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Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

Child-produced content and the simulation of childhood: what talking to children about YouTube Kids can teach us about the possibilities of Public Service Media

This article reports on the emerging findings of an on-going study investigating how 4–7 year old children in the UK watch and engage with YouTube Kids (YTK), and reflects on how these findings may be helpful in developing successful Public Service Media content for young children.

I begin by setting out the concerns around children’s viewing of YTK, and algorithm driven social media channels more generally, which prompted this research. I will then present some key, initial findings from our study which are relevant to the current debate about children’s engagement with PSM. These findings will be framed and interpreted using the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s (1994, 2016) concepts of simulacra/simulation and hyperreality in order to further understand the complex processes which underpin children’s fascination with certain types of digital content.

Setting the scene: children and YTK

Research indicates that the amount of time children spend watching YouTube and YouTube Kids around the world continues to grow (Statistica, 2021) . The latest UK figures come from OFCOM’s 2019 report which states that YouTube is the most watched channel for young people and that children are spending around an hour a day on YT/YTK every day. Children in the UK (aged 5 to 15) now spend around 20 minutes more online, in a typical day, than they do in front of a TV set – just over two hours online, and a little under two hours watching TV.

According to the Ofcom report children watch YT/YTK for three main reasons: to feel a connection with people similar to, or different from, themselves (for example vloggers), to experience sensory exploration and stimulation (such as watching slime videos) and to explore their own hobbies and interests, including ‘how to’ videos for crafts or activities.

The constant growth of available videos on, and children’s viewing of, YouTube Kids has led to concerns around algorithm driven digital content that functions to position young children as a monetised commodity (Burroughs 2017). Critics claim that YTK was set up to target and shape young children as consumers with values centred around; consumption, competition, surveillance, judgement and reward. (Abdul Ghani & Cambre,2020). When we contrast these with values associated with child well-being in a recent UK government report (OFCOM, 2020) the gap between the ‘digitally positioned’ child and the ‘happy’ child become clear. The well-being values, as expressed by children, were: feeling loved, feeling safe, being able to be themselves without being judged, enjoying school and being financially secure - all far removed from the values critics associate with the commercial algorithm model underpinning YTK.

It is also important to keep in mind the power child vloggers and influencers have on the aspirations and career ambitions of children through the process of what has been termed their ‘wishful identification’ (Tolbert and Drogos, 2019). Indeed a 2019 study found that 1 in 5 British children want a career as a social media influencer or YouTuber taking over from being a vet or a teacher as the most desired jobs to aspire to among primary aged children.

The YTK study

Given the issues outlined above, the purpose of the study discussed in this article is to further understand the experiences of young children as they watch child-produced digital content on YTK. The project aims are to explore how very young children choose what to watch on YTK, how they respond to what they watch and the kind of learning about themselves, other people and the world that happens in response to this media space. As YTK has opened up the potential for increasing numbers of young children to be producers of digital content as well as consumers, we are also specifically interested in finding out what children learn from content created and/or performed by other children of their own or a similar age.

In order to address these aims, we are in the process of conducting research with 20 children in England aged between 4 and 7. We watch YouTube Kids with them as they navigate between videos and tell us about what they were watching and why, and we also invite all the child participants to watch the same episode of Ryan’s World ( This video was chosen as Ryan Kaji is a US-based child who reviews children’s toys of all types for viewers multiple times a week and who also presents play and fun videos with his family. To date, he is the most subscribed child on YouTube with 9.4 million subscribers and more than 16.5 trillion video views.

The children are asked to respond to a set of reflective questions after watching the Ryan’s World video, including: Do you think Ryan is a real boy? Where do you think Ryan gets all his toys from?  Why do you think Ryan makes videos like this? and Would you like to be Ryan?

The section below discusses some key findings from this early stage of the research through the lens of Baudrillard’s concepts of hyperreality and simulacra/simulation. These concepts are drawn on in order to situate the study within the context of our ‘consumer society’ as Baudrillard terms it, whereby social life and relations are increasingly governed and mediated by representations via digital technology. In Baudrillard’s work, the term hyperreality is used to describe the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality.  He argues that as simulacra or hyperreal copies of reality on screen become more ‘alive’ to us than the real person or object being represented, individuals lose the ability to tell the two apart, leading to what Baudrillard famously termed ‘the death of the real’ (1994).  In the end game of this process Baudrillard claims that simulations of reality come to replace reality itself in human life, and the code or signifier becomes increasingly important until nothing exists outside of the system and we find ourselves trapped in a simulation of life itself.

Whilst we may not agree with the dystopian future predicted by Baudrillard, and indeed appreciate the many positive elements of digital technology and associated social media platforms in connecting people and exchanging knowledge, I would argue that there is still much value in Baudrillard’s approach when trying to understand how specific content on YouTube Kids works to fascinate and captivate young children’s time and attention.

