Kids See Too Much Too Soon

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Why YouTube is Ruining our Children.

By Chris McKenna, originally published at Childhood Unwired

“From Mission Control, Silence”

On January 28, 1986 I was sitting in Mr. Kopke’s classroom with the rest of my sixth-grade classmates, all watching the Challenger space shuttle launch. It was a special mission because a teacher, Christa McAuliffe joined the crew. But just over one minute into the launch, the world witnessed the shuttle explode and the booster rockets flying untethered toward the Atlantic. We looked around, unsure if we should believe what we watched. It didn’t make any sense.

Even NASA Mission Control fell silent in disbelief.

For years, the space shuttle had launched without any issues. I was particularly fond of space, planets, and the shuttle because my uncle worked at NASA and he often sent me pictures of our solar system and rockets. But the shuttle exploding after take-off didn’t have a “category” or place in my brain where I could make sense of it. No one had ever talked to me about that as a possible outcome, leaving me anxious and confused. 

TikTok and Tweens are Like Sugar and Newborns

There’s an adage among moms to never give an infant child sweet foods. Instead, start with vegetables to acclimate their palate to foods without sugar. From birth, humans are hard-wired to crave sugar because it built up fat stores and kept our ancestors from starving when food was scarce. I remember being present for my nephew’s circumcision. The doctor calmed him by dipping his pacifier in sugar water. Although only days old, my nephew’s eagerness to use it was intense, and it calmed him instantly. 

However, pediatricians know that the diet from birth to 24 months shapes long-term food preferences. We don’t want to corrupt the baby’s palette with sugary foods. 

This principle highlights how early exposure to certain stimuli can set a precedent for future preferences and reactions. Similarly, when children are exposed to mature content prematurely, it can have significant psychological and emotional impacts, akin to giving a newborn sweet food out of the gate.

Today, many digital spaces where children spend time, like YouTube, TikTok, and simple internet searches are rife with thematic, adult content. 

According to The Youth Endowment Fund

One teenager punches and kicks another until the victim curls up in the fetal position on the ground. A boy sexually assaults a girl, while his friends cheer him on from the sidelines.

These are the types of videos that over half of our teenage children saw last year on TikTok and other social media platforms. Not other people’s children – our children. Almost half of children using TikTok saw violent content.”

Even innocent searches can be weaponized. A 2022 Common Sense Media survey of 1,300 teens ages 13-17 found that 58% had been exposed to pornography accidentally. 

It’s too much, too soon. And it’s harmful to young brains.

The Underappreciated Concept of “Content Ahead of Schedule”

Children process new information by categorizing it based on their existing knowledge and developmental stage. When they encounter content that is too advanced for their understanding—whether it’s overly sexualized media, intense themes in movies, or complex adult issues—they struggle to find appropriate mental categories to store and process this information. This premature exposure can disrupt their natural developmental trajectory, leading to confusion and emotional distress.

Counselor Michael Reiffer, MSW, LMSW, introduced me to the concept of “ahead of schedule.

“I can’t give you something that you’re going to have to categorize without first giving you categories where you put it. What do I file it under? What category does this go in if I get something so beyond where I’m at? It’s like sugar for a newborn to a [young] mind. It’s so activating, thrilling, all sorts of stimulating, but there’s no category to file it under. It’s super difficult to put it away, neurologically.”

For instance, if you talk to a young child who’s exposed to pornography – maybe age 10 – ahead of puberty and maybe ahead of sexual education. And now he’s seeing graphic images and thematic content about what grownups do but has no way to understand it. 

According to Mr. Reiffer, kids will say things like, “I don’t know, were they wrestling? I thought I was possessed. My heart was beating out of my chest. I felt electrified!” Because they don’t know what to put it under. They don’t understand intimacy and marriage and there’s no category for what they’ve seen.

Content Ahead of Schedule Isn’t Just Porn. 

A long list of online and offline content is thematically “too much” for young minds. 

