The YouTube experience doesn’t end for my kids after I take away their iPads.
It follows them everywhere: when they’re playing with toys, riding in the backseat of our car or roaming the supermarket aisles.
That’s because the two have developed a habit of living out their lives as if there’s an imaginary camera trained on them, just like their favorite YouTubers.
“Dad is making a right turn now,” my 5-year-old son Jack will say as he newscasts the ride to school to a fictional audience.
“Don’t forget to subscribe,” his sister Ella, 6, will often interject -- again, to no one in particular.
When I was their age, I’d pretend to be a soldier or a baseball player. Today, kids apparently aspire to be vloggers. It’s not enough for them to watch their favorite shows. They want to broadcast their lives, banter with commenters and keep their make-believe view counts high.
It’s a shift from the era of Mickey Mouse or Hannah Montana – and one that bodes well for YouTube as it tries to capture a generation of children who couldn’t tell you what a cable box was for.
Last year, YouTube launched its first kids app, YouTube Kids. The app, which had more than 10 billion views the first year alone, comes with stricter advertising guidelines, parental controls and voice search that has an uncanny ability to understand kids (It took me weeks to realize what my kids were saying when they kept asking to watch a channel with 2.7 million subscribers called CookieSwirlC. I kept calling it Kooky World Sea).
"The family and learning space is incredibly important to YouTube and one that is continuing to grow," said Malik Ducard, YouTube’s global head of family and learning.
Children ages 11 and younger are one of the fastest growing audiences for digital video, growing nearly four times as fast as viewers ages 18 to 24, according to eMarketer.
That growth has no doubt been perpetuated by the legion of young YouTube creators who have uploaded playtime videos, educational tutorials and “unboxing” clips -- videos showing in painstaking detail the process of removing a new toy or gadget from its packaging.
My children are so captivated by unboxing videos that I’m scolded if I ever attempt to help them open a new toy. So I surrender the gift, which they put on the dining table for imaginary display.
”Hi, boys and girls, welcome to YouTube Toys,” my daughter will say. “I’m Ella and this is my little brother Jack.”
Come Easter egg hunt time, they do the same with the plastic eggs, describing to a camera that doesn’t exist the tiny treats inside each egg they crack open.
By watching these unboxing videos, my kids stay informed about the latest toys. I was naive to think cutting our cable service a year ago – and all the TV commercials that came with it – would insulate them from marketing.
There seems to be no more effective YouTube recruitment tool or advertising strategy than having kids watch their peers.
“Kids used to put on a cape and play Superman around the house,” said Nancy Mramor Kajuth, a psychologist who specializes in the influence of media. “Now they’re pretending to be someone they know from YouTube. They’re learning how to be kids from the kids they watch.”
On occasion, Jack and Ella have asked my wife and me to help them launch their own not-for-pretend channel -- perhaps one in which they narrate scenes with their Shopkins toys.
We always decline. We both work and don’t have the time or energy. We’re also wary of exposing them to some of the uglier aspects of the Internet, namely trolling.
I’m no Luddite – I know my kids can't live without technology. But I still feel more than a twinge of guilt handing them the devices to keep them occupied when I have to work, cook or clean up a mess (usually theirs).
Pediatricians have for years recommended no more than two hours of screen time per day for children older than 2. However, the proliferation of handheld devices has spurred talk of revising the recommendation to reflect the reality that kids use tablets and phones much more.
It’s a delicate subject that requires more research given how new the technology is. Still, experts say too much screen time can over-stimulate children and make them disengaged from the real world, not unlike TV.
“If kids have fun with their screens, that’s great. But they also need to ride a bike, swim and learn to solve problems with their Legos,” said Mramor Kajuth, the psychologist.
Parents of young YouTube creators say their children are picking up a host of skills running a YouTube channel with millions of viewers.
“My kids are learning about technology, contracts, how to deal with deadlines and money management,” said Mike Jones of the Happy Family Show, a channel created by his children, Christine, 21, Kevin, 16, and Josh, 10.
Launched five years ago, the Happy Family Show largely consists of the kids holding Barbie dolls and acting out scripted episodes. A cousin of stop animation, the genre has mushroomed on YouTube. The Happy Family Show now has more than 330,000 subscribers and more than 165 million views.
Yet it wasn’t an easy decision for Mike and his wife, Sarah, to let the children start the channel. They worried about privacy and trolls. They’re careful to never reveal their address. And they didn’t allow the kids to show their faces in the videos until long after they started the show.
“It was hard in the beginning,” Kevin said about the abusive comments.
“It teaches you to develop thick skin,” said Christine.
Last week, the Indianapolis family attended VidCon, a massive get together of online video creators in Anaheim, where they spoke on a panel titled “So Your Kid Wants to Be on YouTube -- Now What?” Joining them on stage was Brian Alexander, whose 10-year-old daughter Presley runs an educational YouTube channel called Act Out Games.
To shield Presley from nasty comments, Brian reviews everything that’s written under the videos. He supervises conversations with fans. And he’s involved in the production of all her clips.
“It’s been an amazing thing for our relationship,” he said. “We’re very, very close because of it.”
A helpful resource has been a Facebook group for parents of children on YouTube. The group of about 60 members often trades names of viewers who are particularly mean so that they can block them.
Presley takes extreme pride in her dedication to the channel. She’s created and posted a video every day for the last three years.
“Someday we’re going to miss a day,” said Brian, a Denver-based executive at an education services firm. “But it’s not going to be my fault. I’m doing everything I can to stay committed.”
Meanwhile, Brian’s 4-year-old son Cooper is starting to appear on the channel, which has garnered 2.6 million views.
“He’s seen us doing this his whole life,” Brian said.
So naturally, what did Cooper like to play growing up? Pretending to be a YouTube star.