Thais Freitas

Storytelling & Communications Strategy

YouTube addiction: How I helped my children break out of screen-time zombie mode

Five-year old boy picks leaves on the grass in a park

I was one of those people who said that their children wouldn’t have access to screens until they were at least three years old, and that after that they’d not be allowed to watch more than 30 minutes of educational programs approved by me. But honestly, I never worried about that because they’d grow up in constant contact with nature, playing outside, and have no interest in screens.

That, of course, was before I had kids – and reality hit me like a sack of rocks.

My boys are now almost three and five years old. They have endless energy and love to test our limits. My husband and I are immigrants, so we have no family support in raising them – or any at all, since we recently moved to a new province and don’t know many people here. Also, we work full time. All of this means we’re always tired, so we started letting our sons watch YouTube so we could rest a little.

But what started as a few minutes of quiet time to drink our Saturday morning coffee quickly turned into a YouTube addiction that led us straight into tantrum hell.

Why my sons can’t watch YouTube anymore

We were so overwhelmed in 2022 that we thought the damage done by letting the boys watch a few videos was worth the break for our sanity – and it was true, initially. They started watching Cocomelon together on the tablet, but soon our oldest, Eli, got tired of it and wanted to watch construction vehicles and superheroes, so we let him use the spare phone with supervision. After a while, as we had things to do around the house, we let him choose what he wanted to watch and occasionally looked over his shoulder. And since his big brother could choose what he wanted to watch, Kyle naturally demanded the same privilege.

Soon they were frantically scrolling to the next video after watching less than five seconds of the current one – their attention span, which wasn’t long to begin with, was gone. They scrolled endlessly and got angry if anything went wrong, such as an ad, a message that interrupted the video, or – heaven forbid – the battery died – they cried, growled, screamed, and even threw the phone on the floor.

When it was time to eat, they refused to follow the family rule of “no devices at the table” and cried and screamed when we turned them off. They cried when they had to leave “their” device in the morning to go to school, and demanded it back the minute they got home at the end of the day. They stopped playing with each other, then stopped playing at all and just scrolled through YouTube whenever they could.

Their YouTube addiction messed with their sleep patterns. Kyle wanted to watch videos in bed and screamed his head off when he wasn’t allowed – he then struggled to go to the living room, crying and kicking. Can you imagine how hard it is for parents to deal with when they’re exhausted from the day and the exhaustion has built up over such a long time? Sometimes I felt so helpless that I burst into tears while he stared at the iPad screen – how could I have created such little tyrants, zombies ruled by freaking YouTube?

Eli began to have trouble sleeping. He kept saying he was afraid of the monsters in his room, even though he had never heard of monsters in our house or at daycare. He started to have night terrors, waking up screaming and fidgeting around like he was in a trance until he finally calmed down and went back to sleep not knowing what had happened that night. It was frightening and added to our increasing exhaustion.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Eli also started saying things like, “I want to punch you in the eye to spill blood,” or “I’ll throw you in the trash so the garbage truck can crush you.” We were horrified and had no idea where this was coming from, so I started paying more attention to the videos they were watching – and I was shocked.

From a distance, it looked like they were watching harmless Paw Patrol or Spiderman videos, but when I sat down and looked more closely, I noticed that the YouTube algorithm was suggesting increasingly violent videos featuring their favourite characters.

Thumbnails of violent YouTuibe videos disguised as innocent Paw Patrol cartoons for children
Some of the videos that came up in my sons’ YouTube history. Do they look like something little kids should watch?

One video, for example, showed Paw Patrol character Chase as a red-eyed demon cutting off other characters’ limbs with a chainsaw. I scrolled to the next video, and the next, and the next, and all had similarly violent, gruesome content. At that moment, I decided that they’d never watch YouTube or use an electronic device alone again anytime soon – the YouTube tyranny was over, no matter how much they cried, kicked or screamed.

The “peace of mind” and “calm” that YouTube gives parents is false and extremely dangerous. I’ve never felt so bad and so guilty as I did for letting my kids watch those videos for so many months – but at least the shock gave my partner and I the willpower to end their YouTube addiction once and for all.

The YouTube detox wasn’t as hard as I expected

The first thing I did was take the devices out of their hands and announce that YouTube was over for the day – they could cry all they wanted, but they weren’t going to get it back, so they’d better get over it and find something else to do. They cried and cried, but when they saw no reaction from Mom and Dad, they eventually stopped and started going through their toy box and playing with their trucks and cars again. Then they remembered that they could play together, which they did for almost an hour until lunch was ready.

That day, they took a nap in the afternoon – something they hadn’t done in a long time. In the evening, they asked to watch videos, but we told them the devices were broken, so they asked to watch YouTube on TV – tragically, the TV was also broken, so they had to find something else to do. The next morning they immediately started playing when we told them that YouTube was still broken.

YouTube and the devices remained “broken” whenever they asked for them. A few days later, they stopped asking. They rediscovered their toys and how much fun it was to play outside, bounce on their beds, and run around the house. They developed a newfound curiosity about cooking and everything we do in the house, asking questions, trying to help us and inventing new ways to play.

How my sons’ behaviour changed after they stopped watching YouTube – and ours, too  

It’s been four months since our YouTube detox. Although my kids still occasionally ask to watch a video – and are immediately denied – they promptly forget about it. Instead, we let them watch unlimited cartoons on Netflix Kids or Disney+, which they do for an hour or so, patiently watching the entire episode – something unimaginable with YouTube.