In particular, the contributory elements of hyperreality that Baudrillard identifies, namely: diversion, distortion, capture and ironic fascination, provide a useful scaffold for discussing the initial findings of the conversations we had with our young research participants about their use and enjoyment of YTK and their responses to the Ryan’s World video. These four aspects of ‘hyperreality’ are described below and relevant quotes from the children indicate how their understanding and experiences as consumers of YTK align with these elements:


Diversion relates to the entertainment value derived from a screen based media product. In relation to YTK the content is designed to be engaging as it relates to the children’s interests, it is immediately accessible - so no waiting for the desired programme to ‘come on’ - and it is in many ways ‘easier’ for children to watch a fun video than engage with a real life activity such as talking to family members, doing homework or chores or simply being bored.
Interestingly, according to the OFCOM study of children aged 4-12:

"The appeal of YouTube for many of the children in the sample seemed to be that they were able to feed and advance their interests and hobbies through it. Due to the variety of content available on the platform, children were able to find videos that corresponded with interests they had spoken about enjoying offline; these included crafts, sports, drawing, music, make-up and science. Notably, in some cases, children were watching people on YouTube pursuing hobbies that they did not do themselves or had recently given up offline." (OFCOM 2019: 38)

This finding was borne out in the current study with some of the children choosing videos that aligned with ‘real life’ interests. For example one 6 year old girl told us: ‘I like watching baking videos and videos with dolls’. However, for these younger children the videos chosen were also frequently selected on the subjective criteria of being funny. For example, when asked why he chose a particular video to watch one child answered: "Because it will be funny. I know it will be funny."

For the children in this study much pleasure was also taken from watching another child play with toys they didn’t have themselves and watching a child play in an idealised environment with pristine new equipment, happy parents and fun activities. For example, a Ryan’s World video of Ryan jumping through plastic shapes into a luxury swimming pool with his dad was a favourite with one child and had been watched many times before. He commented: "I’ve watched it loads of times. It’s brilliant, it makes me laugh."

Fascination was also derived from watching another child behave in a way they were not permitted to do, especially in relation to their relationship with their parents. For example in response to another Ryan’s World video where Ryan’s dad has to stay on the balcony of their house for 24 hours one 5 year old exclaimed: "I absolutely love this video. I love it! He pranks his dad."

When asked why he likes Ryan, one child responded simply: "Because I like his smile," and another said: "He looks like a kind boy," indicating the importance of an amiable, accessible virtual ‘friend’ presenter for very young viewers of YT/YTK.


This relates to the ways in which child-produced content on YTK is different from the ‘reality’ of childhood as a lived experience for the vast majority of children, it is in a sense a curated version of real life - shinier and more fun. Ryan’s World encapsulates this through his constant receiving and unboxing of new toys – usually something that only happens on birthdays and special celebration days for most children. Ryan never has to share or play with old, hand me down or tatty toys, his parents and siblings are always in a good mood and focused on having child centred fun and they often as a family take (sponsored) trips to fun places such as Disneyland where they don’t have to queue or wait their turn and Ryan gets to do and have everything he wants.

The attraction of this distorted, ideal version of childhood is expressed by the children in the following examples:
Q: Why do you like Ryan?
4 yo: Because he’s perfect
Q: Does Ryan ever feel sad about anything?
5 yo: No

Interestingly some of the children demonstrated a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of the commercial nature of the YTK platform as clear in the following exchange in response to the Ryan’s World video:
Q: Why does Ryan make these videos?
5 yo: So he can get money.
Q: How does that work?
5 yo: So people ascribing (sic) to his channel. The money goes into his mum and dad’s bank account.

There was some confusion among the children as to where Ryan got his toys from, with none of the children showing understanding that the toy companies give Ryan the toys for free so he can market them on his channel. One child claimed that: "He (Ryan) helps to make them", another told us: "He creates every toy". One girl thought he bought the toys using the money he makes from YTK: "He gets them from his money in YouTube" and a 4 year old boy used his existing knowledge of where new toys come from when he told us that "his (Ryan’s) mum and dad buy them from the shop."

The distorted reality of Ryan’s on screen life was not always completely approved of by the children either, raising the issue of the extent to which even very young children are ‘taken in’ by the commercialised culture of the content they watch. For example in response to the question ‘Would you like to be Ryan?’ one child answered:
"A little bit, because he’s got a mansion. But he’s got too many toys. He’s got like a million! He keeps making more Ryan toys, more and more."
And another commented: "Nope, because he spends a lot of money on his toys and not on more important things."


This element refers to the capturing of the viewer’s attention of the simulation of reality presented to them on screen and can be used in the context of YTK to describe the power of algorithms in directing and dictating what children choose to watch.

As expected the young children in our study were unaware of the sophisticated algorithmic mechanisms underpinning their choices on YTK and assumed complete agency in what they chose to watch. One 5 year old explained that he chooses what to watch: "In my brain and then I can choose at the bottom" and another said: "I’m trying to find something that looks good."

It was also apparent that the same videos were suggested and selected time and time again with children making comments such as: "I’ve watched this one loads of times," "This is really good" and "I’m going back to one I usually watch." In this sense favourite YTK videos seem to become akin to favourite toys in the children’s ‘real life’, to be returned to and enjoyed, providing a feeling of comforting familiarity.

