You would have to be living in a cave these days not to have heard of CoComelon, El Reino Infantil, A Galinha Pintadinha or Il Pulcino Pio, depending on what your language of choice is. These YouTube shows for kids are everywhere: you hear the music in the background at restaurants, they play it inside homes. Plastic tie-in merchandise might have shown up on your local beach.
Of course, kids’ content is nothing new. When I was a child, I had to tune in to the TV set at a certain time to catch my favourite (including Little Pollon, based on Greek mythology, and the football-themed Captain Tsubasa, known in Italian as Holly e Benji, both from Japan). I don’t remember any from when I was very young — my mother swears there were no cartoons for us that time.
But now our phones provide children’s content non-stop, at any time of the day, wherever you are, especially for the youngest.
Hundreds of millions of dollars from YouTube
The data speaks for itself: worldwide, kids’ channels are the top earners on YouTube. Think of CoComelon (if you have had the pleasure of not having heard of CoComelon, please tell me where you’re living!). These are shows mostly for preschoolers and toddlers.
“YouTube has become the world’s nanny” rightly headlined this recent piece in Quartz, citing the 2022 research conducted by the loan company CashNetUSA and the social media data firm Social Blade.
U.S. kids’ channel CoComelon is the highest-earning YouTube channel of all time, with an estimated $282.8m amassed from its videos since its creation in 2006. Russia’s Like Nastya and Argentina’s El Reino Infantil have both amassed more than $100m from YouTube revenue in their channels’ history.
Digging a little deeper beyond the usual debates of whether screens are bad or not for children, the data can help us understand something else.
Globally, there is a total lack of policies aimed at helping caregivers take care of children.
Marketing to children
Families are increasingly nuclear, living without support from grandparents, uncles, cousins, or even friends sometimes. Most of the world’s population now live in cities, which tend to offer few accessible and safe recreation spaces (in part because they have given more space to cars). Caregivers work long hours, daycare centres are expensive in many places or unavailable, and governments do not offer enough financial support to families.
Companies are smart and see children as a clear opportunity to do business. Even Snoop Dogg launched his own kids’ series, Doggyland (“the home of modern, hip hop inspired takes on kids songs and nursery rhymes”) and its Affirmations Song became a hit last year. (Yes, it is very catchy, and if you’re into affirmations, there is an argument to be made in favour of kids singing “I choose to be happy” rather than “The wheels on the bus”…)
A recent piece in The New York Times by business reporter David Segal explained how Moonbug, the company behind CoComelon and a dozen other successful children series works to make sure that their shows are irresistible for children.
In a process that makes sense from a business perspective but gave me the chills thinking about how little we are looking after our youngest children, Segal explains that Moonbug experts try their shows out with toddlers and register every time they get distracted with a tool they call the Distractaron.
“It’s a small TV screen, placed a few feet from the larger one, that plays a continuous loop of banal, real-world scenes — a guy pouring a cup of coffee, someone getting a haircut — each lasting about 20 seconds. Whenever a youngster looks away from the Moonbug show to glimpse the Distractatron, a note is jotted down.”
This way they can make sure that their entire content is captivating or, as some may argue, addictive.
The real cause of kids’ increased screen time
Last year a story went viral with U.S. child development specialist Jerrica Sannes explaining that CoComelon was hyper-stimulating for children’s developing brains — a claim that is not backed by research.
Silicon Valley gurus send their children to schools where screens are not used and don’t use screens at home either, because little is still understood about the effects of continuous screen use from early childhood. Recommendations vary: the WHO recommends zero use of screens under age two, while the American Academy of Pediatrics talks about 18 months.
While these recommendations are not based on firm evidence, the point is that we can’t just blame parents for being irresponsible.
Caregivers rely so much on screens because, unless they’re very wealthy, they don’t have any support and need to cook, do laundry, raise children, work, and even have a break. (Keep in mind that caregivers’ mental health has been severely affected especially since the pandemic.)
