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The Algorithm That Makes Preschoolers Obsessed With YouTube Kids - The Atlantic
"Surprise eggs and slime are at the center of an online realm that’s changing the way the experts think about human development."



"And here’s where the ouroboros factor comes in: Kids watch the same kinds of videos over and over. Videomakers take notice of what’s most popular, then mimic it, hoping that kids will click on their stuff. When they do, YouTube’s algorithm takes notice, and recommends those videos to kids. Kids keep clicking on them, and keep being offered more of the same. Which means video makers keep making those kinds of videos—hoping kids will click.

This is, in essence, how all algorithms work. It’s how filter bubbles are made. A little bit of computer code tracks what you find engaging—what sorts of videos do you watch most often, and for the longest periods of time?—then sends you more of that kind of stuff. Viewed a certain way, YouTube Kids is offering programming that’s very specifically tailored to what children want to see. Kids are actually selecting it themselves, right down to the second they lose interest and choose to tap on something else. The YouTube app, in other words, is a giant reflection of what kids want. In this way, it opens a special kind of window into a child’s psyche.

But what does it reveal?

“Up until very recently, surprisingly few people were looking at this,” says Heather Kirkorian, an assistant professor of human development in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “In the last year or so, we’re actually seeing some research into apps and touchscreens. It’s just starting to come out.”

Kids’ videos are among the most watched content in YouTube history. This video, for example, has been viewed more than 2.3 billion times, according to YouTube’s count:

[video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYniUCGPGLs ]



"The vague weirdness of these videos aside, it’s actually easy to see why kids like them. “Who doesn’t want to get a surprise? That’s sort of how all of us operate,” says Sandra Calvert, the director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University. In addition to surprises being fun, many of the videos are basically toy commercials. (This video of a person pressing sparkly Play-Doh onto chintzy Disney princess figurines has been viewed 550 million times.) And they let kids tap into a whole internet’s worth of plastic eggs and perceived power. They get to choose what they watch. And kids love being in charge, even in superficial ways.

“It’s sort of like rapid-fire channel surfing,” says Michael Rich, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Center on Media and Child Health. “In many ways YouTube Kids is better suited to the attention span of a young child—just by virtue of its length—than something like a half-hour or hour broadcast program can be.”

Rich and others compare the app to predecessors like Sesame Street, which introduced short segments within a longer program, in part to keep the attention of the young children watching. For decades, researchers have looked at how kids respond to television. Now they’re examining the way children use mobile apps—how many hours they’re spending, which apps they’re using, and so on."



"“You have to do what the algorithm wants for you,” says Nathalie Clark, the co-creator of a similarly popular channel, Toys Unlimited, and a former ICU nurse who quit her job to make videos full-time. “You can’t really jump back and forth between themes.”

What she means is, once YouTube’s algorithm has determined that a certain channel is a source of videos about slime, or colors, or shapes, or whatever else—and especially once a channel has had a hit video on a given topic—videomakers stray from that classification at their peril. “Honestly, YouTube picks for you,” she says. “Trending right now is Paw Patrol, so we do a lot of Paw Patrol.”

There are other key strategies for making a YouTube Kids video go viral. Make enough of these things and you start to get a sense of what children want to see, she says. “I wish I could tell you more,” she added, “But I don’t want to introduce competition. And, honestly, nobody really understands it. ”

The other thing people don’t yet understand is how growing up in the mobile internet age will change the way children think about storytelling. “There’s a rich set of literature showing kids who are reading more books are more imaginative,” says Calvert, of the Children’s Digital Media Center. “But in the age of interactivity, it’s no longer just consuming what somebody else makes. It’s also making your own thing.”

In other words, the youngest generation of app users is developing new expectations about narrative structure and informational environments. Beyond the thrill a preschooler gets from tapping a screen, or watching The Bing Bong Song video for the umpteenth time, the long-term implications for cellphone-toting toddlers are tangled up with all the other complexities of living in a highly networked on-demand world."
algorithms  adriennelafrance  youtube  2017  children  edtech  attention  nathalieclark  michaelrich  psychology  youtubekids  rachelbar  behavior  toddlers  repetition  storytelling  narrative  preschoolers 
july 2017 by robertogreco

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