More than a hangout spot: YouTube has an abundance of learning opportunities for children, says study by UP master’s student

Posted on February 23, 2021

We are living in a day and age when ownership and/or use of technology devices is on the rise among 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 “hangout” spot. In our recent study, we looked at one of the social media platforms used by this group – YouTube. The focus of the study was on ‘Using YouTube as an Informal Learning Tool for Children’.

While social media is not typically associated with learning, through our engagement with a group of 11- to 13-year-olds we discovered that children learn a great deal on YouTube. For the study we looked at the word “learning” as a verb, with the notion that learning can take place in different setups. When learning occurs in a formalised environment like school, it is referred to as formal learning (this is probably what many think of when they hear the word). When learning occurs in a setting other than a formal environment, it is referred to as “informal learning”. Although hardly recognised as learning, informal learning is heavily embedded in people’s everyday lives and can happen through interactions with others, involvement in hobbies like watching TV programmes 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 the intention to learn in order to learn; by getting involved in a task or engaging with others, 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 are aware of the risks associated with using it and how they alleviated such risks.

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


Entertainment is the main reason children use YouTube. That is where they “hang out” and engage in activities that are fun for them, including watching music videos, game highlights, vlogs, comedy videos, how-to and DIY videos, vines and soccer videos and playing games. One may ask if there are any opportunities for learning in engaging in these activities, and the answer to that is – most certainly. So, how do they learn?

Incidental learning

From our study, it was clear that this type of informal learning is one that is closely aligned to the definition of what informal learning is. While the key activity for children on YouTube is entertainment, unconsciously, they were learning soccer tricks, song lyrics, dancing skills and new techniques in how to excel in computer games. During the interviews they admitted that they had not been aware that they were learning. One of the children, who was interested in watching music videos, thought the fact that she now better understood how to dance from watching 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 in 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. They were very comfortable on YouTube; their knowledge of how to search for videos, clear browser history and remove inappropriate content was evidence of their 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, they were quite happy to teach novice YouTubers how to navigate the platform.

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, it must be enjoyable because self-directed learners “want to experience some fun in the process”. This is what makes YouTube a popular choice for children for this type of learning. They learn a lot of skills from YouTube’s education and DIY videos – with some researchers arguing that students often won’t find the kind of content on these videos in schools.

What’s the takeaway?

Before we completely block children from using social media platforms 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.

An edited version of this article first appeared on Parent24 on 22 February 2021.

- Author Neliswa Dyosi and Dr Marie Hattingh

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