All of the parents whose children took part in this study reported that they supervised and placed time limits on their child’s viewing of YTK as the children themselves were felt to be too young to be reasonably expected to be able to control the amount of time they spent in this media space otherwise. However, it is important to note that not all children are monitored by a concerned adult in this respect and it is unknown how long some children spend unsupervised engaging with on-line channels, immersed and captured by a never ending stream of algorithm-directed videos designed to absorb their attention and position them as present and future consumers of commercial digital content.

Ironic fascination

This aspect of Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality relates to the irony that although the viewer is fascinated by the simulation of reality that s/he is watching, the actual fascination is with the real object, person, place or activity that is being represented. In relation to the children in this study this ‘ironic fascination’ came through strongly when the children were asked about whether they want to be Ryan, with comments such as: "Of course I would like to be him, he has lots of toys." The following exchange is also particularly telling in this respect:
Q: Do you like watching Ryan because he gets to do lots of fun things or do you watch because you want to do the things yourself?
5yo: Me. I want to do it.

The power of ironic fascination seems to align with the popularity amongst children of digital content produced/presented by other children who they can more easily relate to than an adult, including unboxing videos, child vloggers and toy reviews. Indeed, when asked: Is there anything you don’t like to watch or that you find boring on YouTube/YouTube Kids? One 5 year old answered simply: "Ones with adults in".

Connecting children’s engagement with YTK with the future of Public Service Media

So how might a Baudrillardian analysis of the fascinations of YTK viewing among 4-7 year olds, as described above, be of use when considering the future of PSM for children? In some ways it makes concerning reading, especially in terms of the insidious threat that the next generation are being moulded into consumers of a hyperreal world of false realities for the profit of global media corporations. This is clearly not a comfortable or desirable prospect for any parent, educator, childcare professional, responsible broadcaster or PSM content creator. However, the usefulness of capturing the child’s voice in research such as this is that we can listen to what children tell us about how they watch and understand algorithm-driven digital content. In doing so we can include their perspectives in the on-going debates around the potential of PSM to enrich children’s childhoods and enhance their well-being in the digital age.

In this respect, the most important findings to come out of this study so far are the children’s enjoyment of content produced by friendly, appealing children of a similar age and their ‘ironic fascination’ of the things these children do. If we reconceptualise young children viewing child produced content on YTK not as children experiencing the ‘death of the real’ but as children identifying aspects of others’ lives that they would like to experience themselves, then opportunities open up to use that model to create content that enhances children’s lives and provides them with more, rather than fewer, real life experiences. The challenge for PSM is to find ways to build on this to devise ways of connecting children’s on-line fascinations with real life activities in their own communities in a non-commercial format. One possibility to consider would be to find ways of giving more children the opportunity to share their experiences on platforms such as YouTube Kids, thus democratising the medium and making the links to ‘real life’ stronger and more socially cohesive.

Our study has found that young children like content that is funny or of particular interest to them and that shows them children doing things they would like to do within an idealised, safe and happy environment. They like videos that they can go back to repeatedly to relive familiar pleasures as well as new content that captures their fascination. The virtual YTK tours we conducted with the children also showed us how much young children like to share and talk about what they enjoy watching with other children and with adults.

This study highlights the importance of children being included in the conversation about how digital content is created and shared, and shows us that we must continue to find ways to listen to their voices as consumers as we work towards a model of PSM that includes and engages even the very youngest children, both on and off line.

As Baudrillard observes, “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” Our challenge is to ensure that PSM content finds ways to be meaningful for young children in a world where their attention is constantly being demanded by infinite alternative sources of fascination.

NB: We are currently seeking funding to continue and expand our research into young children’s engagement with YTK and other on-line digital content. Please get in touch if you may be interested in supporting this project or would like to find out more. Jane.O’

Abdul Ghani, M. & Cambre, C. (2020) “Ethan’s Golden YouTube Play Button: The evolution of a child influencer” Chapter 4, In (Warfield K, Cambre C, & Abidin C Eds) Mediated Interfaces: The Body on Social Media. Bloomsbury Publishing. London, UK.Pp. 83-108.
Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press.
Baudrillard, J (2016) The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: SAGE.
Burroughs, B. (2017) YouTube Kids: The App Economy and Mobile Parenting. Social Media + Society 3(2).
OFCOM, UK (2019) Life on the small screen: what children are watching and why.
OFNS, UK (2020) Children’s views on well-being and what makes a happy life, UK: 2020.
Tolbert, N. & Drogos, L. (2019) Tweens’ Wishful Identification and Parasocial Relationships With YouTubers. Frontiers in Psychology 10:2781

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By Dr Jane O’Connor

Dr Jane O’Connor is a Reader in Childhood Studies at Birmingham City University where she co-leads the Cultures in Education research group. She is the author of The Cultural Significance of the Child Star (Routledge, 2008) and co-editor of Childhood and Celebrity (Routledge, 2017).

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