How YouTube revolutionised children’s entertainment

Gilbert the Alien was the highlight of my Saturday mornings as a child, in his co-host- ing role on children’s TV show “Get Fresh”. My parents were baffled by him. This, as it turns out, is the natural order of things for kids’ entertainment.

Fast forward to 2016, and it’s the Minecraft videos of YouTube stars like Dan the Diamond Minecart (DTDM) and Stampy that are making many parents furrow their brows in puzzlement. The growth in children’s YouTube viewing feels like a new trend, but it arguably sits neatly in the historical tradition of kids gravitating towards entertainment that their parents don’t really understand.

Indeed, YouTube stars may be providing this opportunity for a generational divide because other forms of entertainment aren’t any more. “A kid trying to explain to his mum why Stampy Does Minecraft is worth watching for hours on end is simply a 21st century re-run of kids trying to convince their parents of the musical worth of Elvis, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and so on,” suggested media-industry analyst Mark Mulligan in 2015. “That is the entire point of a youth culture: older generations aren’t meant to get it.”

YouTube may not be such a new and alien thing, but there is certainly no doubt about its appeal to children. In 2015, 69% of British eight to 11-year-olds and 86% of 12 to 15-year-olds who watch television said they also watch YouTube, according to Ofcom. In August, a survey by US research firm Smarty Pants found that among six to 12-year-olds, YouTube was the most popular brand, beating the likes of Disney (sixth), Netflix (11th), iPad (16th), Lego (21st) and Nickelodeon (23rd). In 2015, it was the seventh most popular.

YouTube doesn’t just compare well to other children’s brands: kids’ YouTube channels compare very well to other kinds of channels on Google’s online video service. My analysis of the YouTube rankings, which I will be presenting at this year’s Children’s Conference, shows that more than a third of the top 100 YouTube channels are aimed specifically at children: from Minecraft gamers to toy reviews, nursery rhymes and cartoons.

Besides the parental-confusion aspect, what’s drawing so many children to YouTube? Control is undoubtedly part of it: on-demand viewing is entirely controlled by them. I could practically see the lightbulb glowing above my nine-year-old’s head when he realised YouTube was a search engine, serving up seemingly limitless videos in response to keywords such as “Minecraft”, “tigers” and “football”. A similar lightbulb appeared when he realised it was just as good for less child-friendly keywords. A quick install of the YouTube Kids app later, I can vouch for its keyword filters.

Children are also finding stories on YouTube, which is an aspect I think parents sometimes miss. DTDM and Stampy aren’t just two blokes playing Minecraft: they’ve created characters and (literally, if digitally) built worlds around them.

In 2015, I sat among 5,000-odd children and parents at the MineCon show in London, watching DanTDM live-play an adventure. It was a bit like live “Jackanory” (to cite one of the children’s TV shows that never spooked parents) and it helped me realise that many child-friendly YouTube gamers aren’t just players. They’re storytellers.

Children are also seeing themselves on YouTube. A couple of years ago, the biggest YouTube channel was DC Toys Collector, on which an adult unboxed toys for a rapt audience of kids. At the time of writing, the top YouTube channel is still about toy reviews, but the star is a child called Ryan, whose channel generated more views in July 2016 than Taylor Swift’s, Adele’s and Coldplay’s combined.

Outside the top 100, there’s a wave of children playing and vlogging (young “BookTubers” included) on their own channels, and inspiring their peers to follow suit.

There are some important debates to be had around children and YouTube: how lines are blurring between content and advertising in particular, as well as questions about how screen-time sits alongside other forms of activity and entertainment. (It was just as hot a topic in my childhood).

Even so, YouTube can be about storytelling, education, creativity and community, when you seek out the good stuff. Which, of course, your kids will have found long before you. Even if it could do with a few more snot-dribbling aliens named Gilbert.

Stuart Dredge is a journalist and the co-founder of Apps Playground. He will be speaking about children’s YouTube viewing habits at The Bookseller's Children's Conference.