They practically raise themselves with the internet and all
March 28, 2017 6:19 AM   Subscribe

I have a 5 year old, going on 6 who spends a lot of time on the internet. This has been pretty great for him- I'm sure his language skills, maths and general knowledge are far greater than they would have been without them. However I'm concerned that he will inevitably encounter things that I'd rather he didn't. Tools or rules for balancing giving him the freedom to explore without being too laissez-faire?

Further context

Positives of net freedom-

Going on 6 but very advanced in terms of reading, comprehension and interests. Loves his screen time and really seems to benefit from it. Discovered a lot of new, positive interests. Understands that cursing in a video means it is time to turn it off, and that channel should not be visited again. Taking away screen time would be felt as cruel, and may undermine him coming to me with problems if I was seen to be too harsh with regards to what he can watch. I really appreciate his thirst for knowledge and growing independence, and feel this should be nurtured , within limits.


Has a tendency to believe whatever the internet tells him (while this is good for providing teachable moments at present, it can be hard discerning when he is joking about, say, the illuminati, and when he is being serious). I try to keep an eye on the channels that he watches and forbid certain ones that seem too cruel or stupid. I cannot monitor his usage at all times (though can and do review history to ensure that he is not falling down any particularly scary holes). The screening offered by YouTube kids seems to be too restrictive (and only available on app rather than on PC if I recall correctly). Wife's mate was called to school as his 8 year old had gotten into hard-core atheism via YT and was causing problems (in a fairly non-religious school) as he was being really forthright about his disdain for religion- never mentioned it at home, parents completely unaware that he was into this. I'd rather avoid such scenarios with the boy (he'll learn to be an insufferable, judgemental asshole the old-fashioned way, from me).

So- other than trying to keep communication channels open, snooping on history for as long as his tech knowledge is lower than mine (which won't be long I fear), are there any tips, hints, or tech solutions to try to keep a handle on this powerful force? Assume that banning of all non supervised internet is unlikely to be implemented ('though if you feel compelled to present evidence that the internets will turn him into a monster then feel free to refer to reputable sources that supports this). We don't have, and he doesn't understand the point of, TV or other broadcast media so solution of "just let him watch BBC when unsupervised screen time desired" would be difficult.
posted by Gratishades to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I have a 6 year old and a 3 year old - we limit them to 2-3 hours of semi-supervised screentime (mainly videos, primarily kid videos) on the weekends, and do as much reading, art, playing outside, boardgames etc. as we can practically manage during the rest of the week. The 6 year old also gets some screentime at school (math games on an iPad).

By my (admittedly biased) assessment, they're doing as well or better than their peers on the metrics you mention, with the advantage - anecdata, not a rigorous A/B test - of doing considerably more independent creative play, and having a somewhat better attention span.

At that age, they're like sponges - they're feeding heavily on whatever channels are available to them. If you're uncomfortable with a lot of screentime - and there is good, peer-reviewed evidence to suggest that you should be - you should feel free to set barriers and dictate alternative activities without worrying about stunting him in some way.

If he perceives this as cruel, my take as a parent would be "tough, it's not my job to be your friend, but to teach you how to be a functional, well-rounded adult. Now go do something else."
posted by ryanshepard at 7:23 AM on March 28, 2017 [12 favorites]

My girls are now 17 & 13, but our rules were much the same as ryanshepard's, with results that have carried on to the teen years. Just this weekend the 17 year old had a friend over. Unprompted by anyone, the two of them spent the afternoon talking, looking at social media on their phones, and painting ceramics they bought at the dollar store. Patterns set early tend to stick!

The one bit I'll add is that while young (pre-middle school) all screen time was done in a public part of the house, with no screens behind closed doors. That let us keep half an eye & ear on what was being consumed at all times. Oh, and TV counted as screen time for us, as well.

And I could not agree more with "tough, it's not my job to be your friend, but to teach you how to be a functional, well-rounded adult. Now go do something else." Parental discipline in a nutshell.
posted by Frayed Knot at 7:50 AM on March 28, 2017

No screens behind closed doors is a great rule, especially at such an age.

