Fatherhood Parenting Thoughts

My Children Want a YouTube Account…

Each parental generation faces tough choices when trying to raise children. Some of the questions remain reassuringly constant.

  • What school should my children attend?
  • Am I doing enough to help them succeed?
  • Is tough love the right approach?

Most of the doubts plaguing parents are timeless; they are a rite-of-passage and every year dozens of books are written (or plagiarised) attempting to explain some new undiscovered-scientific angle.

For instance, in the last few years we have had The Marshmallow Test, based on the Stanford experiment which indicates that kids that can delay gratification go onto better life outcomes. We have also had Grit, which posits that children who can display grit or stickiness at a habit will have much greater success than those that have natural talent but are lazy.

Very little of this is a revelation to parents. The really hard questions are those that exist in media res; the kinds of questions that only apply to the current generation.

Previously it might have been,

  • 1960’s: How do I respond if my child is involved in the counter-culture?
  • 1970’s: Is the Vietnam War a worthy cause?
  • 1980’s: How do I encourage my children to practice safe sex?
  • 1990’s: Is around-the-world backpacking safe?

Today, in 2021, the thorniest parental question is;

Should I let my children use social media, in particular, YouTube?

And, honestly, I just don’t know.

I grew up with an analogue childhood and adopted digital technologies in my very late teens. I didn’t have a computer at home; my first computer was a laptop which I purchased for going to University in 2002.

I bought my first mobile phone, a Sagem, at 18 years old. I remember my cousin and I excitedly scratching off the silver foil for the top-up code, inputting it and then wondering what the hell do we do now? We didn’t have anyone to call.

Since that event 20 years ago, mobile devices have become ubiquitous, destroying the home telephony market, the digital camera market and heralding the rise of the tablet.

And, right along side that adoption has been the boom of social media and streaming services.

The glowing rectangle in your pocket lets you broadcast or receive content from anywhere in world. Your written words, images and videos can be shared around the globe instantly. In 2021, anyone can be a content creator; including our children.

It is a brave new world and to be honest, I am not sure I like it. Which puts me into a moral conundrum. I have to ask myself, is it that

Self-broadcasting platforms like YouTube are truly damaging and I do more good by protecting my children from its reach even if they hate me for it?

By denying them I am protecting them from a system designed to turn them into addicts, hooked on the imaginary validation of strangers.


YouTube is the democratisation of content and I am just too old to appreciate that it is now the way that younger generations express themselves?

By denying them I am stopping them from an artistic medium.

Well, I just don’t know.

My daughter has performed on stage at the Royal Theatre, Drury Lane in London. I was proud as could be watching her in a production of Newsies; singing and dancing. I watched as the crowd rose to it’s feet, clapping and cheering for all of the cast, her included.

In that any different from seeking the validation of strangers via likes, comments and subscribers?

Ultimately, she was not paid for the performance but on a video platform, she could be compensated for her artistic efforts, potentially leading to greater commercial awareness and business knowledge.

In monetisation terms; it is truly scary just how prevalent YouTube has become.

Little kids are responsible for, quite literally, billions of views on YouTube—pretending otherwise is irresponsible. In a small study, a team of paediatricians at Einstein Medical Center, in Philadelphia, found that YouTube was popular among device-using children under the age of 2. 97 percent of the kids in the study had used a mobile device. By age 4, 75 percent of the children in the study had their own tablet, smartphone, or iPod.

And that was in 2015.

However, internet use was already alarming governmental advisors as far back as 2005. The Byron Report, commissioned in 2008 by Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that

Many parents do not understand the media, which the Review terms the “generational digital divide”. This can mean that parents are overprotective through fear of what is available.

Parents should be available to assist their children in making decisions about and during use of the media.

It is possible that parental fears about social media are as misguided as other generational fears?

  • In late 80’s it was a common fear of parents that sitting too close to the TV would damage a child’s eyesight which was later discovered to be medical nonsense
  • In 1907 Punch magazine published a cartoon fearing that the radio would prevent couples from speaking to each other
  • In the 19th century it was also thought that the telephone would induce deafness
  • Experts also believed sulphurous vapours were asphyxiating passengers on the London Underground
  • The advent of the moving train was feared to invoke madness, particularly in women

The hesitancy even pervaded Ancient Greece. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.”

Are these bygone fears any different from articles stating 7 Ways Facebook is Bad for Your Mental Health or Smartphones Make Us Dumber Than Goldfish?

The most widely-quoted example on the internet is Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Loyola University of Chicago professor Steven E. Jones notes, their cellphones all come to life, screens glowing in front of their faces, “and they migrate across the lawns like giant schools of cyborg jellyfish.”

