Study shows children learn a great deal on YouTube

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Children are influenced by social media to try and explore other ways of learning.
Children are influenced by social media to try and explore other ways of learning.

We are living in a day and age where ownership and/or use of technology devices is on the rise amongst children.

One of the most popular reasons why children are so fascinated by these devices is the availability of social media. This is particularly true for adolescents and teenagers. They see social media as the new "hang out" spot. In our recent study, we looked at one of the social media tools – YouTube. The focus of the study was on "Using YouTube as an Informal Learning Tool for Children."

While sometimes it can be hard to balance how social media and learning can be found in one sentence – through our engagement with the 11 to 13-year-old children, we discovered that children learn a great deal on YouTube.

For the study, we looked at the word "learn-ing" as a verb, with the notion that learning can take place in different setups.

When learning occurs in a formalized environment like school it is referred to as formal learning (this is probably what many thinks of when they hear the word).

When learning occurs in any other setting other than the formal environment, then we refer to that type of learning as "informal learning."

Although hardly recognized as learning, Informal learning is heavily embedded in people's everyday lives and this can happen through interactions with others, involvement in hobbies like watching TV programs and searching the internet or engaging in online spaces.

What is intriguing about this type of learning is that a person does not need to have intentions to learn; by getting involved in a task or engaging with others whether be it face to face or through online platforms, they are bound to learn.

Through an informal interview setup, using focus groups, our research aimed at understanding, from the perspective of the children, why and how they used YouTube and whether or not they aware of the risks associated with using it and how they alleviated such risks.

The responses from the children enlightened us to understand the types of informal learning that can take place when children use YouTube.


Yes, you heard that right! Entertainment is the main reason children use YouTube. That is the place where they hang out and engage in activities that are fun to them.

The activities that the children engage in include categories such as: watching music videos, game highlights, vlogs, comedy videos, playing games, how-to and DIY videos, vines, and soccer videos.

One may ask if there any opportunities for learning by engaging in these activities and the answer to that is "Most certainly - Yes." So, how do they learn?

Read: Drone pilot, Social Media Influencer and 8 other jobs trending among teens

Incidental learning

From our study, it was clear that this type of informal learning is one that is closely aligned with the definition of what informal learning is. While the key activity for children on YouTube is entertainment, unconsciously they were learning soccer tricks, lyrics of songs, dancing skills and new tricks on how to excel in computer games.

During the interviews, the children admitted that they were not aware that they were learning. One of the children, who were interested in watching music videos, thought the fact that she better understood how to dance from the videos was just a coincidence and not something that could be defined as learning.

When asked if she had learnt any new skills from the music videos, her response was: "Not really, but now I know how to dance better!"

Digital literacy skills – skills on how to navigate the digital world were some of the incidental learnings that took place for children on YouTube.

Most of them alluded to the fact that there were no formal tutorials that they had to go through to learn how to use YouTube, they were figuring it out themselves. It was evident that the children possessed high levels of digital literacy skills.

The children were very comfortable on YouTube, their knowledge of how to search for videos, how to clear browser history and how to remove inappropriate content was evidence of possessing high levels of digital literacy. This is something they were not taught but learnt as they were pursuing their entertainment on YouTube.

With the level of knowledge, they displayed on how to use YouTube, they were quite happy to teach the novice YouTubers how to navigate.

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning gives you the freedom to learn in a way that best suits you and your circumstances. Learning happens at your own pace and you choose the space where you want to learn. For self-directed learning to be meaningful, self-directed learners "want to experience some fun in the process" while learning.

This is what makes YouTube one of the popular choices for children for this type of learning. Children learn a lot of skills from YouTube's education and DIY videos – with some researchers arguing that the kind of content on these videos students often won't find in schools.

What's the takeaway?

Before we completely block children from using social media tools such as YouTube, we need to think twice. It is evident from research that there are abundant learning opportunities for children on YouTube. Our advice, instead of Blocking, Educate!

This piece emanated from a study by Neliswa Dyosi as part of her Master's in Commerce research at the University of Pretoria, with Dr Marie Hattingh as her supervisor.


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