Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Kids are curious by nature. This can be a great thing, but it can also create risks, especially when it comes to content online. Virtually every child will be exposed to some type of developmentally inappropriate content online at some point during their growing-up years.
Much of this exposure is unintentional, especially in younger children. As they grow it is more likely their curiosity will lead them to intentionally search for information and other content around topics you’d prefer they didn’t. Knowing how to support kids and address these issues is an important part of parenting in the digital age.
The effects of inappropriate content on young people
When children and teens view content that is inappropriate for their developmental level, it can lead to:
- other negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The concerns most often raised are around pornography promoting unsafe or unhealthy sexual activities. However, any type of developmentally inappropriate content can cause fear and distress in young people, whether it’s sexual in nature or not.
This can include dramatic content or stories that are above their current level of understanding, any type of violence, substance use, self-harming behaviors, and any type of information they are too young to comprehend. I often see kids in my practice who keep secrets about what they’re viewing online, because they are scared or ashamed to talk with adults about it, and it can lead to so much confusion and distress that shows up in their daily relationships and behavior.
Why is there so much disturbing content on YouTube?
YouTube has become one of the primary platforms where children, including very young children, view content online. While some of the videos are safe, developmentally appropriate, and entertaining for kids, the reality is that there are an increasingly large number of videos that are not.
You may have had the experience of setting your child up with the tablet to watch a video of their favorite cartoon, only to discover a little while later that they’ve also viewed several concerning videos you didn’t know about. This is a common occurrence, and the algorithms and auto-play features of YouTube (and other platforms) can lead to kids being exposed to content they and their parents never intended.
It’s important for parents to be aware that many videos online have words, character names, and other things in the title that seem to indicate safe child-focused programming, but in reality they’re not. Some entire channels on YouTube and YouTube Kids are devoted to content that is creepy at best and harmful at worst for children, under the guise of video titles that seem innocent.
This is why it’s so important for parents to be aware of what kids are watching, and use the settings and other parental controls to minimize exposure to inappropriate video content.
What to do if your child has been exposed to inappropriate content online
It can be distressing as a parent to realize your child has been exposed to content you never would want them viewing. Emotions can run high, and we run the risk of reacting in ways that shame our kids and end up making them more secretive about what they’re seeing. Here are steps you can take:
1. The first thing to do if this happens is to work on staying calm and regulating your own emotions. It’s often best to wait until you’re calm and have thought it through before addressing the situation with your child.
2. The next step is to approach your child with a stance of curiosity and support. Instead of blaming and shaming, we want to ask questions like “tell me more about that video”, “show me how you got to that page”, or “how did that make you feel”. These kinds of questions lead to open communication and help your child process and learn from the situation.
3. It’s important to address issues related to safety, health, and discerning what content is OK and what isn’t. This obviously evolves as your child grows, which is why these conversations need to happen ongoing. Tell your child what content is not OK and why, including your concerns about what could happen for them if they view inappropriate content.
You might be wondering how you can help your child to recognize inappropriate content online. Some ways to help them think about what’s OK to view and what isn’t:
- is the video something you’d be comfortable watching with your own parent?
- are there things that feel confusing to you?
- is anyone being harmed?
- are the people wearing clothes or not?, etc.
4. Be clear with your child about what they should do if they inadvertently come across something that they think isn’t safe or healthy for them. By maintaining open and supportive communication you increase the likelihood that they will tell you.
Make sure they know who they can talk to about these things, and show them how to report these kinds of videos and other content in the apps they use. Helping your child report inappropriate content is also a good way to model taking action to protect themselves and others.
How to protect children from inappropriate content online
As with most things in life, prevention is the best approach whenever possible. While it’s not reasonable to expect that kids will never be exposed to inappropriate content online, even with the best protections in place, there are proactive steps parents can take to minimize this issue. Using parental controls that come on devices and are built into apps is a basic first step.
Beyond that I highly recommend utilizing a tool like Qustodio to set limits and more effectively monitor kids’ use and behavior online. Talking about these issues early and often is also key, as kids who are prepared and have a compass for what’s appropriate and what isn’t are better prepared to deal with these situations when they arise.