It was an irrational fear of the technological-industrial complex that inspired the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski onto a terrorist rampage sending mail bombs.

The commonly used term for a person with a fear of technological progress is luddite even though Luddites were highly skilled machine operators.

The Smithsonian Magazine profiled the Luddite movement in great detail in their 2011 article comparing it to modern life. Over 220 years ago, a group of disgruntled factory workers, upset at the lack of work, went on a rampage destroying factories across the Midlands of the United Kingdom.

British working families at the start of the 19th century were enduring economic upheaval and widespread unemployment. A seemingly endless war against Napoleon’s France had brought “the hard pinch of poverty”. Food was scarce and rapidly becoming more costly. Then, on March 11, 1811, in Nottingham, a textile manufacturing center, British troops broke up a crowd of protesters demanding more work and better wages.

That night, angry workers smashed textile machinery in a nearby village. Similar attacks occurred nightly at first, then sporadically, and then in waves, eventually spreading across a 70-mile swath of northern England from Loughborough in the south to Wakefield in the north.

The duality of technology is alive and well today. I am writing this blog post, hosted on AWS and shared via Facebook to friends and family.

College students take out their earbuds to discuss how technology dominates their lives. But when a class ends, Loyola University of Chicago professor Steven E. Jones notes, their cell phones all come to life, screens glowing in front of their faces, “and they migrate across the lawns like giant schools of cyborg jellyfish.”

The original Luddites would say that we are human. Getting past the myth and seeing their protest more clearly is a reminder that it’s possible to live well with technology—but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values. If we don’t want to become, as Carlyle warned, “mechanical in head and in heart”.

It could be that my reluctance of encouraging YouTube as a content platform is masking a deeper, more pressing fear.

I am terrified that my children are not reading enough.

As a child I was a voracious reader; the highlight of the school term was the book fair where piles of shiny new books would be on display. The seller would hand you a catalogue with rows of new titles; accompanied by white tick boxes. Your parents would select the books they were willing to buy and you took the hallowed docket back to your teacher with a brown envelope with money and then a few weeks later the books would arrive.

Rigid new Usborne puzzle books; The Three Investigators, The Hobbit, Hardy Boys, Animals of Farthing Wood and a plethora of other titles by Colin Dann.

If you were feeling adventurous you might have opted for a Jackson and Livingstone Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, pencils and die at the ready. Actually, if I am being honest, I much preferred the Fabled Lands series…

For the mature reader there was Point Horror and the excellent Christopher Pike – an author who treated teens as adults. I remember Fall into Darkness and Monster as if it was yesterday. I think I broke the spine of my copy of monster re-reading it so much.

It was an experience. Now, I can barely drag my kids away from Roblox because they see reading as a punishment. When I ask them to pick up a book of their choice they roll their eyes and look longingly at any screen within the vicinity.

The rectangles are glowing orbs of compulsion.

My kids look into screens the way Saruman looks into a Palantir. A slave to it’s power.

However, even now, I find myself questioning, is less reading really a problem for children?

“We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain“We are how we read”.

Nowadays, my kids surface skim articles online for research and jump erratically from subject to subject, their stream of consciousness moving as quickly as a mouse click on Wikipedia.

It must be! I convince myself. It must be a problem not to read. Then the doubts creep in; is it though?

Isn’t the narrative in computer games just as rich and compelling? How is reading any different from the moral choices they exhibit during the interactive Minecraft game?

The problem is not just children.

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year.

One of the artforms that I hope my children learn to enjoy is reading the work of playwrights, particularly Shakespeare.

Which is why the YouTube conundrum is so confusing.

Would the Bard today have been a YouTube personality? Would his rallying cry have have been encouraging audiences to Love all, trust a few and smash that subscribe button!

Or, like Aaron Sorkin, would he have hated the internet and all of it’s vacuous simplicity?

I just don’t know.

I suppose that, in order to tackle the YouTube dilemma, we should consider the rise of the moving picture, particularly television.

Television has long been demonised as a corrosive effect on children.

However, fifty years ago, the most influential children’s-television studio in history, Children’s Television Workshop, was invented, thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the United States government. It created a cultural phenomenon —Sesame Street—supported by education experts and Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets.

Sesame Street was credited with a noticeable rise in child literacy.

It was found that access to the show was associated with improved elementary school performance in “the generation of children who experienced their preschool years when Sesame Street was introduced in areas with greater broadcast coverage.” In the 1980 Census cohort, for example, kids who had access to Sesame Street were “1.5 to 2 percentage points more likely to be at the grade level appropriate for their age.” The study also found that boys, kids who grew up in poor counties, and black children were particularly impacted by access to Sesame Street.

