Over the previous several years of teaching, I have increasingly observed the assimilation of certain phrases into the primary classroom. First, it was a show-and-tell presentation that ended with, ‘Please subscribe!’, then some children referred me to YouTube to learn what their parents did for a living. Eventually, my students were asking me to watch their videos on how to make slime and now they tell me to check out their channels. It has been quite a transformation for me to start working in schools where YouTube was banned to rely on it to teach every day during the coronavirus school closures. When I was at school I wouldn’t have imagined that becoming a YouTuber would be a realistic way to make a living. With such a fast-paced change, it’s important to reflect on the opportunities and threats this presents the children in our care.
Much has been written about screen time and the problems of technology addiction among children, and this Psychreg article outlines the dangers very clearly. My general takeaway from all that research is that technology has the potential to cause problems, but the best way to deal with those problems isn’t necessarily to shield children from that content, but to teach them to discern how to use it wisely while trying to be responsible role models ourselves.
I won’t focus on the consumption of online content, which is a vast topic covering TikTok, Snapchat and other platforms I honestly feel too old to understand. Instead, I want to consider children and their desire to become YouTubers, now and in the future. Perhaps when we were children, we imagined being famous one day; for many of today’s children, YouTubers are undoubtedly the biggest stars. An article on Common Sense Media explains the phenomenon and the site is a great source for advice on technology concerns in relation to children.
As teachers, we encourage students to demonstrate their understanding in a range of different ways because some children are better at writing essays and others are better at creating posters. We shouldn’t just let children choose their favourite option every time (they need to learn new skills), but encourage them to try communicating through different media and challenging themselves. Video production is now a method of communication that is universally accessible and it’s important for teachers to help children become fluent in expressing their ideas in this way, just as it is important to teach letter writing skills and how to present slides on a presentation. With online learning, producing videos to showcase understanding is actually one of the most effective methods of informal assessment, although it’s time-consuming for teachers because some students want to share so much more than when they write on paper!
The skills of communicating effectively through the medium of video need to be taught, rather than just assuming that children will pick it up automatically. We only need to look at a few videos of politicians trying to relate to the general public through shaky, portrait monologues to see why this matters. Part of that instruction should cover how to keep ourselves safe online, by protecting our identity and controlling what we share. Some of the risks are explained by the Safer Internet Centre on their website.
YouTube is not purely a video hosting website – it’s a social network and that makes it more complicated for use in educational contexts. These elements can be controlled inside a school network by controlling access and commenting rights. Schools can choose which age to allow children to have access to YouTube with their Google accounts, but we know that many students have access to personal accounts at home and ignore the age restrictions. What happens outside of the school domain is not under our control but we do have a responsibility to be aware of what is happening. Children under 13 are not allowed their own YouTube accounts, but in reality, they do have them and they are posting content and commenting without parental oversight.
Being a social network, children use YouTube as a way to connect with friends and strangers around the world. They present a version of themselves that might not reflect their true character and behave in a way that has fewer restrictions and safeguards than normal social relationships provide. Hiding behind online anonymity gives children some safety, but their online profile becomes part of themselves and interactions directed towards that profile feel every bit as real as they were aimed at the real person, taking a toll on their mental health. Taking on a personality older than their true age also exposes children to an environment that is unsuitable for them. YouTube has taken steps to disable comments on videos containing children, but the risks have not been eliminated completely.
Even when children post content anonymously, they risk revealing more details about their true identity than they realise. Our faces are increasing a form of electronic identification and clues such as school uniforms, browser tabs on a screenshot or the address on a parcel could give away an uncomfortable amount of information to be used for unscrupulous ends.
Virtually every YouTuber mentions the subscribe button in the course of their video. It’s extremely important for the monetisation of their work, but for children, there is the desire for approval through likes, subscriptions and comments on social media. It surprised some of my students that my educational videos could earn me so many views and subscribers (my students) when they were desperate for likes on their own social media. This can become more fierce when peers also have YouTube channels and the sense of competition can turn to bullying; first online, then transferring to the classroom or playground.
Erik Erikson considered that children go through a stage between 5 and 12 years of age, where they experience a psychosocial crisis of industry vs inferiority. If a child is not able to get through this stage successfully developing a sense of competence, it’s thought to be harmful to their development. The very public social aspects of YouTube must have the potential to magnify this harm.
The struggle to maintain popularity on YouTube can be exhausting for adults. To keep having videos recommended, you need to keep producing new videos frequently, which involves new ideas and time spent in production. For children, this can be very unhealthy because of the mental strain involved. The issues involved are similar to those faced by child celebrities, but on an industrial scale. Of course, it could be argued that spending time to produce something is more worthwhile than mindlessly consuming TV or computer games, but those activities can affect our well-being positively if used as a way to unwind.
While many children look to YouTubers as role models and want to become influencers when they grow up, I think we should help children see the limitations of such ambitions. If they understand the hours of hard work that go into understanding your audience and the painstaking process of finely editing videos and still want to pursue that career path, then we could be more encouraging, because they are certainly not looking for an easy way to make a living. Teachers have the privilege of teaching children new skills such as video production but our most helpful role continues to be that of imparting knowledge to our students so that they have something interesting to talk about on our channels. We also have the responsibility to demonstrate how we prioritise well-being as we work in demanding jobs. This might involve being honest and open about our own struggles and is a topic I would like to look into more deeply.
Practically speaking, to involve students in using videos in the classroom, I found that Flipgrid is a good option to have students interact with each other in a restricted, monitored environment. YouTube is good for sharing longer videos and this can be handled carefully using school accounts and sensible restrictions. Parents need to be aware of what their children are posting on YouTube, and they might take this more seriously when reminded that the insides of their homes are being exposed to the public. Finally, it’s also worth considering the hard work that YouTubers put in to produce content and perhaps we should give a comment, a like or subscribe, because it might just be the encouragement they need!
Jim Nelson is a primary school teacher from Northern Ireland who has also worked in secular and Christian international schools in China and Hong Kong.