The first time I put on a tie, I loaded up a YouTube video. Any time I want to do something new in a program like Ableton, Premiere, or Photoshop, I run a search on YouTube. I’ve learned how to cook a few things from YouTube videos, too. These are just the sorts of educational searches I’m willing to admit; there way too many embarrassing ones that will go with me to my grave. But I’m not alone in using YouTube as a digital school of sorts.
A new Pew research study that surveyed 4,594 Americans in 2018 found that 51 percent of YouTube users say they rely on the video service to figure out how to do new things, and the service proved important both for regular users and irregular users. “That works out to 35 percent of all U.S. adults, once both users and non-users of the site are accounted for,” the study reads.
Here are the top “how-to” searches as of this writing (note that global sensation Fortnite appears more than once):
Education isn’t the only reason to use YouTube, of course. Twenty-eight percent of users say they’re on YouTube to just pass the time (many of these users are younger adults), 19 percent are there for guidance on new purchases, while another 19 percent say they use YouTube to help them understand what’s going on in the world.
This roughly tracks with how I use YouTube. It’s extremely useful to see a product in action and get an assessment from an average user. I’ve definitely looked up from my screen at 3AM in horror after falling down a regrettable YouTube rabbit hole that totally messed up my recommendations module. And while I’d say I rely more on actual news sources for world events, I still check out hot takes on YouTube, too. Personalities on the platform have an undeniable pull, even if they represent an ideology you disagree with.
While YouTube may not seem like the best source for news — it has a well-documented problem with conspiracy theories and misinformation — the video site’s importance as a media outlet largely stems from power users. “Some 32% of users who visit the site several times a day – and 19% of those who visit once a day – say it is very important for helping them understand things that are happening in the world,” the study says. “That compares with 10% of users who visit less often.” Despite the site’s ubiquity and importance, however, 64 percent of those surveyed said they sometimes find videos that are “obviously false,” 60 percent say they occasionally encounter videos that depict dangerous behavior, and 11 percent say they “regularly” see abusive content on the website.
Beyond learning why people are on YouTube, the study also dove into consumption habits for children. Apparently, 81 percent of parents allow their children to watch videos on YouTube, and 34 percent of those parents allow their kids to be on the platform “regularly.” Sixty percent of these same parents say they’ve seen content that was not age-appropriate on YouTube, which makes sense, given that there’s an entire cottage industry around getting children to watch messed-up nursery rhyme videos. Research shows that the boom around children’s YouTube videos is reinforced by the system itself: a fifth of the most recommended videos in the study were aimed toward children, with an animated clip being the “single most recommended video” in the study. May the Baby Shark Song have mercy on our souls.
For people who use YouTube regularly, much of this won’t seem new, but it’s still fascinating to see the numbers back up communal knowledge. You can read the whole study here.