Similar trends have been observed in Finland where children do not start school until they are seven and TV consumption is accompanied by subtitles greatly increasing English literacy.

However, YouTube is most definitely not a new Sesame Street. James Bridle has written extensively about the, quite frankly, bizarre trash that litters YouTube for Kids.

James writes;

The maker of my particular favorite videos is “Blu Toys Surprise Brinquedos & Juegos,” and since 2010 he seems to have accrued 3.7 million subscribers and just under 6 billion views for a kid-friendly channel entirely devoted to opening surprise eggs and unboxing toys.

As I write this he has done a total of 4,426 videos and counting. With so many views — for comparison, Justin Bieber’s official channel has more than 10 billion views, while full-time YouTube celebrity PewDiePie has nearly 12 billion — it’s likely this man makes a living as a pair of gently murmuring hands that unwrap Kinder eggs. (Surprise-egg videos are all accompanied by pre-roll, and sometimes mid-video and ads.)

That should give you some idea of just how odd the world of kids online video is, and that list of video titles hints at the extraordinary range and complexity of this situation.

James goes on to deep dive into the truly disturbing world of YouTube automation which combines keyword analysis with stock footage libraries and pirate content to produce every more strange and recycled animations; some of which take a very, very dark or illegal turn with cartoons such as Peppa Pig eating her father, drinking bleach or being injected.

He adds in an addendum;

This video, BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video, contains all of the elements we’ve covered above, and takes them to another level. Familiar characters, nursery tropes, keyword salad, full automation, violence, and the very stuff of kids’ worst dreams. And of course there are vast, vast numbers of these videos. Channel after channel after channel of similar content, churned out at the rate of hundreds of new videos every week.

Industrialised nightmare production.

YouTube is still a wild west of content free from the kind of shepherding and investment that led to the rise of Sesame Street.

Do I want my kids exposed to that?


Does that mean I have to ban them from the platform altogether?

I just don’t know.

To allow the kids to create their content would be to expose them to a plethora of exciting digital skills including

  • Marketing
  • Keyword analysis
  • Editing
  • Sound production
  • Script writing
  • Planning
  • Collaborating with other friends and creators
  • Public speaking
  • The list is almost endless…

Is it so different from Steven Spielberg shooting movies at 12 years old or Christopher Nolan borrowing his dads Super-8 camera as a child to remake Star Wars with action figures?

Would our luddite fears of moving pictures have deprived the world of great directors? Or did the faith and guidance of their parents help them navigate a tricky world and, in doing so, create great content?

All of this only serves to bring me full circle back to my parental responsibilities.

Is YouTube a new medium which my children should be free to explore and to harness by creating and sharing new content of their own creation?
Or is it a Charybdis of child attention, pulling them into an exploitative, increasingly automated world which encourages them to shun time dedicated to the more traditional arts?

I just don’t know.

Fatherhood Parenting Thoughts

Teaching Kids That There is No Spoon

I take great inspiration in the things that my kids say, or do. Sometimes amusing, sometimes surprising, always honest; kids can be a goldmine of wisdom if you listen.

This is a post about the time that I tried to teach my children that there is no spoon.

Or, should I say, there is no flip-phone.

A few months ago we were taking a family journey in the car. Parents the world over can empathise what a distressing experience this can be, especially with three children in the back. Punches thrown, elbows jarred, threats issued, alliances formed.

Parents see it all from the safety of the front seat.

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In this particular incident my youngest, Jacob, had brought along a plastic flip phone, the likes of which adorn kids magazines the world over. He would use this device to communicate quite animatedly with his grandmother 3 miles away. I am not sure what voices he was hearing in return but sometimes his one-sided dialogues would end with a slamming shut of said inert plastic trinket.

It was comical.

Until the middle child took the phone and also began to speak to an imaginary friend and, as you can imagine, the eldest snatched the wondrous plastic talisman to also speak.

This led to screams and tantrums so I did what any good manager (read: father) would do and pulled the car over to issue 2 more toys and told the kids to pretend the toys were also phones. Now they could all speak.

The kids looked at me dumbfounded.

How could they possibly speak into a toy that was not a phone? Was I mad?

The phone was a phone. This new toy was not a phone. It was just…a toy.

They had not learned that, in life, there is no spoon.

As entrepreneurs we rely on one resource and one resource only.

Our imagination.

It is the imagination of the entrepreneur that allows them to envisage a world in which they are not unemployed / working minimum wage / delivering someone else’s dream (delete as necessary) and then bend the world to match that reality.

It is imagination which helps them inspire a team to unify behind a goal. Ideally a bold, audacious goal like kill emailthe rallying cry of the Slack team.

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Slack: Killing email through imagination

My children were crippled because they had not realised that the driver powering the plastic phone was not the phone. It was them. 

