Two Clicks from Awful

This week, my feed was flooded with horrifying images and video clips from messages that children have seen while on YouTube Kids. Parents were outraged that safeguards weren't in place. I personally have friends whose children were among those who saw terrifying things (and were completely traumatized by what they saw) on what they thought was a safe place. (For those of you who are perpetuating the idea that the Momo thing is a hoax, I can promise you that it's not. It may have started as a hoax, but someone decided to do it for real. Let's not gaslight children, please.)

We haven't had YouTube on anything kid-accessible in our house since my oldest was three. Back in 2010, the iPad had just come out and my husband gave me one for my birthday, thinking it would help me keep up with the news, as a mother of a busy eighteen-month-old boy and a little girl on the way.

It didn't take long for my toddler to discover the joys of electronics. I had been very careful to keep screen time at a minimum with him. Until he was a year old, we didn't watch TV; I didn't have a Smart phone; and he was hypersensitive to everything with SPD (especially sound), so we didn't go to the movies on the kid-friendly days with the rest of our playgroup.

That all changed when that innocuous little black tablet entered our house. In my first trimester of my second pregnancy, I was horribly sick (like, nearly hospitalized sick), and the total exhaustion that comes with the early days of growing someone knocked me off my feet entirely. There were times when I couldn't move from the bathroom floor and my little boy would reach over and hand me a square of toilet paper to wipe my mouth. I had to do something.

We started simply enough. I put on PBS's "Sesame Street" to get through making his dinner. When I was trying to stretch him to one nap from two, we discovered "Classical Baby" on HBO (highly recommend that one, by the way). As the days wore on — and winter in Chicago got longer and longer — I put on the Pixar movie, "Cars." That was a hit. I can still hear the opening Sheryl Crow song in my head. We must have watched "Cars" every day for six months.

At the same time, my little guy was having trouble with imaginative play. He just didn't get it. We were working with therapists on sensory stuff and I would try for hours to get him to play trains with me, games in which the trains were talking to each other or having a dance party or going to their grandparents' house or heaven knows what else. Nothing worked. He looked at me like I was a total nut for making his trains talk. Didn't I know that they were just supposed to drive around the track?

In desperation, I turned to YouTube on my new iPad. I found video upon video of kids playing trains. I showed them to my son, who showed more interest in these videos than he did in playing with me. I thought, "Maybe this will work! Maybe he will see how kids play together with their trains and then he'll play with me the same way!" And it DID work. He DID get it. He was Percy and I was Thomas and we had all sorts of adventures together.

Then, while I was making lunch one day, I left the iPad on the floor and he wandered over to it and began to play videos. (When they say it's easy enough for a toddler to operate, they aren't kidding.) He easily accessed YouTube and clicked on my past videos, which was fine because they were all videos of kids playing trains. (I know you're all jealous of my exciting life.) He was happily watching videos of kids playing trains and I was happily enjoying my break from being Percy myself. I thought that I might really walk on the wild side and try to stomach half a sandwich. But then I heard something unusual. I heard something that didn't sound like kids playing trains anymore. I heard sirens and crashing. I rounded the corner and there he sat, entranced by the screen, watching real-life train crashes.

What the heck? How did this happen? He was JUST watching kids drive trains around their own tracks? How did we get to this? And how did it happen so fast?

I thought it was a fluke.

Around the same time, Disney launched an iPad app based on "Cars," in which you could use your fingers to drive Lightning McQueen around the town of Radiator Springs and collect things for Mater. It was big fun. Again, nothing scary here. That seems safe enough. Our playgroup friends showed us their "Furry Friend" named Leonard. He seemed fun. My cousins introduced us to "Angry Birds" at Thanksgiving. That seemed like a fun cause/effect game. We were all having fun playing together with this new device, my new crutch as I was learning how to juggle a now-two-year-old and a newborn.

Then I noticed it: the fighting to let go of the iPad. The four-alarm temper tantrums when I took it away. The change in behavior when he had played too much. What was going on? I asked his therapist. She said that she'd seen the same change in behavior with her kids and had cut them off entirely. I decided to try to wean him off of his new favorite toy.

