The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

YouTube is pushing educational kids videos. Can parents trust them?

The pros and cons of YouTube’s shift to recommend more “high-quality” entertainment for children

5 min

This article is a preview of The Tech Friend newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday.

A year ago, YouTube overhauled the site to try to repair its bad reputation as a destination for children.

Now the question is: Has YouTube gotten better for kids?

YouTube says that it has, although parents should know that it’s difficult to confirm the company’s claims of progress.

In today’s newsletter, let’s talk over where YouTube deserves credit for encouraging more enriching and informative videos for kids after a series of disturbing scandals. And I’ll also address where experts told me YouTube still falls short.

What I hope you take away from this is an awareness of how YouTube’s choices shape what your kid (and you) are likely to watch. That knowledge should not make you feel guilty or manipulated. Think of this as data to help you make informed choices.

And if you’re screaming “NO WAY” to kids watching YouTube, that’s fine! But the reality is that most American children are watching YouTube — with or without their caregivers. That means kids and grown-ups can benefit from learning to get the most from YouTube and peering behind its curtain.

Next week in The Tech Friend, I’ll be back with practical advice to help your family make good use of YouTube and other digital media.


Let me rewind to YouTube’s big change in 2021, and how the company says that is remodeling the experience for kids on the world’s most popular video site.

In consultation with child development experts, YouTube created guidelines for what it considered “high-quality” videos for children and families. And it started to reward those videos by recommending them more often and giving those video creators more opportunities to earn money from ads in videos.

The guidelines applied to both YouTube Kids, a separate app for younger children, and for kids-oriented videos on the main YouTube site.

What YouTube did, essentially, was to put its computer programs, its popularity and its wallet behind a push for entertainment that the company believed was good for kids.

YouTube considers videos high quality if, for example, they encourage children to brush their teeth, show creative activities like arts and crafts or teach life skills such as problem solving. Videos with overly commercial messages or that put children’s characters in “objectionable situations” would be circulated less on YouTube under the policy change.

At least on paper, this was a significant shift. Many of the most popular kids YouTube videos have featured children unwrapping new toys or doing other materialistic things. YouTube has also been forced to confront the prevalence of disturbing videos related to kids, including one featuring an off-brand Peppa Pig being tortured at the dentist.

YouTube constantly changes its computer programs to emphasize some kinds of programming over others. And last year wasn’t the first time that YouTube tried to prioritize higher-quality children’s videos. But a 2020 research study found that about three-quarters of YouTube videos watched in an analysis of children eight or younger had “no or weak educational value.”

YouTube says the changes it started to make a year ago are working. YouTube told me that viewership of videos incorporating the high-quality principles has increased by more than 45 percent in its YouTube Kids app.

There are three huge caveats to YouTube’s measure of progress.

First, YouTube is giving specific data only for videos viewed on its Kids app, which has a fraction of the viewership of the main YouTube site. On regular YouTube, the company said viewership of high-quality kids programming has increased but not as much as it did on the Kids app.

Second, it’s impossible for outsiders to verify what apps such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok say people are doing within their digital walls. If YouTube says kids are spending more time watching high-quality videos, we have to take YouTube’s word for it — or not.

And third, what counts as “high quality” is subjective. Plus, if you search YouTube for kids stuff, and you’ll see plenty of mindless junk and lots of wonderful videos, too. That is YouTube.

In my conversations with specialists in children’s development and education, including one who advised YouTube on its children’s video guidelines, they said YouTube was rigorous, committed and humble about what makes for enriching children’s entertainment.

But they also said that there may be only so much YouTube can do to stress educational value within the company’s commercial mission.

Ultimately, YouTube’s guiding principle is giving people what they find engaging. And garbage is engaging for kids and adults alike.

“The current way that the internet gets engagement is at odds with designing what will be meaningful from a children’s perspective,” said Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

For more on technology and kids:

At what age should you give a kid their first phone?

➦ Congress has been considering two potential new laws to better protect children’s privacy or safety online. The bills are stuck in the Senate.

One tiny win

You have the option to tell Google, which owns YouTube, not to save information about the videos you watch. It means YouTube will stop recommending videos to you based on what you’ve watched in the past — which can be both great or annoying.

Here’s how to do that:

  • From Google’s Activity controls page, scroll down the YouTube History section. Toggle the switch off so that it is gray. That’s it!

Read more from Heather Kelly: Google privacy settings to change now.

Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget, or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.

Help Desk: Making tech work for you

Help Desk is a destination built for readers looking to better understand and take control of the technology used in everyday life.

Take control: Sign up for The Tech Friend newsletter to get straight talk and advice on how to make your tech a force for good.

Tech tips to make your life easier: 10 tips and tricks to customize iOS 16 | 5 tips to make your gadget batteries last longer | How to get back control of a hacked social media account | How to avoid falling for and spreading misinformation online

Data and Privacy: A guide to every privacy setting you should change now. We have gone through the settings for the most popular (and problematic) services to give you recommendations. Google | Amazon | Facebook | Venmo | Apple | Android

Ask a question: Send the Help Desk your personal technology questions.