Not that long ago, shows like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street” were the main entertainment options aimed at the youngest children, and a television set was the only way to view them. With limited options, it was easy for parents to decide what to let kids watch, and before the days of streaming, scheduled programming made it simpler to turn a show on or off.
Over the years, the landscape of media for youngsters has gone through a multi-layered transformation. First, there were more shows, and not all of them with early childhood development experts behind the scenes creating purposeful characters and lessons. And with the emergence of streaming and the era of kids watching videos on tablets and on their parents phones, there’s been an explosion of content on YouTube and other social media platforms aimed at little ones.
So what’s the impact of all these streaming videos on young minds? And how can parents and educators make sure the mix of what kids see is healthy?
Danny LaBrecque has been digging into those questions lately. He is the creator and host of a long-running preschool series of his own, called "Danny Joe’s Tree House,” and he says he’s trying to make something in the tradition of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but in this YouTube Era. LaBrecque says that has been challenging, even with 20 years of experience in early childhood development behind him including time as a preschool teacher.
Over the past few months he’s been interviewing prominent figures in children’s media and early childhood development about recent changes in the kids media industry and how to navigate them. He calls his interview series—which he posts on Vimeo for families and educators— “Cookies for Breakfast,” because he’s worried that algorithm-driven platforms like YouTube are creating a media landscape that may give kids what they want—as in, a kid might pick a cookie as a 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 pull his show from YouTube and Facebook. EdSurge had the chance to catch up with LaBrecque about what he’s learned from his interviews and why he’s pulling his show from YouTube and Facebook. EdSurge recently had a chance to catch up with him to learn 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, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: How did you get started making a show for little kids?
Danny LaBrecque: Like many kids from my generation—I'm 45 now—I grew up on television.
My parents were dealing with a lot of stuff—some illness came into our family. My mom got very sick with cancer that lasted throughout our childhood. She survived it for 30 plus years, and we learned a lot of good lessons from her persistence. But there were definitely moments where my family needed some backup. And for us, the caregivers on the other side of the television screen showed up every day of the week and had some quality affirmation readily available. A daily message of, “I'm not gonna sell you something. I'm just here to be with you.” People like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” that was my favorite, but also Bob Keeshan, Lavar Burton, and Shari Lewis.
And later on I found out they were real. They weren't playing a part. These were real caregivers—they meant it. They were putting on a bit of a show, but ultimately they really did care about the people on the other side of the screen.
Later on in life, I became an early childhood educator, and I was looking at what a lot of my kids were receiving through their screens. And I was thinking about what they were receiving in their real-life experiences in their daily lives. It was regular developmental milestones, but also heavier stuff. A lot of kids that I worked with back in Chicago, when I was teaching preschool, were dealing with first and secondary experiences with gun violence and abuse and racism and religious discrimination—all the stuff that we tend to not associate with really young kids, but it absolutely impacts many children. And the stuff they were receiving on their screens was great, but it was more of a distraction. I didn't see a lot of those same types of caregivers. Those types of [TV show] caregivers were fading out.
And what kids were getting leaned more toward the side of distribution—selling the cartoons, or if it was a real human being, it was human being kid-like, or being cartoon-like, or clown-like. It wasn’t really sincere engagement.
So how long ago did you first start your show, Danny Joe’s Tree House?
We are coming up on our 20th anniversary from the point of development.
You recently pulled your videos from YouTube and Facebook. Why?
It's such a tough call because [YouTube] is such an easy way to build numbers, and numbers seem to be so important in the children's media industry right now. When I pitch a show, I'm often asked before, ‘What's your story?’ ‘What's your objective?’ ‘What's the learning objective?’ Before any of that: ‘What's your audience size?’ ‘What's your distribution potential?’ What can we sell through you?”
There's always been a struggle between distribution and content, but content used to lead a lot more. And I'm hoping that we shift back to that.
And with YouTube, I got emails from parents saying, “Hey, my kid was really enjoying watching your episodes. And then all of a sudden the algorithm led them to what we felt was an inappropriate video for their age group, or weird commercials would pop up.”
I think it's telling that if you look even at the YouTube kids app in the description, there's a line that says something to the effect of, “No platform is perfect. Sometimes inappropriate content will sneak through, but we're continuing to try our best.” If that was on the header of a daycare—that ‘we're trying our best, but sometimes inappropriate stuff is gonna come in’— that’s problematic. But you know, this is your option for a lot of people. It's free, it's accessible. And it can be a wonderful outlet. But if it's even hurting one kid, it’s just very problematic.
Can you give an example of something inappropriate that you've seen pop up that the algorithm recommended to a kid watching your show on YouTube?
There was a very specific example for “Danny Joe's Treehouse.” All of my episodes are very light. We're talking about social issues, but we do it through a dream, the Rogers’esque make-believe filter, and we have puppets. I got an email from a parent who was letting their kids watch it during quarantine, and out of nowhere, the algorithm led them to another live action looking host with a green screen sort of kid background. And he was telling knock, knock jokes—kid-friendly knock, knock jokes. But at the punchline, he would slap himself in the face, smile and then continue. It was weird.
Weird stuff comes up on YouTube. And I think often creators will go, ‘well, the stuff that's gonna get me the most reactions, if I'm looking at the algorithm and the tags, tend to lean towards kids stuff and shocking stuff. And if you can combine those two things together, you're gonna get more hits.’
[But to me] that was a violation of trust that I've tried really hard over the years to establish with my audience.
Now we’re on Kidoodle TV, the safe-streaming platform, which has no algorithms—it's all human-reviewed stuff. And we recently got picked up by Sensical, which is a brand new platform backed by Common Sense Media, and again that’s human-reviewed.
You mentioned being inspired by Fred Rogers. What do you think he’d make of what’s happening with streaming shows on YouTube?
I've definitely studied Fred Rogers in detail, and Margaret McFarland, and I have mentors that worked directly with Fred Rogers. But even with that level of understanding of the technique and the method, I would never claim to know what Fred Rogers would think or say.
But I know that in the past, history shows us that Fred Rogers didn't like TV at all. I mean, it was the mass communication, the new thing, he hated it. The whole reason he got into it was because he didn't like it.
The old story is that he saw slapstick. He saw people throwing pies in each other's faces, and he thought, ‘What? Why are we using this amazing communication device for stuff like that?’ So instead of going to become a Presbyterian minister to study that, he went to NBC to become a stage manager and slowly learned the business there. So I guess the perspective was: go to where the kids are and try to make change from the inside.
I’m personally trying to follow that type of lead. But at the same time, some of these systems are so complex and so messy, it’s hard to fix from the inside.
Hear the rest of the interview on the podcast.
Jeffrey R. Young (@jryoung) is producer and host of the EdSurge Podcast and the managing editor of EdSurge. He can be reached at jeff [at] edsurge [dot] com