You've made a good start on some self-filtering, but you can easily set up something at the network level to keep the more egregiously offensive content out of your house. Having tried a couple of alternatives, I now use OpenDNS, which does a decent job as far as I can tell.
posted by rd45 at 8:32 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have to say YouTube has a lot more awful stuff on it than just videos with swearing in them. My older son (11) was testing some boundaries and is a huge lover of all kinds of How stuff is made/works/how to build things and clicking on the related videos from those kinds of things led him to an absolutely HORRIFIC show call 1000 ways to die or something like that where the first 20 seconds is like a grisly re-enactment of some awful way to die and he had nightmares for months. And I was in the adjacent room baking and we had it shut down in 2 minutes! It just went down really quickly. You can't unsee things.

There are also horror movie ads and violent video game ads and all kinds of things that you can't get rid of even by restricting the actual videos/channels the kids watch.

All of which is to say we learned our lesson painfully and now my 6 year old only has access to Kids' YouTube unless one of us is sitting right next to him with our hands on the mouse and my 11 year old has to be within earshot when watching things. There may be settings on regular YouTube or other filters you can choose to avoid those but in our family we've just found it easier to do it via human intervention.

I'd also recommend going more the educational app route or strategic iTunes/pick provider of your choice purchases. Khan Academy is where we started but there are a lot of good options.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:02 AM on March 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

I just thought of a better summary of our experience which is that we learned that investing in finding &/or paying for the content we wanted our kids to see rather than relying on the wonder of search engines whether on Google or YouTube saved us a lot of upset when it comes to screen time.

As a screen time benchmark my kids don't get much screentime during the week - my little guy sometimes gets a half hour if he's up at 5:30 am. On weekends we negotiate based on what else is going on.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:05 AM on March 28, 2017

I'm a teacher and parent of 3. Apologies if I come off as apoplectic.

They practically raise themselves with the internet and all

They shouldn't. A 5 yo/6yo should NOT be playing around the internet without supervision. There are books,trees, people, music, art, an entire world that isn't online.

Has a tendency to believe whatever the internet tells him

Seriously? That alone is enough reason to stop all this internet access. I mean, this is pretty out there.

I cannot monitor his usage at all times.

Then your kid shouldn't be on the internet.

Supervise your children until they are 10. You can use Internet safety tools to limit access to content, websites, and activities, and be actively involved in your child’s Internet use, but you should sit with your child when they use the Internet until the age of 10.

Talk to any professional educator. You will not find ONE who advises 5 and 6 yos be allowed to play on the internet without supervision.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:21 AM on March 28, 2017 [40 favorites]

I have to agree with what Yes I said yes I will Yes and WarriorQueen said...

I was present when a neighbor kid (age ~8) with like 3-4 clicks tops, ended up seeing hardcore bondage porn in the process of looking for cartoon/anime-type images. Just saying.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:27 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah. I have an almost-five-year-old and he looooves his tablet and he loves asking Google random questions. He's still in the phase where mostly he just likes to hear himself talk so much of what he "searches" for is nonsense but I have definitely had to fly across the room and grab the tablet once or twice when his nonsense triggered an inappropriate video. Those "suggested videos" are the wooooorst. The actual worst.

We use an app installed on his tablet called Screentime. It has a companion app for my phone, and with that I can control which apps he can access, and how much screen time a day he gets (and I can whitelist certain apps like the voice recorder to not count towards his total screen time, because he does like to use that to record himself playing music on the instruments we have in the house). I can also give him more screentime if he buys some with the tokens he earns for doing chores or good behavioral reports from school.

My suggestion would be to get a set of encyclopedias. Check your local Craigslist and Goodwill--they are all over the place because no one wants Grandpa's old set of 1989 Encylopedia Britannicas after he dies. When your kid has a question, send them there first. If that doesn't answer it, have them write down the question on a list so that next time they have supervised screentime, they remember what they wanted to find out about. Let them learn how to do a targeted search, not just follow this and that link and next thing you know it's 3 hours later.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:41 AM on March 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

I assume there will eventually come a day where I allow my child to watch YouTube or use the internet without me being right next to him, but he is 7 now and we are nowhere close to that day.

