouTubers who talk about sensitive issues include transgender teen Jazz Jennings and Mike Fox and Zoella who discuss, amongst other topics, suicidal ideation, anxiety and depression.

The ability to hear others talk openly on such topics can be extremely empowering for children who may have previously experienced rejection or isolation. However, such messages can also be very confusing for some vulnerable viewers who may imitate behaviours or take on ideas that are not actually true or helpful for them on an individual level. This can make it complicated for expert adults to get to the source of a young person’s issues and guide them to appropriate help.

Online cruelty

Amongst the usually silly and banal content of compilation videos such as Try Not to Laugh there will usually be a video of someone pranking a friend or stranger. Some YouTubers such as Ben Phillips have developed their YouTube persona around uploading videos of this nature. Aside from the risk of children getting hurt or into trouble by copying behaviours that they see enacted online, children can be confused as to the extent that the participants of the prank have consented to participate.

In discussion with one group of 11 year old students regarding a video during which a prankster approached clearly vulnerable individuals and frightened them with loud noises such as playing the sound of a buzzing razor next to a man’s head, the children stated that the person at the focus of the prank had given their permission and was happy to take part, in spite of the visible evidence of anger and distress to the contrary. Pranking videos are, however, extremely popular, receive a high number of views and are a valuable revenue stream for YouTube personalities.

As children feel under pressure to produce a high-volume of video content for YouTube and SnapChat, the phenomenon of the YouTube prankster has normalised the filming of others without permission.  Young people deserve to have a conversation with an adult regarding the rights of others and the opportunity to consider that other people are not accessories to one’s own enjoyment, identity play or quest for online fame.

Pseudo-experts and fake facts

Just as the echo chamber and fake facts are a real threat to the ability of adults to relate to others and make choices about the decisions that affect them, teenage users of YouTube may lack the skills needed to assess the reliability of online sources and resources. YouTube provides a forum for a whole range of perspectives from product testing to thoughts related to social justice.

In the case of the former, a number of successful vloggers are approached by commercial brands to promote brands during ‘advertorial vlogs’, a practice that is regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency. As the video usually reflects the familiar vlogging style of the YouTuber, younger viewers will need it explained to them that the endorsement of the product or brand at the focus of the discussion or activity is for financial gain.

Encourage children to develop critical thinking

Children may require guidance to evaluate the way in which information is presented online. Due to the crowded nature of the YouTube community, the popularity and reach of a video is dependent on the ability of the YouTuber attempt to attract and retain viewers using a combination of skilful rhetoric and facts and anecdotes. Most important, of course, is the ability to entertain. Social commentators will, therefore, splice their commentary with music and other media which makes the content relatable but also often hyper-stimulating. More often than not, however, the vlogger is expressing an opinion, rather than exploring issues from an expert standpoint.

Roasting response videos

It is also common for vloggers of this genre to publish videos in response to those of others with whom they disagree. These responses appear in the right-hand ‘up next’ sidebar and, again, viewers can spend hours of their time following the infighting between YouTube big players related to certain issues.

Response videos are so popular that viewers request that their favourite YouTuber make a response to another with whom they have conflicting views. YouTubers who produce videos attacking another YouTuber or an individual call this destroying or roasting, an approach that does not model the skills needed for respectful disagreement.

Watching videos together to manage what they see

Children might also benefit from the supervision as they attempt to evaluate the content of videos. In terms of young people carrying out personal or school research related to political or social issues, teenagers need to be mindful so as not to solely seek out the YouTubers who express opinions with which they agree.

Young people need support in developing the skills of critical analysis and reasoning with which to evaluate the constitution of which videos based on social and political commentary comprise. In following the links to related videos, the young person is at risk of accessing only homogenous, biased content, rather than the information needed to develop a full understanding of a complex issue.

This is compounded by the fact that a YouTuber or, the YouTuber’s agent if they have one, will recognise that the presentation of a particular perspective elicits a high number of views; in order to increase their revenue, the agent will advise, or the YouTuber decides for themselves, to create more videos on the same theme, or response videos to destroy opposing viewpoints.

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A YouTuber is anyone who produces content and publishes it via their own YouTube channel to which other site users are able to subscribe.

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