Girl watching smartphone

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Q: My three-year-old daughter is obsessed with watching YouTube Kids on my phone. What can I do to stop this?

~ R You(Tube) Kidding, Arlington, VA

A: Dear R,

Stopping your daughter from watching YouTube Kids is easy, although may require you to deal with protests from your daugther. She is 3. YouTube Kids has to be set up by an adult and is accessed online through your phone and other devices that can all be password protected. You can stop her from accessing the app by withholding your passwords, and even deleting the app from your devices.

But more important than stopping her is to think about what she is doing watching YouTube Kids, how it may be affecting her, and whether your should stop her. Kids her age will sit in front of an entertaining screen for hours and parents have been wondering whether to stop them since the days when TV was the only screen available. What is important is what she is seeing, hearing, and learning.

Sesame Street was developed in the 1960s to engage the attention of children your daughter’s age that TV had already captured. The creators aimed to use TV time as an opportunity to teach children, in hopes that they’d be better prepared for school and for interacting with others. At three-years-old, your daughter’s brain is now capable of learning from a screen. Regardless of their intent, all media are educational for children learning about the world. You want to make sure that the programming she sees on YouTube Kids (or anywhere) is content you want her to learn about how the world works, the way people behave, or the way she should behave in the world. While there is some content on YouTube Kids made for children your daughter’s age, not all of it will be beneficial to her, and the content for older children may only confuse, worry or scare her.

YouTube Kids, like commercial TV, features advertising. You should be aware that children under the age of 8 are developmentally incapable of discerning “persuasive intent”, the difference between material that entertains and material designed to persuade viewers to buy products. Young children are just as likely to view a commercial for a toy or sugary cereal the same way they do a video of a science experiment – as something very cool that YouTube is sharing with them. In deciding whether YouTube Kids or any screen content is right for your daughter, coview what she watches with her and decide whether this is what you want her to learn.

A final issue to consider is the habit your daughter is developing around using your phone. Is she watching YouTube Kids purely for entertainment, or to distract her attention and keep her occupied? Does she expect to be able to use your phone at certain times of the day or to have it available at her convenience? It’s important to help her establish healthy, focused media use habits now, so she will be able to better balance how she spends her time in the future.

What most benefits a growing child is a rich and diverse menu of experiences rather than full-time entertainment. Prepare yourself with non-screen activity ideas and the next time your daughter requests to watch YouTube Kids, or you are tempted to give her your phone as a distraction, you can suggest alternatives that will engage her in developmentally optimal ways. This will help her learn about the world and herself in positive ways and help break the habit of going to your smartphone as her default activity.

Enjoy your media, and use them wisely,
~The Mediatrician®

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