CNN Parenting

Q: Am I a bad parent if I let my kid star in unboxing videos on YouTube?

Am I a Bad Parent? is a CNN Parenting parenthood advice column. In the form below send us your confidential questions about any worrisome parenting behaviors you're having, and we'll help you work through the problem -- and the guilt.

(CNN)Am I a bad parent if I start a YouTube channel for my child to share unboxing videos? She would open up toys in front of the camera and then give her opinion of them. I was thinking of allowing her to do this as a reward for doing things like reading books and practicing the piano.

Signed,
Bewildered Parent of a Digital Native

    Dear Bewildered Parent of a Digital Native,

    Parenting involves a lot of difficult decisions. Among the hardest are the ones in which our children want to do the thing everyone else is doing, or wants to be doing, and we, their parents, find this thing to be kind of awful. We can either demand that our children resist the dominant culture, and thus feel alienated from, or smugly superior to, their peers. Or, we can allow our children to embrace it, and then have to witness them taking on something we find objectionable.
    In some cases, like when the thing is sexist or racist, the choice is easy. In other cases, when the thing involves embracing a value system that is icky at large, but probably not that bad in small doses, the choice becomes more complicated.
    There's just so much not to like about unboxing videos. They represent crass materialism, and our endless appetite for stuff. Worse, they're fueled by the logic that possession alone is no longer titillating. In our age of abundance, it's the act of acquisition, and not ownership, that excites.

    Answering your questions about potentially bad parenting behavior. We will help you work through the guilt.

    They're also an unnecessarily early indoctrination into the attention economy, in which we are only as good as our traffic and likes. Unboxing videos and other toy-related content account for a fifth of YouTube's top 100 channels, racking up billions of views, and the desire for more stuff and more attention, per month. Many of them are made with toys provided by toy companies. Or, the people making the videos are paid directly by toy companies. Either way, the genre is largely a misleading form of advertising. (Brazil is currently suing Google, which owns YouTube, for this reason.)
    I assume you share at least some of my reservations, otherwise you wouldn't have written in about it. Nobody asks if rewarding their kid with a trip to the library, or adopting a dog from the local animal shelter, makes them a bad parent.
    All this said, maybe I should lighten up? Unboxing videos are clearly not the high point of contemporary civilization, but perhaps they aren't so bad either. Kids like toys. Kids like watching other kids talk about toys. Many kids like, or think they would like, being the kid who other people watch talking about toys. As long as this is a small piece of their media diet, most of them will weather the whole experience just fine.
    What I'm trying to say here is that this is a tough one. As I see it, there are three potential scenarios, only of one of which would make you a bad parent.
    In the first scenario, you say "no." Maybe you say this for all the above-mentioned reasons, as well as because your kid spends enough time online as it is. Maybe you also say "no" because the internet is a big, sometimes scary place where people say really creepy things behind the mask of screen-names, and there's no need to subject your daughter to it.
    Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, worries about the way being online may heighten a child's need for external approval and their instinct to compare themselves to others. YouTube videos receive comments, and even when the comments are disabled, they receive clicks. A poorly performing video, or one that others mock, might lead to feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. Or, worse, your daughter might try to do something a little different, possibly even a little regrettable, to gain attention.
    "Children lack good judgment. They might do things that are lousy ideas, but seem good in the moment. Once the cat is out of the bag -- and the video is online -- there is not a whole lot you can do about it," Saltz said.
    There's also the concern that publicly playing oneself during childhood might get in the way of the self-discovery process that is a normal part of childhood, Saltz said. Childhood, including the teen years, is all about sorting through identities and "trying different ones on for size." But it's hard to do this when you are a self-directed media brand, and supposed to deliver a consistent persona, week-after-week, for public consumption. Especially one in a visual medium, which demands a special attention to appearance.
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