It didn't go well. Truthfully, I was exhausted and I felt like I was in uncharted waters. It was 2011 and nobody was talking about screen time or being unplugged. How could something so innovative and educational (we were on to Monkey Preschool Lunchbox by then) be a bad thing? I cut back on the screen time, but we were far from cold turkey.

We moved into a new house the next year and the iPad was rediscovered in the move. I was (again) newly pregnant and unpacking our house, as my husband was away on business. Little sister was toddling around the house trying to "help," while big brother was solely focused on one thing: a glowing screen. This time, YouTube was filled with videos about nature: polar bear cubs in the arctic, cheetahs racing across the savannah, creatures of the deep.

With my youngest finally down for a nap and my oldest engrossed in National Geographic, I saw my opportunity and attempted to organize my kitchen cabinets. About five minutes later, he came in with tears in his eyes holding the iPad out to me. "Mama," he said, "some mean guys did something bad to a shark. The took a gun ... Mama, they shot it ... Mama, they shot it ... in the head. Why would they do that, Mama? Why would they hurt that shark like that? It wasn't hurting them." Tears streamed down his little face and I stood totally dumbfounded in my kitchen. How did we get from learning about an octopus to murdering sharks in five minutes?

I said the only thing I could think of to say in that moment. "Oh, my sweet boy, I don't know. I don't know why someone would hurt an animal like that. I think there are some people in the world who just don't make good choices like you do. I know that you and I would never do that to an animal friend. I'm so sorry you saw that. I think we're going to be done with the iPad. I don't want you to see that kind of stuff anymore." And, with that, he willingly handed me the iPad and I put it away. We had a big hug and went on to the next thing, but neither of us ever forgot that. (He brought it up in conversation for the next two years.)

That night, I took the iPad out and I looked back over the viewing history. Sure enough, that shark video was two clicks from where I had left him looking at an octopus. Out of my own curiosity, I did my own experiment. I went to a child-friendly video and watched what my options were two clicks in. In almost every case, the video went from being kid-friendly to kid-friendly to real-world-terrifying. He was always two clicks from awful and I didn't realize it. I didn't realize how easily sick adults can enter into a young person's life without a parent's knowledge. I deleted YouTube that night.

When the iPad fell and broke a few months later, we didn't replace it. It may be the best decision we've ever made. Now that he's older, his school has issued him an iPad for homework. The kids aren't supposed to access outside sites, but they all know about YouTube. They all know how to use Safari. They've figured out Siri in second grade (see my other post about that can of worms).

Because of my past experience, I have stricter guidelines about screen time than some of my friends. My son is still annoyed at me for not letting him have Fortnight or any other game that has online access. He (and my daughters) get irritated when they ask me to post something about them on social media and I won't do it. I generally post one thing a year on their birthdays. That's pretty much it. No fun boomerang videos. No Girl Scout cookie sales pitches. I am definitely the uncool mom when it comes to that. After seeing what people can do with that information (child predators, in particular), I want them to have an almost-zero footprint.

Even tonight, I decided to test my theory. I went to YouTube and searched for "play trains for toddlers." Guess what I found two clicks in? This video of someone playing a video game in which a police car torches another car on the road. And check out the ad. Not exactly toddler appropriate. Now, granted, I was on regular YouTube, not YouTube Kids, but clearly this isn't anything that I searched for. Be aware that this is how this algorithm works.

I don't want to sound sanctimonious either. My heart goes out to the parents who feel betrayed by something they trusted to keep their kids safe. I felt the same way. It changed the way I viewed technology and, really, the world. And if you think I'm ridiculous for this and that iPads are critical to keeping your sanity, that's fine too. (For what it's worth, we do a lot of PBS and movies on DVD. We're not screen-free by any stretch of the imagination.) Everyone gets to find what works for their family in their own way. This is what I found works for us.

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Allison Harvey