Their behaviour has improved overall. Eli’s aggressiveness has decreased significantly and he no longer hits other kids at daycare, a problem we had since he started watching YouTube videos. They’re much more patient and affectionate with each other, their friends and us.

Everything becomes a toy now and I love watching them play with each other: Cardboard boxes are forts and magical kitchens, the floor is always lava, and every hallway is a track where Flash and Batman race each other. They ask Alexa to play their favourite songs and dance until they’re tired, and then they ask us to read books and tell stories. Eli doesn’t have night terrors anymore since he quit YouTube and sleeps soundly, while Kyle, instead of watching videos, bounces around on his bed until he’s tired enough to fall asleep – which isn’t great for us parents, of course, but at least it’s healthy and normal for his age.

Two preschool boys sledding and having fun playing in the snow
Free from their YouTube action, my sons love being outside and playing together again – and that warms my heart!

Eli is gradually stopping saying those weird things he learned on YouTube – I understand it’s a process to stop, just like their YouTube brainwashing was also a process, albeit faster. He has developed a love for colouring, and since Kyle wants to do everything his brother does, they both spend a lot of time drawing and colouring. By constantly being asked to colour with them, I too have rediscovered an old hobby – and even bought new markers and colouring books to colour in my spare time.

The YouTube ban on our kids has forced us to change our own behaviour, and I’m glad that happened. My partner and I’ve become more mindful of our smartphones and tablets because the kids keep asking what we’re doing since they no longer have their own devices. Children mirror their parents’ behaviour. So how could we tell them to stay off YouTube when we were constantly on social media ourselves? We started getting more involved in their play instead of using our phones to mentally switch off under the pretext of being too tired.

I noticed nuances in my children’s personalities and curiosities that I hadn’t noticed when I was busy mindlessly watching puppy videos, pointless stories from people I barely knew, and all the ads that are constantly foisted on social media users. I was missing out on the joy of watching my little boys grow up, but what was I getting in return for my time spent online? The damage YouTube did to my children made me rethink my entire approach to technology and raising my children, and for that I’m grateful.

I know it’s been relatively easy to stop my sons’ YouTube addiction because they’re still very young – it’ll get harder as they get older, more independent, and more influenced by their peers. But I’m confident that their father and I can give them a better and more conscious start by developing the awareness, knowledge and openness to guide them in their use of social media and the internet in general so that they can be safe and grow into healthy and mindful adults.

How to free your children from their YouTube addiction

If I could give advice to parents going through a similar situation with their children, it would be these five tips:

1. Remember why you’re doing it, then let them cry

The beginning will be tough. Once you disconnect your kids from their electronic devices, they’ll probably cry and scream a lot. They’ll be sad and disappointed, you’ll be stressed and heartbroken because they’re crying, and you’ll want to let them go back to their YouTube videos just to shut them up. But don’t do that, resist: the first phase of the breakup is difficult, but it doesn’t last long. Keeping in mind that you’re doing this for their own good will help you stick to your decision to end their YouTube addiction.

2. Set a good example

It makes no sense, and you have no authority, to forbid your children to watch YouTube and keep them away from electronic devices if you yourself stare at a screen all the time. If you ban your kids from YouTube, you’ll inevitably have to rethink your own use of smartphones and tablets.

3. Engage with your kids and show them options

It’s normal and healthy for kids (and anyone else, really) to get bored sometimes – after all, that’s when new ideas often come up – but your kids probably need a little help figuring out what else they can do to have fun besides being a YouTube zombie.

Give them some fun suggestions, show them games and things you liked to do when you were their age, play with them – they’ll feel loved and engaged, and it’s amazing how a little attention can go a long way: If I sit down and colour with my sons for just 10 minutes, they usually get carried away and continue colouring long after I’ve stopped.

Just as you helped them get addicted to YouTube by giving them access to the platform, you need to help them overcome that addiction by reintroducing them to the fun of simple play, by giving them the tools to play with or helping them make them themselves (such as crayons and paper or a mud kitchen and supplies), and by playing with them to show them how much fun it can be. Once they learn, they can continue playing on their own.

4. Be patient and gentle with yourself

I felt terrible when I realized the extent of my sons’ YouTube addiction and wondered what a crappy mother I was for letting it get this far. Maybe you feel that way too, and trust me, the people around you won’t be at a loss for words to remind you, especially those perfect parents who don’t have kids yet, if you know what I mean.

For me, it was crucial to develop self-compassion, to understand my own issues, and to know that I’ve my children’s best interests at heart in everything I do – even if that once meant letting them watch YouTube so I could catch my breath and keep my sanity.

So forgive yourself first – tell me, what parents don’t make mistakes, even though they do their best to make everything right for their children? Whatever was going to happen has happened, and now it’s time to move on and build the future you envision for your family – one day, one small victory and one setback at a time.

2 thoughts on “YouTube addiction: How I helped my children break out of screen-time zombie mode

Thank you so much for putting this out there! It sounds just like my and my wife’s issues. We have two children and we were getting so concerned with the content on youtube. Like you said…it started innocent and each video built upon the other to videos that were violent, contained sexual content, and even anti Christian views. We have also started the detox….and it went as you said. They threw a fit. No matter, its for there own good! I wouldn’t let them play with a venomous snake, and youtube is just as dangerous, if not more. Thank you for this! More people needs to see this!

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