In today’s hectic world, it is important to distinguish between distractions that are incidental and unintended and those which are designed to be distractions and are intentional.
Our daughter’s elementary school assigned Chromebooks to all their students for use while classes are virtual. Because the school acts as the laptop’s administrator, and because YouTube clips are often part of her assignments, we’re not able to add on as many filters or blockers as my wife and I would like.
YouTube is designed to be an infinite rabbit hole that keeps you watching the next videos it serves you. For a six-year-old with developing impulse control, giving her access to that site is like setting her in a room full of cookie jars.
And anyone whose response is, “Make sure to be with her and monitor what she does every time she needs to use the computer,” needs to remember that:
- We’re in a global pandemic where parents are also working from home.
- If you have more than one child, you’re already in a daily whack-a-mole style freefall.
- It’s neither possible nor helpful to their developing independence to always be hovering over your child’s shoulder.
So I’ve started doing what I do: Trying to teach her about how sites like YouTube work.
I explain to her that while her teachers and her parents want to make sure that she can see things that are helpful to her, the people who built YouTube aren’t thinking about her as the person they want to help.
They want her to watch as many videos as they can. They want her to spend as much time on YouTube as they can. Because that’s how they can show her ads, and showing her ads is how they make money.
It can get a little abstract at that point for a six-year-old, but that’s why I try to stress the difference between her teachers and the site itself. Her teachers want to help her be able to do other things. YouTube wants her to sit and watch more YouTube.
It’s not the kind of message that clicks the first time, or the third time, but we’re consistent. We remind her. And little by little, she’s paying attention to the idea. She’s asking if she can watch YouTube less. While she’s on break, she’s finding other ways to occupy her time.
Maybe it connected with her sense of how to be kind. Her teachers and parents want to help her through the resources and content we share with her, but YouTube isn’t doing what they do out of kindness.
Or maybe our cord-cutting has helped her develop a distaste for ads. When we were stuck watching the ad-supported Disney Now app to keep up with new episodes of The Owl House, we saw the same ads over and over (and over and over and over). It irritated her more than it did the adults in the room.
Whatever the thing is that’s clicking with her, it’s a good time for the adults in her life to take stock of the same things.
Apps and websites are tools designed for a purpose.
Some of these tools are designed to help the end user solve a problem or perform a task that’s important to them. And some tools are designed as a snare for attention; providing a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, or they address a problem in a way that only feels like a solution.
An illusion of a solution only perpetuates the problem, like a person stranded on the ocean desperately gulping down salt water.
We need to regularly ask ourselves the question: Is this designed to help me, or to feel like it’s helping me?