The growing independence, thirst for knowledge, etc etc at this age are awesome and really fun to witness as their parent, but there are SO many ways to encourage that and feed into it besides unlimited/unsupervised internet time. Research things together, go to the library, get books, sign up for classes, pay for quality videos/channels, do experiments, throw him outside, whatever. There are so many better ways to learn that aren't a click away from scarring him for life.

If it's possible, I'd suggest getting a tablet for him to use instead of a computer. You can fill it with all kinds of super fun and interesting and educational and age-appropriate apps and he'll be able to use it in the same room as you so can keep an eye on what he's doing without hovering over his shoulder. At that age, my son was really into making his own videos and playing Minecraft. Which are both really annoying but not nearly as awful as YouTube.
posted by logic vs love at 9:42 AM on March 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

As the father of a "very advanced" kid who's now 8, I would suggest that you may be overestimating or misunderstanding your child's level of comprehension. Kids at that age are excellent sponges and mimics, but I know from experience that topics and themes that they seem to be ready for (and that it's flattering for their parents to think they are), they really aren't. And knowledge without comprehension is often worse than useless. Your friend's mini-Dawkins is an extreme example but I come across a lot of children who are incapable of interacting with anybody on neutral ground because their brains are clouded by some obsession they feed on the internet.
posted by otio at 10:02 AM on March 28, 2017 [15 favorites]

Also, bear in mind the medium is the message. For a kid, they begin to rely upon have data and information fed to them. They don't have to ask questions or try to solve any problems. Billions of screens will show them all sorts of things that somebody, somewhere, felt were important, but only that information and nothing else.

The internet completely stifles creativity and learning problem solving strategies for kids.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:40 AM on March 28, 2017 [10 favorites]

A resource you might find helpful is the American Association of Pediatrics' Household Media Plan. It's a tool that lets you build a screen time plan for your family with auto-filled recommendations depending on age group and spaces for you to put in your preferences, and a nice printout at the end. On the same page is a calculator which can help you balance different time commitments for activities.

I note that they recommend a total of 12.5h/week for all media in that age range--and that actually seems high to me. The current recommendations in the USA also include no unsupervised viewing, and all media should be used as a communal conversation starter - watch it together and discuss how it relates to your life. When you talk about it, problematic content becomes less problematic, because you can discuss what it means. And you're right there to close the tab when they accidentally find an image of Lisa and Bart Simpson engaged in sexual acts (this really happened to my little sister, I was there, it was horrifying).
posted by epanalepsis at 11:10 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you really have a need for unsupervised screen time, can I suggest you think outside of the internet? There are billions of awesome creative/learning/problem-solving apps for kids - or things that aren't just for kids but are still appropriate, like art apps - and I imagine there must still be at least some cool PC-based things too. These will still entertain your kid in an interactive way and you'll be able to avert all the toxic stuff until you're in a better position to supervise and teach them to assess content. Plus it's a whole lot easier to just cut off the entire internet than to try to filter it appropriately.

Above and beyond the really explicit stuff on the internet, there's a huge body of research out there about the myriad challenges around kids and adults and information-gathering - we're all still learning to find the right ways to think and research and think critically, so we don't become fake news aficionados or echo chamber radicals or simply misinformed regurgitators. A young kid is so vulnerable to that type of information and needs to be taught to read and think rigorously - just consuming what they find is not only insufficient but it's actively destructive.
posted by R a c h e l at 11:44 AM on March 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

> it can be hard discerning when he is joking about, say, the illuminati, and when he is being serious

He probably doesn't know, either. Five-year-olds don't have the ability to understand that's what's being told to them isn't necessarily true -- that's why marketing to children is regulated in some countries.

I'm an adult, and yet I accidentally stumbled onto videos with animal cruelty when I was trying to find cute videos of kittens on YouTube.

> I'm sure his language skills, maths and general knowledge are far greater than they would have been without them

If he hadn't been on YouTube, presumably he would've been doing something else; he would've picked up language, math, and knowledge from that experience. There's no need for unrestricted Internet wandering in children.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:23 PM on March 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

Answering not from the perspective of a parent, but from the perspective of a former child on the internet. When I was 12/13 in 1998/1999, the internet was obviously very different from what it is now. But even though I'd say on the whole those were more innocent times, I think I still got into quite a bit of what I would now consider age-inappropriate content. At the time I thought I could totally handle whatever, and looking back I wasn't totally correct about that. I imagine a 6 year old would have even less ability to assess their own capacity and limits, and as you described in your question would not be up to the necessary critical thinking.

