I made a huge mistake this week: I allowed my children to click onto the next video in YouTube after they watched a classic cartoon for their weekly movie night. My eight-year-old son came running out three minutes after asking permission to watch what my kids thought was another clip from the same series, telling me my kids had stopped the video after it “showed some stuff for grownups.”
I immediately remembered that sickos embed porn and grooming into YouTube cartoons (as well as online children’s games), and I worked to keep my face and voice light and calm while figuring out exactly what my children had seen so I could do as much damage control as possible. Thankfully, it turned out to be merely a fast-paced cartoon-violence segment that alarmed my sensitive four-year-old.
I vowed never to let my kids click on anything on YouTube without supervision again, our general rule that I just forgot while distracted struggling to get chicken wire around beds of pea shoots destroyed by baby rabbits. We have a filter on our internet, but perverts use cartoon images and other schemes to get around such protections. We also keep all devices in common areas (the kitchen and den), but that doesn’t help when mom’s outside.
The reality that the internet is a virtual Mos Eisley — “wretched hive of scum and villainy” — is why my husband and I are unashamed internet Nazis. That movie night is all our children get of screen time in a week, and usually it’s from a DVD we choose.
This stance is rare but constantly affirmed by tales such as my movie night scare and others that constantly cross my desk, this week including a Forbes article titled bluntly: “How TikTok Live Became ‘A Strip Club Filled With 15-Year-Olds.'” Noting that “Almost half of minors in the U.S. use TikTok at least once a day,” the article goes on to detail how TikTok connects children to predators, who seem to be increasing in conjunction with the Internet-enabled porn explosion.
The wildly popular social media app best known for its lighthearted videos of dance routines is, beneath the surface, a cash cow — one where money and gifts are often sent by adults to minors. Top legal, law enforcement and children’s safety experts told Forbes that such activity on livestreams can enable predators to groom targets for online or offline sexual abuse and sextortion, warning of the consequences of unfettered access to girls’ bedrooms and bathrooms, where most of the streaming occurs.
Girls as young as 12 and 14 can make serious cash posing, sending pictures of their feet, and exposing their bodies for the phone camera. It’s illegal and TikTok’s statements to Forbes firmly stated the company works to stop this as soon as possible, but it’s clear that even if the company does its best it can’t whack underage livestreams fast enough to protect children without exception.
Technically, users are supposed to be 18 to send or receive money on TikTok, and at least 16 to livestream on TikTok, but everyone knows that’s a mere formality surmounted by lying about one’s age. That TikTok hasn’t chosen to require a more legitimate age verification makes TikTok (and all social media companies) a lot of money. Forbes notes this is not just a TikTok problem: “Despite TikTok’s intended restrictions around livestreaming and gifting for minors, verifying that users are, in fact, old enough to be using certain apps or features remains an unsolved problem across many mainstream social media platforms, TikTok included.”
It’s also clear that most parents are oblivious to the massive harm they enable by allowing their children to access the internet unsupervised. Parents facilitate this access by buying their kids smartphones, tablets, and internet-connected gaming systems. The result is that children ages 8 to 12 use screens for entertainment for more than five hours per day. That’s 35 hours per week, almost as much as a full-time job.
That figure doesn’t include using screens for non-entertainment purposes, such as homework. Among teens aged 13 to 18, daily entertainment screen use is more than eight hours per day. That’s an astonishing 56 hours a week, purely for entertainment!
Besides increasing their risk for being propositioned and viewing abominable images, what an astonishing waste of human potential. Young people could be doing so many amazing things with that time instead, such as hiking, learning craft skills, working, making friends, volunteering, and more.
The typical age a child gets unsupervised internet access via a personal cell phone now is 12 or 13. That’s far too young to be doing strip-teases for strangers on TikTok. Here’s Forbes:
[Homeland Security child sexual abuse agent Austin] Berrier says parents he speaks to are generally not aware of what’s happening on livestreams and that when the money exchanged takes the form of fun pictures, as is the case on TikTok, it makes what’s really going on even easier to miss or dismiss. ‘With the platforms where the monetization is through tokens or flowers or stupid little emojis,’ he says, ‘it doesn’t click in a kid’s head, I think, that they’re actually being paid’ and ‘the parents don’t really stop and think, ‘Okay, someone’s paying my kid to dance. No, they’re just getting little flowers and little hearts.’ It allows people to separate that.’
Parents — and all of us — need to realize that the internet is so powerful, it’s dangerous. Its power can be used for good, of course. My husband learns how to fix almost everything on our house and cars from YouTube. But the truth is that the Internet’s powers are not on average used for such fruitful actions, and especially by children.
Surveys show that parents lie to themselves about what their kids are doing on screens and how much time their kids actually spend engrossed with strangers online through their devices. A Common Sense Media report from 2016 (the latest available) showed that parents largely think screen use is no big deal and may actually be good for kids.
If you just compare these statements to the reality of how much time the average child spends on screen-based entertainment, it’s clear these positive views are a load of hogwash. Children are using their parent-enabled internet access almost exclusively to waste their lives, not to learn how to play the cello or code. In addition, essentially every one of the statements above is contradicted by research, which shows that people remember less information when presented on screens, become worse at focusing (which means worse at learning), become worse at social skills, damage family relationships, and often develop anxiety, if not a porn habit.
If your children are blessedly not at risk for such things because you limit screens like we do, their peers certainly are. Other parents’ poor choices harm the rest of us by forming their children into the kind who show others porn on their smartphones or have nothing to share with others but some crappy YouTube ditty. Parents’ collective refusal to do due diligence on everything from schooling to free time is worsening our culture, and our nation’s future. It’s long past time to have these conversations with friends and family, for their own and the nation’s good.
Something I like to do when discussing this topic is ask people to consider their own experience. When kids can use an Alexa, do they use it to play geography games or to learn French? Or do they mostly ask it stupid questions to get it to spin off some silly answer? When kids are on YouTube, are they learning to be creative or almost always passively consuming unedifying content? We all know the answers.
Every one of us needs to take responsibility for our own and our children’s media habits, which in almost every case means reducing screen time and getting a collective life. A key question I ask when considering whether my children need a screen at a particular moment is this: Is this the best way to solve the problem at hand?
If the problem is that your teen’s soccer team practice finishes at different and unpredictable times each day, maybe the solution is a dumbphone he can use to text you when it’s pickup time. If the problem is that your kids are bored or annoying, the best solution is certainly not letting Mos Eisley parent them for you. Try this instead.