Technology: Boon or Bane for the New Generation?
Getting off a flight during the holidays last year, I was amused to see three toddlers walking with matching silicon bags. The amusement turned to shock when I realized that the bags were actually iPad cases, and these children who looked to be barely four-year-olds already had their own iPads. The children of the 21st century have grown up with tablets, phones, and computers as an integral part of their childhood. The question is, how is this unprecedented change affecting this generation?
The rapid technological advancements of this age have changed the world in ways that would have been unimaginable barely two decades ago. With just a click of a button, you can find information, confirm a transaction, watch movies, and even connect with people from virtually anywhere. Technology is also changing the ways in which children learn. The children of the 2000s and especially those born after 2010 have known little else, since they have been raised in a technology-driven world: a world of mobile devices and instant connections. These “digital natives” understand technology better than most parents, and they are said to spend a large amount of time with eyes glued to mobile devices. A report from Common Sense Media in 2015 has shown that 42% of children 8 and younger have their own tablet devices, and spend an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes a day staring at a screen.
The general reaction to articles and studies relating to children’s use of mobile devices is panic, and arguments that the youth’s “technology addiction” has negative impacts on health and on essential life skills are prevalent. A few years ago, the headlines featured the inverse relation between screen time and sleep quality. Contemporary arguments include the suggestion that screen time reduces the time that children spend doing physical activity, playing with peers, and developing social skills. Children being exposed to technology at a very early age become over-dependent and addicted, assert many articles. Furthermore, another valid argument raised is the difficulty of controlling content that children have access to. A lot of parents these days provide their children with mobile devices when they’re busy doing something else, and some children even have their own devices from an early age. Sometimes they can get access to content not age-appropriate even with safeguards in place, as illustrated by the recent YouTube Kids issue.
It is reasonable to be concerned about what children can access; however, technology is not inherently bad. There are numerous benefits to technology usage, especially in education. It is proven that young children learn through play. Unlike traditional toys, which have limits on what you can build or how you can use them, technology offers unlimited possibilities. This can encourage innovation and creative learning. A variety of learning apps and educational videos are specially designed for children and can track progress and potentially tailor to suit individual needs. There is a more interactive way of learning, one that can use technology as a tool to complement traditional methods. For example, a nursery in London has been one of the first to utilize tablets for teaching. The children have been observed to be more attentive and seem to be inherently programmed with how to use the technology.
Given both sides of the debate, we must ask ourselves: Is the alarm over children’s technology usage valid, or is it just a thing that previous generations are wary of due to unfamiliarity? The fact is, we do not have enough data to determine the long-term effects of technology on this generation, but we must always remember that technology is value-neutral. It is up to us to determine how it is used; with proper usage and balance, it can help much more than it hinders.
Child “Labor” in the 21st Century
When using such devices, what is the most popular media platform among children? Fortnite? Minecraft? Tik Tok? According to a Pew Research Center poll, 80% of children under age 12 watch YouTube. A market research firm Smarty Pants stated that YouTube is the “most powerful brand in kids’ lives”. The endless supply of quick videos and the allure of attractive, rich, and charismatic YouTubers mean the children thrive in the playground of video content, consequently bringing about the rise of adults who aim to profit from them.
Many apps and websites come with parental controls: passwords, limited viewing time, allowing only “kid-friendly” content, and more. YouTube is no exception. In fact, the video mega-conglomerate is the bellwether of such policies, having created the YouTube Kids app and putting even the slightest hint of “mature themes” behind age restriction barriers on videos. With such features, the company assures the parents of children, ranging from young toddlers to early teens, that their kids won’t encounter anything unseemly or inappropriate while navigating through the thick undergrowth of YouTube.
While the parents may repose in assurance of the security allegedly provided by YouTube, in reality the cracks are innumerable. Many of these channels, often with a pacifier-dropping number of subscribers, share commonalities for impressionable minds. First, the colors of the content are rapturous. Considering the popularity of the Tide Pod Challenge that lured even the adults in with its shiny neon objects of want, studies have shown that humans are naturally attracted to bright colors. In addition, recognizable and beloved characters, such as Peppa the Pig, Spider-man, and Elsa plaster the thumbnails to piggyback on the popularity. In many of these videos, the characters often promote and demonstrate drug use, racist or defamatory speech, and sexual behavior unbefitting their appearance and reputation. The YouTube algorithm cannot catch such blatant violations of their age regulations due to the mask of innocence, resulting in even YouTube Kids being home to such videos.
Another type of predatory videos is less apparent. The likes of huge social media celebrities such as Jake Paul and RiceGum have been accused of actively endorsing gambling to their mostly-preteen audience through “loot box” promotions by demonstrating their “wins” despite the ludicrously small chance of winning. Seeing the simple cause-and-effect of paying a considerably small amount of money for a high-end product makes the gullible children wish to participate in the act. In addition, many channels litter their uploads with merchandise promotions, a powerful incentive for children who wish to express love for their favorite celebrities or to fit in with their peers, a situation in which parents may have a hard time saying “no”.
But questionable morals aside, the biggest problem lies under the video — literally. Some of the videos are thinly veiled attempts at child trafficking and distribution of child pornography. The comment section and descriptions are a festering pit of people looking for illegal distribution of child porn, with links just a click away from access to the darker parts of the web. Even the contents themselves could involve children being part of questionable acts both in front of and behind the camera. The most prominent recent case was that of the channel SevenAwesomeKids, which spanned seven channels and cumulatively had nearly 17 million subscribers. The owner was prosecuted on charges of repeatedly sexually harassing the children within the video during the production process; child labor laws don’t apply for YouTube video productions, especially when many channels employ children they may know personally.
In the end, the exploitative measures of YouTube have created a factory of their own. Whether it be grabbing money from the small hands of children or fueling predatory and illegal activities, the website has become an invitation for predators of different types to feed on “child labor”. The advertising revenues and merchandise sales mean the stream of inappropriate content won’t stop — just as kids won’t stop clicking on “just one more” video.
With the upsurge of portability and accessibility for both the consumer and creator, the golden age of children’s programming regulation has waned. Though YouTube may be trying to please its reluctant advertisers with promise of safe and family-friendly content, in truth, with the ineffective algorithms, YouTube seems to show that it has no care for some of its youngest consumers. It is time for YouTube to be the firm parent that reins back its unruly children.