Kids these days love YouTube. It is a wealth of amazing watching for them, from episodes of their favourite TV shows, to educational videos, “how-to” videos, and even videos of other kids opening Kinder Eggs (no, I don’t get the appeal of that last one either!). Since my kids have had access to YouTube (thanks to the YouTube Kids app) they have chosen to watch videos there rather than on the television. But for me as a parent, YouTube is an absolutely minefield. By default, despite the vast amount of child-orientated content, it is not a child friendly platform at all. The clever YouTube algortithms that suggest related videos that you might like to watch after your chosen video completes can easily take kids down a rabbit hole that ends up a long way away from where they started. Two years ago the Internet security company Kaspersky published research that showed on average any child using YouTube was just 3 clicks of the mouse away from watching something entirely inappropriate on the platform. In one example, a music video featuring swearing and guns was two clicks away from a Rastamouse clip.
Up until recently I have been very careful with my kids and YouTube. I started off completely blocking it from them (I use OpenDNS Family Shield on their devices to block specific web sites I don’t want them to get to). Last year the geekdaddy and I decided that the geekdaughter was probably old enough to navigate YouTube sensibly, so I allowed her to access it, making sure that YouTube restricted mode was enabled on her account. Even that isn’t 100% guaranteed, so I made sure that if she was watching videos then we were keeping an eye on her. Not necessarily standing right over her, but walking past regularly to ensure everything was OK.
A couple of months ago Google finally released their much anticipated YouTube Kids app in the UK (it had been available in the US for a good few months before, and I was very keen to try it out). This is an app for Android and iOS devices that gives kids much safer access to age-appropriate content on the platform, and I’d been impatient for it to be released here. After testing it out myself first, I decided it was good enough that I would let the geekson have access to it. I also wanted to get the geekdaughter using it as well, but wasn’t sure how willing she would be, given that she was used to having a freer rein.
Initial Set Up
After installing the YouTube Kids app the first time you open it it takes you step by step through customising the app to suit you and your child.
All the parent areas are protected by PIN entry. The default set up is for the app to give you 4 numbers to type in, spelt out in word format. Obviously this won’t keep older children out of the settings area, but you do have the option to set your own PIN later on in the process.
Once you’ve correctly entered the requested four numbers you are given a little bit more information to read about the app, and also told how to flag videos as inappropriate if you feel they’ve been incorrectly included. Whilst so far, with copious testing by both my kids, we haven’t seen any sign of anything inappropriate, Google are very keen to stress that there are automated systems behind the scenes determining what content is kid-friendly, and no automated system is perfect.
Next you are asked which kinds of videos your child enjoys, and you can select from “pre-school”, “school age” or “all kids”. As both my kids are now at school I selected “all kids” for both of them, but it’s nice to have the option to narrow down the selection available for younger kids if needed.
The final step of the setup is to decide whether you want to turn search on or off for your child. Turning search off will severely limit the videos your child has access to, which is better for younger children or nervous parents. Given that the geekdaughter was already using “full” YouTube I decided my best way to get her to convert to this more restricted app was to allow her search access. I also decided to allow the geekson to search as well.
Once you’ve completed these steps the app is all set up, and you can pass it over to your kids.
The YouTube Kids app has been designed from the ground up with kids in mind. The navigation is very simple – when your child opens the app they are presented with a selection of videos to watch. These are initially simply a default selection, but as your child watches more content the clever Google algorithms will start tailoring this first screen to their own viewing habits.
There are four main categories – shows, music, learning and explore. The content of each category is what you would expect based on its name.
Kids can swipe the screen to browse the videos (the categories automatically flow into each other), and then tap to select the video they want to watch. When the video first opens a selection of related videos are shown along the bottom of the screen, but after a few seconds the video switches to full screen view. After that your child can take the video in and out of full screen display by simply tapping the screen. The video can be paused provided it is not in full screen mode by tapping the pause icon at the bottom left corner.
When the video reaches the end it automatically starts playing the next recommended video (there is a brief drop out of full screen mode at this point to enable your child to pick something else if they wish).
There is no way to see the video description, or any comments, and your child can’t add comments.
If you have enabled search there is a big red search icon at the top right hand side of the main screen. This enables your child to type whatever they are looking for. There is also a microphone icon which, if pressed, will allow your child to say what they are looking for.
