Not long ago, shows like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were the main entertainment options for the youngest children, and television was the only way to see them. With limited options, it was easy for parents to decide what kids should watch, and before the days of streaming, scheduled programming made it easier to turn a show on or off.
The youth media landscape has changed in many ways over the years. First, there were more shows and not all with early childhood development experts behind the scenes creating purposeful characters and lessons. And with the advent of streaming and the era of kids watching videos on tablets and on their parents’ phones, there has been an explosion of content on YouTube and other social media platforms aimed at little ones.
So what’s the impact of all this streaming video on young minds? And how can parents and educators ensure that the mix of what children see is healthy?
Danny LaBrecque has been exploring these questions lately. He’s the creator and host of his own long-running preschool series called Danny Joe’s Tree House, and he says he’s trying to do something in the tradition of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, but in this YouTube era, LaBrecque says it’s been challenging, even with 20 years of early childhood development experience, including his time as a preschool teacher.
Over the past few months he has interviewed prominent figures in the children’s media and early childhood development fields about the recent changes in the children’s media industry and how they are coping. He calls his series of interviews, which he posts on Vimeo for families and educators, “Cookies for Breakfast” because he worries that algorithm-driven platforms like YouTube are creating a media landscape that could give kids what they want — as in: one kid might have one Choosing a cookie for breakfast food – but that’s not what they need for enrichment.
To stay true to his vision and, more importantly, his audience, LaBrecque recently made the decision to take his show off YouTube and Facebook. EdSurge had the opportunity to share with LaBrecque what he learned from his interviews and why he is retiring his show from YouTube and Facebook. EdSurge recently had a chance to meet him to find out why.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, edited slightly for clarity.
EdSurge: How did you get into doing a show for little kids?
Danny LaBrecque: Like many children of my generation – I’m 45 now – I grew up watching TV.
My parents were involved with many things – some illnesses entered our family. My mother became very ill with cancer, which lasted throughout our childhood. She survived over 30 years and we have learned many good lessons from her perseverance. But there were definitely moments when my family needed support. And for us, the caregivers showed up on the other side of the TV screen every day of the week with a good reassurance on hand. A daily message from, “I’m not going to sell you anything. I’m just here to be with you.” People like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was my favorite, but so were Bob Keeshan, Lavar Burton, and Shari Lewis.
And later I found out they were real. They didn’t matter. These were real carers – they meant business. They put on a bit of a show, but ultimately they really cared about the people on the other side of the screen.
Later in life I became an early childhood education teacher and I looked at what many of my children were seeing on their screens. And I thought about what they received in their real experiences in their daily lives. It was regular developmental milestones, but also harder stuff. A lot of the kids I worked with back in Chicago when I was a preschool teacher were dealing with first and second experiences of gun violence and abuse, racism and religious discrimination – all that stuff we don’t normally associate with really young kids bring, but it absolutely affects a lot of kids. And the stuff they got on their screens was great, but it was more of a distraction. I haven’t seen many caregivers of this type. These kinds of [TV show] supervisors disappeared.
And which kids were more inclined to the distribution side – selling the cartoons, or if it was a real human, was it a childish human, or a cartoon-like human, or a clown-like human. It wasn’t really a sincere commitment.
So how long has it been since you started your show Danny Joe’s Tree House?
In terms of development, we are approaching our 20th anniversary.
You recently fetched your videos from YouTube and Facebook. Why?
It’s such a tough call because [YouTube] is such an easy way to form numbers and numbers seem so important especially in the children’s media industry. When I set up a show, I’m often asked, “What’s your story?” “What is your goal?” “What is the learning objective?” Before: “How big is your target group?” ‘What is your sales potential?’ What can we sell about you?”
There’s always been a battle between distribution and content, but content used to be far more important. And I hope we’ll come back to that.
And on YouTube, I got emails from parents saying, “Hey, my kid really enjoyed watching your episodes. And then all of a sudden, the algorithm would lead them to a video that we thought was inappropriate for their age group, or weird commercials would pop up.”
I think it’s telling that even if you look at the YouTube kids app in the description, there’s a line that says something like, “No platform is perfect. Sometimes inappropriate content sneaks through, but we keep trying.” If that’s what a daycare’s headline said—that “we do our best, but sometimes inappropriate stuff comes in”—then that’s problematic. But you know, that’s your option for a lot of people. It’s free, it’s accessible. And it can be a wonderful outlet. But if it harms even one child, it’s just very problematic.
Can you give an example of something inappropriate that you saw that the algorithm recommended to a child watching your show on YouTube?
There was a very specific example of Danny Joe’s Treehouse. All my episodes are very light. We talk about social problems, but we do it through a dream, the Rogersian mock filter, and we have puppets. I received an email from a parent who allowed their kids to watch during quarantine and out of nowhere the algorithm took them to another live-action host with a green screen, sort of a kid’s background. And he told knock-knock jokes—kid-friendly knock-knock jokes. But at the punchline, he slapped himself in the face, smiled, and then continued. It was weird.
Strange things are coming on YouTube. And I think creators often say, “Well, the stuff that’s going to get me the most reactions when I look at the algorithm and the tags tends to lean towards kid stuff and shocking stuff. And if you can combine those two things, you’ll get more hits.’
[But to me] That was a breach of trust that I’ve tried really hard to build with my audience over the years.
Now we’re on Kidoodle TV, the safe streaming platform that doesn’t have any algorithms — it’s all human-verified stuff. And we were recently picked up by Sensical, a brand new platform powered by Common Sense Media, which in turn is human verified.
You mentioned that you were inspired by Fred Rogers. What do you think he would think of what’s happening with streaming shows on YouTube?
I have definitely studied Fred Rogers and Margaret McFarland in detail and I have mentors who have worked directly with Fred Rogers. But even with this understanding of the technique and method, I would never claim to know what Fred Rogers would think or say.
But I know that history has shown us in the past that Fred Rogers didn’t like television at all. I mean it was the mass communication, the new, he hated it. The only reason he went into it was because he didn’t like it.
The old story says he watched slapstick. He saw people throwing cake at each other’s faces and he thought, ‘What? Why are we using this amazing communication device for such things?’ Instead of becoming a Presbyterian minister to study that, he went to NBC to be a stage manager and slowly learned the business there. So I think the perspective was: go where the kids are and try to make a difference from within.
I personally try to follow that kind of trail. But at the same time, some of these systems are so complex and messy that they are difficult to repair from the inside.
Here is the rest of the interview in the podcast.