YouTube Kids, Disney promise safe online spaces for kids, but experts say buyer beware

Children today are glued to their devices and it's the new normal for most parents. Now, companies such as YouTube and Disney have promised to make the online experience safer, including by limiting your kids' screen time for you. But is it all too good to be true?

'You know where your kids are in the offline world,' so online time shouldn't be different, experts say

Kids glued to their screens are the new normal for parents, but new tech from YouTube and Disney promise to make online surfing safer for kids. Is it too good to be true? 2:08

'Tis the season for new tech gifts, downloading cool apps and seeing everyone — kids included — glued to our favourite companions: tablets and smart phones. 

A fresh suite of apps and online tools, such as YouTube Kids and Disney's Circle, are promising to help busy parents, making the online experience safer, for instance, or even limiting your kids' screen time for you. 

Parents must monitor their kids' online activities as much as they do their offline activities, media experts say. (CBC)

However, media experts warn that no tool can replace parental involvement.

"You know where your kids are in the offline world, so you need to be conscious about where they are spending their time in the digital world," Ramona Pringle, associate professor at Ryerson University, told CBC News.

It is critical to have an open dialogue with your kids about their digital life, she said. 

Parents' little helpers?

Google launched the Canadian version of its YouTube Kids app in November, promoting it as a hub of solely kid-friendly content in one convenient place. The Canadian launch came almost nine months after the app's U.S. debut, which has been popular but also faced criticism from advocacy groups about advertising to children.

Then, there is Disney's new Circle device, which links to your wifi network to monitor what your kids (and, incidentally, the adults in your home) are consuming online. It also can block web access after a period of time specified by parents.

Disney's Circle claims to help parents manage what their kids are doing on their devices, including regulating the time they spend online. (Disney "Circle")

If it all sounds too good to be true, it's because it probably is. 

"The internet is full of content that parents need to keep tabs on," said Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, a non-profit devoted to media literacy and education in Canada.

"We can't trust technology to necessarily provide content that is appropriate for our kids in a lot of different ways."

So what are parents and educators to do?  

Rules and education are the key, according to the experts.

"There is an opportunity with each of these interactive — tablets, platforms,YouTube Kids, Disney all of it — to have conversations with your kids about media literacy and digital literacy and how that content is being created for them... But to just plunk them in front of anything — a TV, a tablet — the rules haven't changed. You need to be there," Pringle said. 

"I actually see it as an opportunity. We all use these tools, so using them in a balanced and responsible way … these are very important skills for [kids] to have."

A peek into a grade 4 media literacy class at Hillcrest Community School shows what kids today are learning about marketing and mass media. 0:59

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson


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