Third-grader Joey Basso has hundreds of viewing options on
Disney +, Netflix and Amazon Prime. But what he really likes to do is watch <strong>“Unspeakable,”</strong> a loud YouTube personality with goofball tastes whose stunts include destroying new electronics equipment.
“His first thing is to go to YouTube,” said dad Joe Basso. “He falls into it.”
Some kids are discovering new online personalities for the first time. Some stuck-at-home parents are finally seeing what their kids have been watching all along. Either way, child-curated playlists have left some parents nostalgic for the issues that once vexed them, like the merchandising bonanza of a Disney film or the focus-grouped formulas of children’s TV.
“I know exactly what she’s hearing when she watches ‘Frozen 2’—it feels safer, like you’re being less neglectful,” said Heather Wheeler Sadlemire, a marketing executive from Albany, N.Y. Her 6-year-old daughter Amelia has been watching “Frozen”-style dolls with names that sound like “Elsia” and “Anya” on the YouTube channel “Come Play With Me.” The dolls speak in little-girl voices while bouncing around in make-believe adventures. They even get bored together. (”What are we going to do?” they say no less than six times at the start of one video.) Amelia often uses the story lines for inspiration when she plays with her Barbies.
“Unspeakable,” whose stars recently filled the living room of a house with sand to play beach volleyball, features a cast of what looks like a child’s fantasy of subversive babysitters. Mr. Basso, an IT manager from Glendale Heights, Ill., thinks the bunch is wholesome enough, but their screaming drives him out of the room. He likes Joey to watch shows like “The Simpsons” for more substantive entertainment. “It’s all current events every week,” he said of the cartoon.
“We create shows that kids are interested in, not what their parents are interested in,” said Reed Duchscher, founder of Night Media, a Dallas-based talent management company that represents the personality known as “Unspeakable” and other YouTube stars. “The world has changed. Kids look at YouTube creators not only for content, but they see them as authentic. They see them as friends.”
Tension is mounting over child-driven viewing as schools post educational videos to YouTube during the lockdown. After a clip ends, the screen automatically fills with a riot of noneducational video suggestions, prompting kids to start clicking and vaulting parents into damage control.
YouTube’s suggestions threatened such a “black hole of distraction” for Carleigh Rochon’s 9-year-old son that he is no longer allowed to watch video lessons unsupervised, Ms. Rochon said. “The interface is just riddled with, ‘Watch this next,’” said the web developer from Richmond, Calif. “We literally cannot leave the room.”
Children under 13 are not allowed to create accounts on YouTube and the company terminates “tens of thousands of accounts per week” to keep youngsters off the platform, said YouTube spokeswoman Mariana De Felice. Parents who want more tools to control what their children watch can go to YouTube Kids, where adults can handpick what channels are available to their kids, she said.
YouTube has imposed new controls around child-related content. In response to regulatory action, the company agreed in a settlement last year to curb the use of data from child-directed videos or channels to help protect child privacy.
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While YouTube remains a central hub of video activity, other social-media outlets are also busy. TikTok was the most downloaded nongame app world-wide in March, according to market researcher Sensor Tower. Many online personalities maintain an active presence on Facebook,
and Instagram. And some creators have shifted a share of their videos to paid subscription sites like Patreon.
“I really want my messages to be uplifting and there to be morals,” said Micah Jeter, a 20-year-old college student from Temple, Texas, whose MixiePixie7videos include stop-motion animation with American Girl dolls. Her imaginary world has viewers so engrossed that when a boy doll showed up wearing tiny toy headphones in a recent Patreon video, a fan asked in the comments what music he was listening to.
Hunter Parsons, a father of two in Golden, Colo., is surprised by the appeal of “A is for Adley,” a YouTube series about a redheaded girl who enjoys activities like visiting gaming arcades, petting horses and making pancakes. Mr. Parsons finds it low on plot. But his daughter Margot is mesmerized by shows like this at the age of 5. “She can’t read,” he said, “but she knows what ‘Skip Ad’ is.”
Children love to watch other children, maybe even more so when they can’t play with them during the quarantine, said Jill Murphy, vice president and editor in chief at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that rates and reviews entertainment for families. While noting that parents should know what their children are watching, she sees upsides to kids choosing their own entertainment. Children might even be able to move on faster from an online obsession if it’s one they are allowed to explore on their own, and parents can learn from those choices. “It’s an opportunity to get insight into your own kids in a new way.”
On the flip side, online content like unboxing videos—where kids brandish new toys often supplied by sponsors—have raised questions for critics. Research shows children are more likely to ask their parents for toys they know from unboxing videos than from TV ads, and they are more likely to throw a temper tantrum if the answer is no, said
executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
Other popular online options include videos showing teens playing computer games and videos pegged to computer-game characters.
Before schools closed, a channel with short films and skits around “Fortnite” seldom hit a million views per post, but now those videos from NewScape Studios fetch one million views most days, said company founder Cory Crater, a 25-year-old from Austin, Texas.
Last month, NewScape hit 100 million views across all its YouTube channels, up from 56 million in March, he said. The company produces 21 videos a week by churning out quick scripts and using basic computer graphics that cut out detailed character movements.
While the outbreak keeps San Francisco seventh-grader Cameron MacLeod at home, he said he prefers YouTube to most other screen entertainment. “You really can’t ever get sick of it because you can watch it forever,” he said. “You can keep watching over and over again until the earth dies.”
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