My two-year-old son is developing a thick Indian accent.
I am all for this, because a) I enjoy watching people react to a kid who looks like he’s from Stockholm but sounds as though he’s from Chennai and b) I’m part-Asian and obscenely lazy, so as far as I’m concerned, this counts as me passing on my heritage.
But my son’s accent has nothing to do with me. It’s because he watches a lot of YouTube.
People don’t believe me when I say he watches a lot of TV. “But he knows so many songs!” they tell me. “And he can spell out words!” Yes, and this is entirely down to my carefully-calibrated system of kids-TV-and-benign-neglect. Sometimes it’s the only way we can get any laundry or cooking done. And besides, getting my son to read an educational book is like trying to pin down a rabid wolverine. Present him with animated robots rapping about alphanumerics, however, and he’ll be Countdown material by Christmas.
Now, the way some people move from softcore to hardcore online porn, my son has moved on from prescriptive kids’ TV to YouTube.
This is largely because, with a new baby in the mix, certain standards have to slip so that both kids can be fed and clothed, and I can be sufficiently caffeinated for the day – and if that means our pre-dawn winter mornings are now soundtracked by a blue-tinged hellscape of shrieking nursery rhymes, so be it. And, boy, does my son love nursery rhymes.
“Can we watch there was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name-o?” he’ll ask at 6am, fully awake and ready to go. “Can we watch baa baa black sheep and horsey horsey and hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle and the cow jumped over the moon?” I say yes. I will always say yes, because I haven’t slept and I don’t have any activities ready because I conked out at 7pm the night before without preparing any – and, anyway, any activities I set up hold my son’s attention for precisely three milliseconds, whereas sit him in front of a poorly animated nursery-rhyme compilation and he will stay still and slack-jawed for up to an hour.
And there’s some really good stuff on YouTube. Chief among the kids’ channels is my husband’s and my favourite: the exceptional StoryBots. These are the aforementioned rapping robots. It’s funny, it teaches kids about everything, from colours and emotions to the planets, all to music, which I would genuinely buy and listen to if buying and listening to music was a thing I even did anymore. Super Simple Songs and Funtastic TV also offer similar content.
Any activities I set up hold my son’s attention for precisely three milliseconds, whereas sit him in front of a poorly animated nursery-rhyme compilation and he will stay still and slack-jawed for up to an hour
But my son has moved on from all this now. Now, his favourite is something abhorrent called ChuChu TV. ChuChu TV is an animated Indian kids’ TV channel and it is the shrillest thing I have ever heard. It sounds like 17 dentist drills set to Skrillex. It sounds like Aqua’s Barbie Girl playing forever on a tinny radio in hell. ChuChu TV takes nursery rhymes like The Wheels On The Bus, Row Row Row Your Boat and a bunch of new, awful songs I’ve been introduced to – like Johny Johny Yes Papa and Three Little Kittens – adds an Indian accent and mixes up the grammar a little, then turns them into Bollywood-style hour-long dance epics played on a faulty radio. Except I’ve made it sound better than it is. Recently, I had a dramatic bout of norovirus and ChuChu TV’s version of The Finger Family Song was reverberating around my skull for the full five hours my head was in the toilet. It is awful.
But my son loves it. And, at least, it’s not some of YouTube’s more questionable content. Because there’s a lot of that. Some of it is weird but fine, like the endless hours of Kinder Egg-unwrapping footage (inexplicably, kids go mad for it). Some is mercenary, but ultimately harmless, like the fake Disney and Pixar cartoons that autoplay after official content and are designed purely for ad revenue.
And some of it’s darker. I’ve been reading a lot about counterfeit content that’s specifically engineered to frighten little children slipping through YouTube’s filters, and I’ve been super vigilant when Herbie’s watching. There are entire fake episodes of Peppa Pig that feature cannibalism or torture, for example, and a fraudulent Paw Patrol video where the characters die in a fiery car crash. Grim isn’t really an adequate description.
Luckily, we haven’t stumbled across any of this – mainly because I’m jumpy about this sort of thing and lunge at the iPad the minute something seems a bit off. The worst thing we encountered was a video where Old MacDonald had a load of zombies and an alphabet song that claimed V was for “vulcher” and W was for “wale”.
Thinking about the sort of people who’d make videos designed to hurt children makes my brain hurt the way it does whenever I read any of Donald Trump’s tweets. YouTube won’t be the third parent in the house for ever, but it gets us through the first part of the morning – so, for now, I’m disabling autoplay, maxing out the filters and enjoying the gentle, lilting diphthongs of my son’s charming subcontinental brogue.