They were the ones imagining the world and it unfolded before them.

The phone only existed because they wanted it to exist.

It is precisely this challenge that Paul Graham laid down to founders and entrepreneurs in 2012 when he listed the 7 frightening startup ideas and why they are scary. If you want to solve these scary problems then you will have to actually imagine a world in which the problem is solved and then create it.

I have always been a fan of Steve Jobs and he understood that if you want to change the status quo you must apply your imagination multiplied by force of will.

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It is my role in life to give my children the tools and the sandbox to push themselves and impose their will on their surroundings. This in turn will help them learn new skills and, as a result, have the confidence to go onto new frontiers.

All this from a flip phone in a car?


In 2015 I decided to leave my well-paid job with a FTSE 100. I had a good salary, pension contributions and a great company car but I could sense it was time to move on. My instincts were tingling and my imagination said I could do something else so I handed in my notice with no safety net and leapt into the unknown.

Don’t underestimate this decision; I am a father of 3 with a mortgage and now I didn’t even have a car. In addition, disaster struck; the company billed me for the full lease of the company vehicle and a host of other charges which wiped out my savings and my last month’s salary. It was a horrible time but I plowed into interviews like I had nothing to lose. My only commodity right then was my knowledge, the scarcity of good Agile personnel and my self-belief.

I imagined the world I wanted.

I wanted maximum value despite the risk of not getting a job.

Options unfolded before me; I could join the No.1 supermarket in the UK as the Scrum Master for their new technology platform (and huge learning opportunities) or I had other firm offers from two insurance companies.

I mulled it over. My fiancée began to panic as our bills were now going unpaid and all of the jobs were over 100 miles away; quite the challenge for a man without a car.

I held out despite the mounting financial pressure and then negotiated a deal with the second company to come in as a contractor under my own limited company and we settled on a start date of three weeks from the date of negotiation. I managed to talk a mechanic into giving me a reliable car under the trust of paying them in full after my first invoice cleared.

Time passed slowly and I reassured my family this was the right thing to do in the long-run. Even as our phones were disconnected due to unpaid bills.

Even as we began to divide up the remaining money into what the kids needed as a priority.

However, we got through it, at year end I had earned a six figure income and more importantly, the mechanic has become a life-long friend and now has a customer for life.

I don’t tell this story to brag; it was a really challenging time, at one point I used a tent as I could not afford accommodation in the client city, but, it is equally important that I show my children that there are no safety nets in life; you have to take risks and you must use your instincts and ingenuity.

Imagination x Force of Will

I learned this trait from my mother and father. In 1987 they left the destitute town of Dundee where we had been homeless for weeks and drove using their last remaining funds to the town of Corby.

In a pre-internet era; old friends had said that the town had burgeoning employment opportunities.

I will never forget we arrived with a car, an empty petrol tank and my parents had enough money for a single sandwich which they gave to me. We drove aimlessly looking for a friend of the family (no sat nav) who had agreed to put us up.

How does a man, a father, with no qualifications and no money earn enough to support his family within the next 48 hours?

Simple. He borrows a ladder, a bucket and a cloth and becomes a window cleaner. As a family we survived and my parents went on to become home-owners.

Those lessons stayed with me; I can always impose my will and my imagination on my environment. 

Sometimes it will fail but failure is not fatal.

It just hurts; so you collect yourself and keep trying.

He who endures, succeeds.

The movement, which inspires children to try things, has over 400,000 children engaged in imagining prototypes, running experiments and sharing feedback.

They asked the valid question “What happens when you invite kids to try?

Giving children the ability to shape their own universe and learn entrepreneurial habits was also the focus of the outstanding TED talk by Cameron Herold. A video which resonates with me on a personal and parental level.

Allowances teach kids the wrong habits. Allowances, by nature, are teaching kids to think about a job. An entrepreneur doesn’t expect a regular paycheck. Allowance is breeding kids at a young age to expect a regular paycheck. That’s wrong, for me, if you want to raise entrepreneurs. What I do with my kids now — I’ve got two, nine and seven — is I teach them to walk around the house and the yard, looking for stuff that needs to get done. Come to me and tell me what it is. Or I’ll come to them and say, “Here’s what I need done.” And then you know what we do? We negotiate.

It took imagination for Lin, Hsieh and Swinmurn to position Zappos as an independent entity within the Amazon empire and drive through a cultural revolution in customer service; manifested in the oft-quoted Culture Book and more prominently in the Pay-You-To-Leave-The-Company gambit.

If you are not inspiring your children to create and play then start now.

They don’t need a plastic flip phone.

They just need the safety net to imagine it and make it happen.

Give them a push.

Stay warm, stay hungry