I am also wondering--does your kid know that cursing is not appropriate to watch EVER... Or just that it's not appropriate to watch in front of a parent?
posted by snorkmaiden at 3:22 PM on March 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the answers so far folks. Not looking to thread-sit but just an observation that the title of the post is a Simpsons quote and not my personal philosophy, apologies for any confusion.
posted by Gratishades at 12:47 AM on March 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

My 5 year old managed to click through to a soft porn clip on an android display model in a store. Kids can get to explicit and for their age, confusing to scarring stuff really fast just with suggested video links.

She gets phone video access but it's unsupervised only within a very limited app (Samsung has a neat set-up where you can tightly limit the media/app access in Kid's Mode) otherwise she has to use them while next to a sibling or me so we can keep an ear/eye out for problems.

Current research is that the best learning at this age is highly involved and environmental, so unless your kid's stumbled onto an AI online, they're also not learning through conversation with a guide they have an affectionate relationship with such as a trusted teacher or a parent or even peer friends, so they aren't getting social-emotional feedback.

They're also not using their full range of body and senses to learn - no physical sensory involvement to make what they're learning stay in their longterm memory or to make richer connections, or to give them the crossover stuff that happens when they use both gross and fine motor skills.

They're losing a lot of the rich texture and the necessary silent space of being bored and stretched while messing about outdoors in a park or wandering around library shelves and curled up on someone's lap being read a familiar book and discussing the story then making a huge cardboard house and painting it with colourful splashes of wet sticky paint - all that ordinary texture of early childhood learning has a purpose and is very effective for young children in a way a flashy animated video isn't.

I regret time my kid spends on YouTube unsupervised. The educational games (Toca Boca and up) are slightly better but - she spent an hour this morning mixing kitchen ingredients together as a mad scientist and we talked a little about the Toca Lab app elements mixing, but also about what we'd read in books and seen in science documentaries watched together and other science play and she measured and mixed and we found that flour reacts with vinegar and baking soda which I hadn't predicted, and she was so happy at having "discovered" something new. She narrates life like a youtube video - "Hey guys, it's me and my mom doing a science experiment, see what we're up to!" but it's getting better.

Try an internet holiday or at least cutting it way down to screen time at half an hour a day before dinner (NOT near bedtime) and replace it with outdoor play and lots of building and reading time.

Think seriously about how much of this is using the phone/tablet as a babysitter. The parents I know who are heavy tech users for their kids are either hothousing and very involved or they are avoiding interacting with their kids.

And I totally use the phone like a TV to babysit. Last night, I gave her the phone to get 45 minutes of peace for an important phone call. There was no one else around to interact with her, and better she watch cartoon clips and prank videos for 45 minutes than be cranky as hell and ruin both our lives. But I'm not telling myself that I was educating her.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 12:49 AM on March 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

She narrates life like a youtube video - "Hey guys, it's me and my mom doing a science experiment, see what we're up to!" but it's getting better.

This -- I was hanging with an old friend who went from teaching high school to first grade and she said one of the most striking things about these kids is SO MANY of them think doing that type of narration is just what people do. She has to keep explaining to those kids we're not making a show, this isn't for anyone's channel and nobody is watching them. Some kids wonder why they have to do school if nobody's watching, but those kids are few and far between.

She said the biggest thing teachers notice is when they're doing a group book or activity, the kids have less questions from kids 10 years ago. They sit and listen and wait for someone to tell them what to do/say/think. They're polite kids but don't know how to be inquisitive with people. When teachers ask kids to think about how or why something happened, invariably at least TWO kids will ask why can't they just look it up.

You'd be way better off getting loads of books.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 1:45 AM on March 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

What I was trying to articulate is it's critical that kids learn how to problem solve without the internet if for no other reason than to be able to build that executive function brain muscle that can be applied to pretty much everything in life. You don't get that skill using the internet.

Problem solving requires a lot of executive functioning skills; knowing how to phrase inquiry, knowing reliable sources, getting multiple perspectives, and analyzing and synthesizing that information.