There is an autocomplete for typing, so your child will find as they type they will be presented with a suggested list of what they might be looking for.
I haven’t tested the search function extensively, but I have tried putting in a few rude words, and they all came back with no results. So whilst it’s true that your child will be able to gain access to a wider range of content with the search function enabled, it is still curated to make the best effort possible to ensure only child-friendly videos can be found.
You can access the parental controls at any time by tapping the little padlock icon in the bottom right hand corner of the main menu screen. You’ll be prompted for a passcode, and if you haven’t chosen your own PIN you’ll be given the option to do so on this screen as well.
The parental controls menu is very simple – it gives you access to the timer, the settings and to a feedback button which allows you to send an “I’m happy with YouTube Kids” or “I’m unhappy about YouTube kids” message to Google.
The timer is a useful tool if you want to limit the length of time your child can watch videos for. You can use a slider to select how long the app should operate for.
Once the time limit is reached, the screen switches to a little face to let the child know it is time to stop.
Now, this lock is not infallible. My daughter worked her way around it pretty quickly, and any child who is familiar with using the double tap on the home button to force apps to close is likely to be able to do the same. But for younger kids it’s a good way of making sure they don’t spend longer than you wish watching, which is useful, especially with the way the videos autoplay one after the other.
The Settings menu allows you to tweak the app. By default there is background music to all the selection screens, which can get very repetitive very quickly, and there are sound effects, like a “swoosh” as your child swipes between screens. Both of these can be turned off if you wish. In addition the ability to search can be switched off and on here, so if you’re unhappy with the choice you made on initial set up you can change it. The final option is to turn “Cast” on or off. This refers to the ability to “cast” videos from the app to a Chomecast or Miracast device to view on a different screen. It’s worth noting that this control does not disable AirPlay on an iOS device, which as far as I can tell can not be disabled in the app.
YouTube kids contains advertising, which Google say is to enable them to keep the app free. This isn’t advertising like you’re used to seeing on YouTube – when videos are playing there are no lower screen ad boxes. But from time to time your child will be presented with an unskippable video advert, which can either play before their selected video or can be inserted into their selected video mid-roll. These adverts are clearly identified as such with a short video clip which includes a child’s voice saying “We’ll be back after this ad”. There is no option (currently at least) to remove these adverts. I hope this is an something that Google consider in the future – I would certainly pay a monthly subscription of a few pounds to have an ad-free experience for my kids (or even better, bring YouTube Red to the UK and allow Red subscribers to remove the adverts from YouTube Kids).
I should also mention that a large amount of content that your kids enjoy could be considered advertising, even though it is not identified as such. Videos of other kids opening toys will make your child want those toys just as much as any traditional advert. My kids are both currently obsessed with watching people open Shopkins products on YouTube, and of course this makes them want them themselves. I think it’s important that as parents we have an ongoing conversation with our kids about the power of advertising in its many forms.
Our Verdict on YouTube Kids
I am extremely happy about YouTube Kids. It is great to have an app which allows my kids to access the wealth of video content available on YouTube as safely as is possible. Again it’s important to note that there are automated systems behind the scenes determining what content is kid-friendly, and no automated system is perfect. So YouTube won’t guarantee that your child will never see anything inappropriate with the app, but it’s definitely worlds better than letting them access “standard” YouTube. I was impressed that the geekdaughter happily transferred to the YouTube Kids app after having more free access – she found all the videos she liked, and was reassured by knowing that she wouldn’t stumble upon something inappropriate. My son, who didn’t previously have any YouTube access, has enjoyed discovering a whole range of different content, and I find him watching something different each day. The parental controls are simple, but allow you to tweak the important settings of the app to suit your family. The only improvement I would like to see is an option to remove the in-app advertising, either via a one-off payment or a small monthly subscription. If you have young kids, YouTube Kids is a great app for them.
Now I just wish they’d release it on Windows as well – we bought the geekdaughter a little Windows laptop for Christmas, and I’ve gone back to allowing her to access YouTube vie the browser with careful monitoring and parental controls. I’d be happier if she could still use YouTube Kids on that platform too. There’s also no version for the Kindle Fire, which is a shame as that is proving a very popular tablet for kids these days.