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Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up on YouTube

A few months ago I picked up my daughter from her friend’s house.  When I asked what they did she told me they made videos.  As I left, the mother of the friend mentioned that they had posted the videos on YouTube.  Instantly, in my mind, red flags went up.  “YouTube videos and you didn’t ask us if that was alright?” I thought.  I kept quiet and waited to get further information.

My daughter described the videos to me and I had some initial concerns.  The videos starred a character, played by her friend, who was very loosely based on a peer of theirs.  I wondered if the kids had gone too far.  I hoped they hadn’t and hoped that what they had done was appropriate.  A couple of weeks went by and after dealing with everything else life throws our way my wife and I were able to watch the videos.  What was great was that the videos were perfectly fine, innocuous to say the least, and exactly what you would think a fifth grader would make.  What quickly became a problem was the context of YouTube.

If you have a YouTube account it sets up a home page for you, a sort of faux MySpace page. It lists the videos you’ve posted, allows you to list your favorite videos that others have made and lists subscriptions.  Subscriptions are the video accounts that you’ve chosen to keep track of (be notified of new postings, etc.) or are other YouTube video accounts that have chosen to be kept informed of what you do.  It’s the latter that got instantly creepy.  The videos had only been online a couple of weeks, had extremely low numbers of views, but the account already had a subscriber who was listed as age “57”.  His favorites listed fourteen videos, twelve of which showcased young girls, a woman or prepubescent boys. Everyone in the twelve videos was wearing the same distinctive glasses as those worn by my daughter’s friend in their home-made videos.  It was immediately clear that there was some sort of fetish going on.

In addition, my daughter’s friend has her own YouTube account and glancing at that revealed someone subscribing who was in his late twenties and has videos he’s created with titles that feature a combination of racial epithets, curse words and sexual references.

I like YouTube, I can look up a Monty Python clip and play it for the kids.  I can do a blog entry about Martin Guitar and link to The Band playing, The Weight, but for kids posting videos online it’s a different matter.  It puts them in an adult world where others can keep track of what they do, comment publicly on it and initiate a two-way conversation with them.

I don’t think in 2008 you can afford to be naive about the Internet. How much access to the Internet you give your kids is up to you, how much attention you pay to what they do online is up to you.  In the case above digging deeper took one click of the mouse.  The same click that a child with a YouTube account would make out of curiosity to see who has subscribed to their videos.  The same click it would take a subscriber to start a conversation with your child.