At 17 years of age, YouTube is downright ancient in social media years. Yet, for teens, this hip grandaddy is number one.
According to a new Pew Research Center survey on the social media habits of American teenagers ages 13 to 17, YouTube is the unrivaled dominant social media site, with 95 percent claiming to use the video streaming service. The next most popular platform, TikTok, is relatively far behind at 67 percent.
What’s impossible to fathom is how 19 percent of teens use YouTube “almost constantly” (according to their self-reporting in this study). This constant use is an interesting feat considering a significant amount of their time is presumably spent in school or sleeping.
Why Teens Love YouTube
It’s simple. Kids love videos. Visual media is the order of the day, whether it’s a how-to on bike building, an influencer video about fashion, or the viral sensation du jour (like the “cornboy,” whose video enjoys over eight million views).
“Video is rich media,” said Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, “it conveys emotion and context in addition to content. It’s also social. The content is audience-conscious, reflecting the creator’s intention to connect and engage.”
In ancient times, people might have gathered in person to talk about the previous night’s football game or the most recent episode of Friends. But today, Rutledge said, “YouTube and TikTok are the teen equivalent of football at the water cooler. Using these mediums provides social capital and social validation.”
What Else Do Teens Love About YouTube?
It’s searchable. Years ago, a student of mine admitted to watching YouTube two days in a row, for eight solid hours each day. My knee-jerk reaction to this admission was, “What a sad waste of time!” But later, I learned that he spent this time watching videos on how to make a computer, which he then did.
Today, when kids want the answer to something or explore an interest, as my student did, they don’t turn to Google but to YouTube or TikTok. They don’t want to read through pages of boring text. They want an instantly-delivered visual explanation to their questions.
It caters to the mind’s desire for novelty. The YouTube algorithm is a recommendation system that determines which videos to suggest to users. The aim is to cue up videos catered to their interests. This mechanism gives teens the best of both worlds: more of what they like without knowing what they’ll get.
“Viewing can be a physically rewarding experience because surprise triggers the reward center of the brain,” explained Rutledge. “It’s also social, as teens can connect with like-minded people watching the same videos.”
It’s entertaining! Let’s face it. Teens have had a tough couple of years, from a worldwide pandemic to tumultuous environmental and global affairs. Many people simply turn to YouTube as an escape, and who can blame them? Humorous videos can provide a much-needed respite.
They can be creative. Teens love platforms like YouTube and TikTok because not only do they get to watch creative content, they get to create it too. Plus, they can share their creativity widely, potentially reaching millions of people. And sometimes, through YouTube’s Partner Program, for example, they may even be compensated for their talents.
What’s To Worry About?
Inappropriate content. An investigation conducted by Mozilla into YouTube’s recommendation system discovered that the most frequent categories of inappropriate content on the site were: misinformation, violent or graphic content, hate speech, and spam/scams.
Researchers found the site’s algorithm to be the problem as “71 percent of the inappropriate content reported came from videos recommended by YouTube’s automatic recommendation system.”
Furthermore, many of the videos fell into what YouTube calls “borderline content”—videos that “skirt the borders” of their Community Guidelines without actually violating them.” As an example, the report pointed to the animated video Woody’s Got Wood, which was actually “a sexualized parody of the children’s film Toy Story.”
Rabbit holes. Since YouTube’s algorithm recommends content based on what it determines users are interested in, it often suggests videos that reinforce existing ideas or beliefs. For teens still forming their own ideas, beliefs, and values, such rabbit holes or “echo chambers” consisting of one-sided perspectives can be extremely dangerous. Additionally, many argue that this phenomenon (not unique to YouTube) fuels the increasingly polarized culture we find ourselves in.
Misinformation. According to a study about YouTube as a source of information, “Over one-quarter of the most viewed YouTube videos on COVID-19 contained misleading information, reaching millions of viewers worldwide.” This statistic is particularly concerning, considering teens increasingly use the platform as a search engine.
Furthermore, “images and videos may seem more believable than words alone,” according to Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, Executive Director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). “It’s incredibly challenging for teens to navigate the firehose of information coming from click-hungry digital creators,” said Lipkin.
What Can Parents Do?
“Ensuring teens are able to analyze and evaluate images, and video is essential, not only as consumers of information but as creators,” explained Lipkin. Her organization, NAMLE, advocates for media literacy education to be a staple of every teen’s educational diet. According to the organization’s website, “NAMLE envisions a day when everyone, in our nation and around the world, possesses the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.”
Teens should also understand what an algorithm is and how it works to determine if they are being manipulated by the platforms they use. They should know that they can opt out of recommendation systems like YouTube’s and learn strategies that allow them to recognize misinformation, report it, and avoid sharing it.
As Lipkin explained it, “Teens are creating media every day. The more media literate they are, the healthier our media landscape will be.”