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How to (safely) enjoy YouTube with your kids without feeling overwhelmed or confused

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It would be great to be able to just download YouTube Kids and have your kids watch it instead of regular YouTube. However, the YouTube Kids app has problems of its own. And the bottom line is: Kids want to watch the original. But it’s tough to manage. Anyone can create YouTube channels, they crop up seemingly out of nowhere, they don’t follow program schedules, and they’re cast out among thousands of other videos. There are also serious concerns that YouTube collects data from young users in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

So if your kids really love it, you’ll have to strategize. Reading Common Sense Media reviews of YouTube channels is a good way to get a sense of their age-appropriateness and quality. And digging into the videos themselves — watching with your kids or on your own — is wise. You never know what’s going to come up on a particular channel, because all the content is user-generated.

Try these ideas to help your kids regulate their habits and increase the chances that their experience will be positive. Also, read our detailed review of YouTube.

The Basics

Watch with your kid. Simply ask your kids what they’re watching and join them. In general, kids are tuning into certain channels or following specific YouTube personalities because they find it entertaining (not because they are actively searching for “bad” stuff). Many kids naturally want to share the videos they like. But be prepared to watch some weird stuff such as unboxing videos.

Watch by yourself. If kids don’t want to share, get the name of the channel they’re watching and watch it later. Watch a few videos by the same creator to get a feel for the content.

Be sleuthy. If you’re concerned about the content your kid is watching on YouTube — and you’ve tried talking to them — there are ways of tracking their viewing habits. If they have a YouTube account (which only requires a Gmail address), their YouTube page will display their recently watched videos, recommended videos based on their watch history and suggestions for channels similar to the ones they’ve watched. Even if your kid deletes their “watch history,” the recommendations all will be related to stuff they’ve watched.

Subscribe. Encourage your kids to subscribe to their favorite channels rather than hunting around on YouTube for the latest ones from a specific creator. Subscribers are notified when a new video is uploaded, plus all their channels are displayed in the Subscriptions section, making it easier and faster to go directly to the stuff they like. Consider choosing subscriptions together, and make an event out of watching the newest uploads with your kids.

The Nitty-Gritty

Investigate the creator. The name of each video’s creator appears beneath the video window and usually has a bit of information about the person behind the video and/or the channel itself. Google the creator’s name to find out whether he or she has a Wikipedia page or another Web presence (most YouTubers use other social media, including Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram to promote their brand). You might find out that your kid’s favorite YouTube personality has an impressive reach. Check out our recommendations of positive role models on YouTube.

Look at the suggestions. The suggested videos listed on the right-hand side of the page are related in some way to the main video. Evaluate them to see whether they seem age-appropriate, and that will provide an indication of the appropriateness of the main video. Learn how to make these suggested videos a little safer.

Consider the ads. There are tons of ads on YouTube. Even if your kids stick to kid videos, they’ll see commercials for stuff that may not be appropriate. You can try to reduce or manage exposure to advertising, but the best option is to talk to your kids about viewing all marketing critically so they don’t get sucked in.

Read the comments. YouTube comments are notorious for being negative, but it’s worth reading them to get a sense of the channels’ demographics and the tone of the discussion. Channel creators can moderate their comments to reduce the amount of negativity. Well-groomed comments are a good sign.

Watch the trailer. Many creators make highlight reels and trailers — basically video ads for the channels themselves (which usually appear first on the channel page). Definitely watch them if they’re available to get an overview of the host and the content.

Finding Good Stuff

Turn on Restricted Mode. Be aware that YouTube is technically only for teens 13 and older, and what the site considers age-appropriate may not match your values. But YouTube offers a filter called Restricted Mode that limits the iffy stuff. Go to your account settings page and toggle on Restricted Mode at the bottom of the page. (It will remain on for logged-in users on the same browser.)

Dig a little. Most kids find out about new videos either from their friends or by clicking on the related videos (which may or may not be appropriate). But YouTube itself offers several ways to home in on quality content. Go to YouTube Spotlight for curated content in a variety of categories. Read about YouTube news on the company blog, and find out what’s trending all over the country. Also, read Common Sense’s reviews.

Watch later. YouTube gives you the ability to save videos to watch at a later time, which improves the odds that your kids will be exposed to stuff you’ve preapproved. You can create playlists, too, virtually designing a customized programming schedule of content for each of your kids or for different subjects in which they’re interested.

This piece first appeared at Common Sense Media. It is being reprinted with permission. 

Caroline Knorr is Common Sense Media’s parenting editor.

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More reading:

5 simple steps to a healthy family media diet

Schools are teaching kids empathy and self-control. Here’s how to do it at home, too. 

What parents should do instead of worrying a smartphone will destroy their kid