Learned #36: My YouTube

In which we watch some videos.

Remember life before YouTube? Pulling videos off the internet in painfully slow, often-broken, obscure file formats from the sketchiest of chatrooms and bbs systems? It was both liberating and slightly terrifying as the implications of digital video began to sink in and then…

Then YouTube arrived in all its glory and the world changed. Over the past decade and change YouTube has become a boon for nostalgia-seekers, language learners, DIYers, and everyone else with some time to kill. It has spawned dozens of clones and copy-cats, some dedicated to Art, others to, well, not art. Add in some monetization and, boom, “a YouTuber” is now every kids’ go to answer for “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

So far, it’s done a lot of good for the world. Easy access to news and learning content is truly a good thing. However, at the current moment, we’re starting to see machine-created, algorithm-generated content proliferate at rates that surprise even their creators. And a lot of this stuff is for kids. Only, this new content may be breaking their fragile little minds.

This is problematic. Not only do I let my kid watch far more of the YouTubes than I probably should, I recommend it to students and parents all the damn time. I mean, for anyone learning a language, YT is the ultimate resource - thousands of native speakers of dozens of different languages talking about whatever is on their minds or going on in their culture? People used to travel for months in the harshest of conditions to have that kind of access…

What to do, what to do? Is YouTube really the great resource and tool that it was designed to be? Or is it a hopeless swamp of the worst the world has to offer?

In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: Why YouTube Has Become a Problem

  • What We’re Reading: How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Since We’re All on YouTube Anyway

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

The Problem

A little over a year ago, I came across this post on Medium: Something is Wrong on the Internet by James Bridle. It’s not a comforting read. In it, the author details the largely automated process by which a lot of kids material can be generated…

A friend who works in digital video described to me what it would take to make something like this: a small studio of people (half a dozen, maybe more) making high volumes of low quality content to reap ad revenue by tripping certain requirements of the system (length in particular seems to be a factor). According to my friend, online kids’ content is one of the few alternative ways of making money from 3D animation because the aesthetic standards are lower and independent production can profit through scale.

…and the horrific videos that can result from it:

in the official Peppa Pig videos, Peppa does indeed go to the dentist…In the version above, she is basically tortured, before turning into a series of Iron Man robots and performing the Learn Colours dance.

I don’t want my kid to see that. Bridle cites this piece from the New York Times in his piece, which has its own horrors:

The 10-minute clip “PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized,” was a nightmarish imitation of an animated series in which a boy and a pack of rescue dogs protect their community from troubles like runaway kittens and rock slides. In the video Isaac watched, some characters died and one walked off a roof after being hypnotized by a likeness of a doll possessed by a demon.

Good grief. In the year since these pieces have come out, highlighting the problem, YouTube (and corporate owner Google) have made attempts to combat the problem, but to little effect.

What to Do About It

So. YouTube is a cesspool of algorithm-generated horrors that no child should be allowed to watch. And yet, kids gonna kid and they want their YouTube. Also, let’s be honest, as parents, we want a break. If a half-hour of YouTube is going to keep them happy so we can vacuum and wash the dishes, ok, so we can take a nap, then so much the better. So what can we do?

Caroline Knorr, writing on Common Sense Media, put together A Parent’s Guide to YouTube that I, personally, have found very useful. In the article, Ms. Knorr recommends several easy steps, including:

  • watching with your kid

  • subscribing to good (e.g. safe) channels

  • checking out the channel and video creators

  • and turning on restricted mode

Of all these, I feel like the first and the last are most important. By watching with your kid, you can get a feel for the kinds of videos they are most interested in and, more importantly, which videos the recommendation engines are picking up on and serving more of. Once you’ve got a good idea of what content your kid is interested in and what is being served to them, you can use the parental controls to limit access to only what’s acceptable within those limits.

Of course none of this helps when kids have gotten interested in something you don’t feel like they should be watching in the first place, but that’s a different discussion entirely. For the moment, for my household, we’ve made an effort to follow the steps outlined above. We’ve watched the videos my kid likes and made sure they’re from legitimate channels and that the recommendations don’t take her too far away from the creators and series we think are okay. I can only hope it’s enough.

*Note: I very deliberately did not link to the videos mentioned in the sources I quoted. In some cases, they’ve been removed, but in all cases, they’re just a little bit of misery no one needs in their life and I don’t want to contribute to their view counts even by proxy.

What We’re Reading:

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7

by Joanna Faber & Julie King

Being a parent is hard enough; I don’t particularly want to do homework for it. But, I do want to be a better parent sometimes. (Other times, I’m the best Dad in the World. I have a mug that says so and everything.)

The book is fairly long, at 400 plus pages, but it’s been recommended to me by a couple of friends and teachers so I guess I should take the hint.

From the Amazon page:

This user-friendly guide will empower parents and caregivers of young children to forge rewarding, joyful relationships with terrible two-year-olds, truculent three-year-olds, ferocious four-year-olds, foolhardy five-year-olds, self-centered six-year-olds, and the occasional semi-civilized seven-year-old. And, it will help little kids grow into self-reliant big kids who are cooperative and connected to their parents, teachers, siblings, and peers.

Well. Sign me up.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Since We’re All on YouTube Anyway -

Up in the intro, I mentioned that YouTube is a fantastic resource for anyone learning a second language, and it is. You can find natural language videos in Spanish and French, naturally, but also in dozens of more obscure, less-widely-spoken languages like Hawaiian (approx. 600,000 native speakers) and Cherokee (approx. 12,000 native speakers.)

But there’s a crucial difference between the videos linked above: The French and Spanish ones are by native speakers for native speakers, while the Hawaiian and Cherokee ones are for learners. Nothing wrong with either set, but for this rabbit hole, we’re going to be looking at the former category.

One of the common problems with teaching English in my neck of the woods (Japan) is that once my students step out of the classroom, they don’t have many chances to actually speak in English. And I mean just talk. Have a conversation. Not, give directions or help someone find something in a supermarket, but just talking. So, I recommend that they find a YouTube channel they like and watch it. A lot.

So, what makes a good recommendation? Basically, it needs to be a channel where someone talks to you, or one where two or three people are having a conversation about something you’re interested in. But here’s the key: the video can’t stop so the teacher can look at the camera and tell you what the lesson is, no, these are videos that we native speakers enjoy. Really, if you’re in a language vacuum, there’s no better way to practice.

All that said, here’s my list:

First, I’ve got two sources I use for finding stuff on YouTube:

Channels and Series I recommend:

  • Adam Savage’s Tested: One Day Builds: Not only is this pure competence in action, Adam talks, at breakneck speed, to the camera, guiding you through his work.

  • Frank Howarth: Like Adam Savage, Frank does what he does really well. In this case, it’s woodworking and talking to the camera in slow, measured tones that are, frankly, quite relaxing.

  • Mashed and / or Tasty: While there’s no one talking directly at you, the videos here (about food) are narrated at a pace and level that most intermediate level students should be okay with.

  • Epicurious: Another food channel, this one mixes narrated videos with people talking to you. Both are great. And the food looks fantastic.

  • Bon Appetite’s Gourmet Makes: This series is a personal fave. Chef Claire attempts to recreate famous desserts and snacks in the Bon Appetite kitchen. This is great for students because Claire talks to the camera as well as other people in the kitchen.

Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds more. But, if you’re teaching and need some resources, these are great places to start. And, if you’re learning a language, then take a look at these channels and then look for similar ones done in your target language. You’ll find it helps, really.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.