Like a lot of American adolescents, 14-year-old Archer Murray and his 11-year-old sister, Cady, spend their free time reading, playing games, talking with friends and watching videos on the Internet. With their laptops, cellphones and tablets, they click on YouTube, searching for a range of content like episodes of Japanese cartoons and tips on what to do in Minecraft.
They almost never turn on a television set or watch anything produced by a broadcast or cable network. Their father — me — consumes a typical adult TV diet of sitcoms, prestige dramas and reality shows, but the Murray children are embracing the new kind of broadcasting, which circumvents the old media gatekeepers and delivers content better tailored to their interests.
The traditional television industry keeps trying to find ways to draw those young eyes, by littering their programs with social media hashtags and giving development deals to Twitter and YouTube users who have hundreds of thousands of followers. But viewers under 18 are not seeing the Internet as a farm system for Hollywood, the way the major studios hope.
Malik Ducard, the global head of family and learning at YouTube, sees this dynamic every day — both at work and at home, where his children are 13, 10 and 7. “My personal belief is that kids travel from medium to medium and vehicle to vehicle seamlessly,” he said. “It’s become something innate and natural to this generation.”
Part of Mr. Ducard’s job is to nurture that relationship. His company recently initiated YouTube Kids, a redesigned version of its standard mobile app, with easier-to-use controls and more fine-tuned parental restrictions to help keep children away from some dark and abusive corners of YouTube. In the first month that the app was available, it was downloaded two and a half million times, according to YouTube.
YouTube also works to promote some family-friendly creators, like Joseph Garrett, or “Stampylonghead,” who started posting Minecraft-themed videos when he was a teenager. Now in his mid-20s, Mr. Garrett has a deal with Maker Studios, a producer of short-form videos and a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, to produce educational content for schools with the new series “Wonder Quest.”
Mr. Ducard said that original videos aimed at a younger audience had “always been one of the anchors of YouTube.” (Stampylonghead, in less than a decade, went from being a video game-obsessed teenager in southern England to having one of the 10 most popular YouTube channels in the world.) But children who have grown up with the site are developing a relationship with it that is different from that of their older siblings and parents.
YouTube users must be 13 or older to have an account, which allows them to upload videos and comment on videos. Because of the age restriction, and because the site hosts 400 hours of new content every minute and generates billions of page views, detailed demographic data for younger users is hard to come by. But year to year, the number of hours people spend watching videos on YouTube keeps growing — up 50 percent over last year, according to the site’s own statistics page — and a lot of those watchers make the transition to becoming creators. Children who have grown up with short, quirky videos online have started to see them as another form of communication, akin to the conversations they have in the comments section of websites.
Much of the news coverage of YouTube, Vine and Instagram has focused on “viral videos,” and on an emerging breed of celebrities who either make short comedy sketches or rant into the camera about their lives. Those kinds of clips and personalities are undeniably popular, but they alone are not what is drawing the under-18 crowd.
The credit for that belongs just as much to the likes of Mr. Garrett and Emile Rosales, who goes by “Chuggaaconroy.” They are less interested in personal branding than in sharing their enthusiasm. Like Stampylonghead, the 25-year-old Chuggaaconroy has been online since he was a child, when he first started using his pseudonym as a player and forum ID. (A lot of the handles used by YouTubers are carry-overs from the nonsense names they came up with when they were younger.)
Mr. Rosales also works within the “Let’s Play” genre, making videos that consist of him and his friends playing Nintendo and cracking jokes. And “work” is the right word. With nearly a million subscribers to his YouTube channel and more than 760,000,000 views of his video game walk-throughs, Chuggaaconroy earns enough money from goofing on games that making videos has become his only job.
Mr. Rosales said he did not have much day-to-day interaction with anyone at YouTube. (“Every now and then, they’ll email me to ask me to try out some new feature on the site,” he said. “And I think they invited me to a company party one time.”) And because his videos occasionally include some rough language, they would not be allowed on the YouTube Kids app.
Nevertheless, his fan base includes a healthy number of preteens — including the Murray children — who found his clips by following the trail of “if you liked that, try this” suggestions offered by YouTube. Younger fans often leave thoughtful comments or post their own artwork and response videos, Mr. Rosales said. What they create is “really amazing to see,” he added.
Around the world, YouTube has built production facilities — called Spaces — to provide their best-known creators access to soundstages and equipment. Yet the success of many of the site’s most beloved content producers may reflect their videos’ handmade charm, not their professional polish. The social media aspects of YouTube or Vine have helped novices earn money. But dedicated viewers have been just as responsive to the spirited amateurs whose work shows up in Google searches alongside the clips with corporate sponsorship.
Hunting around the Internet, Archer Murray stumbled across his favorite subset of YouTubers: a small circle of gamers who run simulated contests and post the results in colorful, crudely animated videos, parodying reality-TV competitions like “Top Chef.” He soon started making his own and started his own channel to post them.
From the outside, Archer fits the cliché of the distracted teenager, jumping screen to screen, obsessed with the kind of entertainers who never could have become successful under the 20th-century show business model. But he insisted that he did not really know or care much about the people who make his favorite videos, aside from admiring how much better they are at animation than he is. (“If only I could do that,” he sighed. “I can only get pretty close.”)
Half the time when he’s at his computer, Archer is either prepping his next YouTube piece or checking the comments and traffic on his earlier work. His channel has 82 subscribers, and collectively, his videos have been watched nearly 50,000 times.
This is just a hobby for Archer, not a path to fame and fortune. But as with a lot of children his age, the transition from watching to creating happened quickly and naturally. As Mr. Ducard put it, these new kinds of screen time have spawned a world of their own. “It lives,” he said, “And in a way that you don’t see it living on television.”
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