  1. Sexual Content: A child exposed to pornography or explicit material before they have a foundational understanding of intimacy and sexuality might experience intense confusion and fear. They lack the contextual framework to interpret what they see, often leading to misguided interpretations, abusive behavior toward peers, sleep disruption, and significant anxiety. 
  2. Intense Adult Themes: Movies or stories involving life-threatening situations, substance abuse, or extreme psychological struggles are beyond the comprehension of young children. Exposure to such themes can result in misinterpretations and a heightened sense of fear and insecurity.
  3. Violence: According to The Youth Endowment Fund, which surveyed 7,500 British children ages 13-17, 60% witnessed real-world acts of violence on social media in the last year, 25% saw content promoting violence against women and girls, 47% reported that violence and the fear of violence impacted their day-to-day lives, and 20% of children said they’d skipped school due to feeling unsafe.
  4. Adult Responsibilities: When children are forced into roles of responsibility too soon, such as managing household issues during a parental divorce, it can lead to stress-related symptoms like sleep disturbances, stomach aches, and behavioral changes. They are thrust into situations without the emotional maturity to handle them.
  5. Shocking world events: For example, Columbine (or any school shooting), September 11, and the Challenger disaster. There’s a reason we rush a team of counselors into schools and communities after these events. It’s because we know children need help processing their emotions. They’ve been exposed to something and they don’t know what to “do with it.” 

Content Ahead of Schedule Disrupts Young Brains

Children unable to categorize advanced content might exhibit various signs:

  • Irritability and Restlessness: They may become unusually irritable or restless due to the internal struggle of processing advanced information.
  • Sleep Disruptions: Changes in sleep patterns are common as their minds grapple with the unsettling new content.
  • Clinginess or Withdrawal: Some children might become overly clingy, seeking comfort, while others might withdraw, trying to cope with their confusion in isolation.
  • Changes in Behavior and Interests: Sudden changes in behavior, such as different fashion choices or altered social interactions, can signal underlying distress from inappropriate exposure.

An illustration from Michael Reiffer:

“It’s like when you have stuff on the kitchen counter. Or on the steps going upstairs. And every time you walk by the counter or the steps, there’s that “thing” – the bill, the schedule, the towel – It’s sitting there. The mess is there and it bothers you until it’s “put away.” That’s a simple way for a parent to try and understand what’s going on inside a young brain. It’s disruptive and stressful. But multiply it – what they’re feeling is more intense because they have much fewer coping tools.”

Parents, Do You Truly Know Your Child?

Although I embrace a #delayistheway mentality with technology, this post isn’t intended to make parents feel guilty about how much screen time they give their children. 

Instead, please be observant, engaged, and informed about what content is available in the digital spaces where your children spend time. Just like keeping candy away from infants, we must be diligently mindful of the types of content our children consume online. Allowing them to grow and mature at a natural pace.

Keep an appropriate balance between relational (the right talks at the right time) and technical (hardware and software solutions) protections. You can read more about both by following our work at Protect Young Eyes (website, Instagram, Facebook). 

Questions for parents (and educators) to ponder:

  • Do you know your child well enough to know if they aren’t “well?”
  • Do you make enough time for your child, so they can tell you they aren’t well?
  • Have you promised your child you’ll stay calm no matter what they share with you? (Read our recent thoughts about parental anger)
  • Have you reminded your child – whether they’re age 4 or 17 – that they can land safely and softly with you? 
  • And have you said it so often that they roll their eyes and finish your sentences?

Giving our children too little access to technology, apps, and digital spaces is impossible. Society is starting to wake up to the reality that when parents over-protect children from the physical world – believing click-bait news that everyone is a predator – and instead, drop them into TikTok, we increase their chances of feeling lonely, anxious, and unsure about themselves.

Most of the very best things for our children and their mental well-being are almost always analog.

This article reflects viewpoints and experience of the contributing individuals and/or organizations.

About the Author
Chris McKenna, Founder, Protect Young Eyes: A man with never-ending energy in protecting children from harm online. Chris practices his internet safety tips on his four amazing children and is regularly featured on news, radio, and podcasts for his research. His 2019 US Senate Judiciary Committee testimony catalyzed state and federal legislative efforts to protect children online and earned PYE the NCOSE Dignity Defense Alert Award in 2020. The PYE team speaks to thousands of parents and students and was featured in the Childhood 2.0 movie. Other loves include running, nature, and family road trips.

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