Teachers see SO MANY kids who no longer have this skill and okay, fine, the internet will always be there to explain the significance of the green light in Gatsby. But knowing how to independently problem solve works a part of your brain that Googling doesn't. The more we use that muscle, the better we are at solving ALL types of problems.

Lastly, internet information is mile wide and an inch deep. Googling a question and scanning through the first few answers will give you some type of answer, but doesn't build mental stamina and grit. Many teachers think of internet use by kids under 10 as the equivalent of a drug addiction -- sure, it may feel great for a while but it's really easy to become unable to function without it.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:11 AM on March 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

The YouTube kids app is very good at filtering bad stuff from YouTube. I would not let a kid search YouTube unfiltered at almost any age, there is a lot of terrible stuff on there. Even the kids app needs a bit of supervising - my child loves animal videos and occasionally the animal videos are a little too real, but it does filter out the disturbing proliferation of violent animal videos on YouTube.

We have an iPad with apps, but my kids are a little younger so I am not sure you can go backwards if he has already had unfettered internet access. Google chrome does have parental controls, so you could try that. I would encourage you to use parental controls wherever available. Beyond the obvious filtering of inappropriate content there are laws against collecting children's data, so if a site knows your child's age you are somewhat protected. Very, very few people use parental controls and it's a good tool that most companies implement (they are on your tv also of course).
posted by rainydayfilms at 5:25 AM on March 29, 2017

I'm really not sure how you're getting from this:

Taking away screen time would be felt as cruel,

to this:

and may undermine him coming to me with problems if I was seen to be too harsh with regards to what he can watch.

As others have stated, you're his parent, not his friend, so being "cruel" is not a consideration, and in any event, setting limits for a five-year-old is not "cruel" -- quite the opposite, in fact.

And the other part just doesn't make sense. You're saying that if you limit what he watches, he may not come to you for reassurance if he sees things that upset him? That's exactly the reason you should limit and supervise his screen time, not a reason to give him unfettered access to it whenever he wants. As dorothyisunderwood suggests, I think you need to ask yourself whether you're rationalizing his currently unlimited screen time because the internet makes a really excellent babysitter.
posted by holborne at 8:36 AM on March 29, 2017

So I'm not a parent, but I am young enough (and non-Western enough) to be one of the rare nearly-thirty-olds raised in a mostly screen-free environment. At that age, I got half an hour of TV on weekdays (an age-appropriate educational children's show), a couple of hours of cartoons on Saturday morning, and parent-approved children's movies on VHS (mostly Disney, but some others as well). Apart from that, my entertainment/education/enrichment experience was books, stories told by my grandparents, and playing with my dolls.

The idea of five-year-old me having unrestricted access to the internet as it exists now terrifies the life out of me.

Look, I get it, the internet is a convenient babysitter and it's easy to plonk your kid in front of a screen... but don't. Even if he doesn't happen upon something traumatising or pick up age-inappropriate behaviours, it's still really not good for people of any age to spend excessive amounts of time staring passively at a screen. If there's no other option... your local library has a wealth of resources, both online and off, for your kid.

Someone above suggested paper encyclopedias, and I heartily second the recommendation. I had a wealth of kid-friendly reference books, and, as I got older, Charlie Brown's Clyopedia, the Time-Life Life Science Library, and a variety of Reader's Digest books (Tell Me Why, Why In the World, The Origin of Everyday Things) and they were magic to a curious little girl, with the bonus that I couldn't accidentally happen upon hentai vore. Hell, reading National Geographic gave me a better English vocabulary than a good chunk of native English speakers. Despite the takeover, Nat Geo has excellent stuff for kids his age and I can't recommend it highly enough.

TL;DR: please, please, get your kid off the internet and into reading instead. It's not as convenient a babysitter, no, but it'll be better for him in the long run.
posted by Tamanna at 9:39 AM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just here to say that YouTube kids has gotten some bad press for having sick, twisted things. Disney characters getting beheaded sort of twisted. The video sound typically does not deviate from expectation so you would have to be watching very closely to notice. More info here and elsewhere.
posted by crunchy potato at 11:39 AM on March 29, 2017

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