So, yes, it is important to research further the impact of screens on the developing brain. But it is even more important to stop blaming parents for using screens when they need help — help that nobody else is giving them.
Now over to you: what is the relationship that young children around you have with screens? Do you have favourite shows to recommend? And what do you do when you want to avoid screen time? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Hit reply or leave a comment below this story (for paying members only).
What I’ve been reading
I’ve recently read again this comic by French cartoonist Emma on the mental load that women carry, having to plan and think ahead of every task, functioning as de-facto managers. I’ve written before about how I hate the idea of talking of fathers as “helpers”, and even included a link to a checklist to see whether men are sharing the mental load of running a household, taking the initiative to get things done, or expect the women to ask for help.
What I’ve been listening to
In this 6-minute audio essay, NPR health reporter Rhitu Chatterjee explores the science behind the perception of time — trying to understand why days feel long but years go by fast when you are caring for a child. The report includes cute audio from Chatterjee’s son, but delves deep into the connection between memory-making and the perception of time. “The more you break the day out with different activities or different things to do,” says psychologist Ruth Ogden at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., “then the more chance you’ve got of making these nice memories — the things that you’re going to remember, the things that are going to help to stretch out your retrospective feelings on how the years passed.” A great challenge: can we turn routines into memorable moments? I’d love to hear your take.
What I’ve been watching
This skit from Saturday Night Live is just what I needed. Marius, a member of The First 1,000 Days community, shared it, and I laughed so loud I woke my son León up while he was breastfeeding. A mother, acted by Emma Thompson, talks to her daughter, who has a toddler and feels overwhelmed, censoring some of her raw memories as a new mother. It made me think about how little we share our worst moments (though that is changing now a lot with social media, and accounts such as this one), and I wonder whether omitting the worst moments when we are more overwhelmed may be slightly better than painting a very negative picture all the time? Food for thought for another newsletter.
Who’s been inspiring me
The work of London-based, Filippino-Indian artist Laxmi Hussain, whose bright blue sketches of the female body and of mothers and children are simply beautiful. I found out about her work through the incomparable Instagram account Designing Motherhood.
With love and care,
📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.
📷 Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash, child with tablet.…
2 thoughts on “The real reasons screens are babysitting our kids”
Ha I lived under a rock! Just checked it out and and I do recognise this baby shark tune from Cocomelon. Some years back I heard many people say I had to listen to it “because it really goes on repeat in your head.” That didnt sound much fun at all, so I actively avoided hearing more than people singing baby shark tututu” hahahaha
We also use TV as our nanny, well… TV…. our small fold-laptop that we use as a TV, , We only use it in dire situations. Generally, 30 minutes per week, maximum 2 hours. And if we do watch something it is German sesame street or The show with the mouse (Die Sendung mit der Maus), bith shows made by the public German broadcasting companies since the <70s. So it can be thought of at leasy partially educative TV.
Also, I say we, because I want to watch these things with my kid, for at least a large part. This works great when cooking – especially the final steps of cooking, eg cooking rice or pasta or letting the sauce simmer.
Oh dear, Joram! You do not live under a cave, I was just wrong to assume! (Actually a few more readers wrote to say they didn’t know of CoComelon either, I am addressing it in this week’s brief newsletter). So thanks as usual for helping me recalculate.
Also, interestingly you mention Baby Shark, which is not a CoComelon song (but obviously it has a version). Baby Shark has an interesting story of copyright, but the most famous children’s version that went viral a few years ago is by South Korea’s Pinkfong (an interesting piece on all that controversy is here: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/thursday-january-24-2019-steffi-didomenicantonio-johnny-only-and-more-1.4989911/the-long-complicated-history-of-baby-shark-and-the-artist-fighting-for-credit-1.4989936#:~:text=Technically%20no%20one%20owns%20the,to%20at%20least%20the%201900s.)
But yes, Baby Shark is definitely NOT a favourite of mine, and neither it is a favourite of Lorenzo’s these days thankfully!
Anyways, thanks for sharing your TV tips, and thanks for helping me check in my assumptions. 😉