"What are you watching...?"

In A World Of Limitless Media Options, Why Are Our Kids Watching Dumb YouTube Videos?

More & more, kids seem to gravitate toward short-form media. Should we be worried?

My 12-year-old son has developed a fondness for sending me frenetic, nonsensical YouTube shorts.When I’ve reached my limit for the day — somewhere around the 17th — I usually respond with some variation of “My love, I’m not asking you to get off screens but for the love of God, please, please: watch something with a narrative.”

“No!” he’ll quip merrily. Within minute’s he’ll send me a text reading “This is sooo funny” along with another YouTube short of, I don’t know, some shrieking, hyperactive 19-year-old making a duet over a Minecraft stream. All I can think, after I stretch my jaw in an attempt to soothe my pierced eardrums, is “He could be watching Stranger Things. Or Avatar: The Last Air Bender. Come to think of it, he could be reading any book he wants. Why on earth would he choose this?”

I know I am not alone. Among parents of tweens and teens I know, there appears to be a largely unspoken hierarchy of screen time at play. We’ve long since stopped worrying about our toddler accidentally glimpsing a cartoon playing in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. (“He’s allowed 22 minutes of screen time a day! Should we count the 13 minutes he watched Peppa Pig while waiting to get his latest round of vaccinations?”) But we’re parents, so we still have worries. Surely, we think, a half an hour of Gravity Falls trumps a half an hour of mindless scrolling. Learning about the world in 30 second spurts, can’t be good for their brains. Right?

“It’s weird how I have a hierarchy of screen time, but I do,” admits Eve, a mom of two in Massachusetts. “My teens really like television and movies if that’s what’s showing, but don’t seek it out because the phone is in their hand or pocket and with them everywhere they go … I also think [Instagram] Reels are largely trash and wish they were watching television shows!”

“I'm trying really hard not to judge but sometimes it takes all of my willpower!” laments Courtney, a mom of two in California. “Yesterday and today my 9-year-old was watching this really odd YouTube channel with these really ridiculously silly little videos and every 15 seconds they play the same audio clip over and over and over and over. It seems so inane. But it really bothered my son when I made fun of it so I tried not to!”

Researchers have also taken notice of this change in tween and teen media habits. Yalda T. Uhls, Founder and CEO of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers at UCLA, says that TikTok changed the game when it came to how social media companies like YouTube and Meta started putting out content — and how kids began consuming it. When I ask her if there’s anything to affirm our trepidation about how short-form content might be detrimental to our kids, she’s diplomatic but clear.

“You are using your adult experience with media to judge your children's use of media,” she told me. “It's something that nearly every parent has ever done since the beginning of time. Parents used to do this with books. Kids would read Horatio Alger and Jane Austen and many adults would freak out because they didn't grow up reading that kind of stuff, if reading at all. They were worried that reading would ruin young minds.

“It could just be that we're finally giving them the content that was developmentally appropriate for them.”

“That kind of thing happened over and over again: Our children grow up with this stuff, they adapt to it much quicker, they use it, they understand the language of it, and we feel scared and we don't understand it so we judge it, which is not necessarily the best way to parent your child's media consumption.”

In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to children’s entertainment — or parents’ confused and negative reactions to it. In the immortal words of The Breakfast Club (which critics at the time didn’t always get either): the kids haven’t changed, you have.

That’s not to say watching a half an hour of reels is exactly the same as watching a half an hour of a traditional children’s show, either. Uhls explains that there are cognitive differences in terms of comprehension, but she says that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, short-form entertainment might be just your child’s speed.

“It takes a very long time for someone to really try to understand a full story,” she explains. “Some research finds that it takes until the age 14 to understand moral theme content. It could just be that we're finally giving them the content that was developmentally appropriate for them.”

Do not Uhls’s reasoning as proof that TikTok is ideal teen entertainment: she acknowledges that we don’t know enough to say so one way or the other. She does note that early research seems to indicate that there isn’t substantial evidence to suggest that shorter formats are more harmful or helpful in children’s learning and development. Moreover, she’s not aware of any research that suggests that indulging in short-form entertainment interferes with a child’s ability to watch or appreciate longer media.

“I think we're neurodiverse: everybody's different,” she says. “Some people like to process information really quickly. Some people like to process information more slowly. Some people like to jump from thing to thing to thing. Some people like to stick to one thing.”

Most people, she notes, use media to “space out.” Who can’t relate to the sense of not having the mental bandwidth to watch an hour of the latest cerebral prestige drama, but can half-watch 5 episodes of The Office while scrolling on our phones. Kids need that mental space too.

“Maybe they've had a really hard day at school,” she says. “They’ve had to sit in a classroom, listen, have all these friends around them doing different things. Being rejected, being pulled one way, being pulled another way, and they come home and they just need to space out: maybe that's what an hour of these TikTok reels is doing for them. It's allowing their brain to recover their emotions, to calm down.”

“If you are judging what they're doing, they will pick up on it and they will hide it from you.”

She also observes that nothing in her research has her worried about the disappearance of longer entertainment like movies and TV shows: a 90 -minute movie is giving more complexity, nuance, and general information than even the most compelling TikTok video. “All the things that make great story stories, that's never going to be replaced,” Uhls says. “We just had the Oscars: That kind of storytelling has been around forever and it's really important to humanity.”

So that hierarchy of screens? Probably among the sillier (and, if we’re being honest about our own social media habits, hypocritical) things parents worry about. But more importantly, we dismiss and mock our children’s chosen form of entertainment at our peril.

“I really, really think it's important for parents to understand that if you want to have a good relationship with your child, you don't want them to not share their media world with you because that is part of their world,” she cautions. “If you are judging what they're doing, they will pick up on it and they will hide it from you.”

She urges parents to be curious: ask children questions about what they’re watching and take some time to engage with it as well, not only to gauge whether it’s appropriate but to understand this aspect of their children’s lives. Not only is it a new (or maintained) method of bonding, but it means that if they do come across something troubling — misinformation, mean, bullying, or racist content, or other kinds of inappropriate videos — they’ll be more likely to come to a curious parent than a judgmental one.

The next time my son wanted me to watch a video, I put my own phone down to watch. The video was… whatever. But as my kid, who’s almost as tall as I am at this point, snuggled next to me and giggled watching a YouTuber frenetically make jokes about a nest of baby owls, I let myself smile and snuggle back.