The world is an often beautiful, sometimes terrible and infinitely complex place. And few YouTube channels document all of its many faces so thoroughly as the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian creates videos in a dizzying number of categories, ranging from The History of Ancient Egypt to Animal Attacks to The Ongoing Struggle for Equality and many, many others. The videos vary based on the topic, but all of them provide engaging information related to history and science. The channel has a significant amount of content, much of which is pulled from the shows that air on its cable network. Most videos are between two and 15 minutes long. Compilations can provide educational entertainment for longer.
People of all ages will find many of these videos interesting, but parents should note: Certain categories of videos have more content concerns than others, as we’ll see.
YouTube’s Smithsonian Channel is tied to the Smithsonian Institution—the organization behind some of the United States’ most prominent museums and research facilities. As such, the channel’s Treputable academic information can help children, teens, and adults keep themselves occupied while cultivating their mind. The animal videos can be, at turns, heartwarming or adrenaline-inducing. Many of the historical discussions provide important lessons on topics such as civil rights that affect realities of the present. The cultural discussions affirm the value of all humanity and treating people with respect. The videos encourage curiosity and excellence. Most are worthwhile and frequently fascinating.
Fascinating or no, many videos can contain elements that might bother young viewers (or older ones, for that matter), and some may tackle issues that families aren’t yet ready to address. Religion, sexuality, evolution and other sensitive topics can all make appearances on these vids, and it’s not always obvious from the video’s title as to what might be just fine for your 8-year-old and what might be problematic.
A few examples:
The videos categorized under The History of Ancient Egypt usually incorporate studies of mummies, which are shown on the screen frequently. The historical information includes commentary on their religion, including their views of the underworld and demons. The fusion of Egyptian and Greek religions is featured in on video. Mummies are sometimes examined to determine their cause of death. In a video about King Tutankhamun, the narrator details the religious significance of the burial of the pharoah’s two stillborn daughters alongside him. Stranger still, one video briefly discusses the possibility that King Tut’s family suffered from gynocomastia, which causes feminine breasts and hips to develop in men. This discussion also addresses the fact that Tut was born as a result of incest between a brother and sister, which apparently occurred frequently in Ancient Egypt.
The Animal Attack videos are exactly as described, which means that animals killing other animals are the stars of the show. Not much blood is shown, but many animals are seen in their final moments and being consumed afterward. In a video discussing lion cubs, the narrator says that cubs often die by “infanticide” or being killed by their dad.
Videos posted under Aviation Nation can be disturbing as well, as they tend to involve plane crashes or other military attacks. Videos do not show action sequences where people are harmed, but still pictures are sometimes included of the destruction and viewers are told if people died in the event. Young viewers may be afraid to go on airplanes after seeing some of these worst-case scenarios played out. In one video examining the cause of the crash, the pilots are heard on recording making a joke about marijuana.
This Object in History videos, where the story behind a given artifact is told, tend to have fewer issues. That said, it can depend on the object: The video about pop star Prince’s guitar states that Prince helped people embrace their sexuality, for instance
Other videos are more about what they say than show—delving into difficult issues, and parents may want to join the discussion. The Conversations in Context videos, which offers expert opinion on various issues, can be racially charged, addressing past and present stereotypes and oppression. The videos warn viewers beforehand of the violence depicted in the video, which could, for some, be triggering. In the same vein, The Ongoing Struggle for Equality videos are short clips about about Civil Rights leaders in history that address lynching, beatings, and even firebombing. The violence shown is fairly mild, but the discussions can be heavy.
Of the videos we watched, the one with by far the most content concerns appeared in the Smithsonian’s Cyclebreakers playlist. It focuses on a social worker trying to better his community, but it involves a great deal of LGBT discussion, allusions to abortion and plenty of foul language.
And, of course, you’ll find videos that address evolution—though it’s relatively easy to avoid those by just a look at the title. Nature videos generally seem free from evolutionary commentary.
The videos on the Smithsonian Channel provide hours of free education in an easy to digest form, but not all content is appropriate for everyone. Parents should make sure to be careful about which kind of video their kids are watching. In fact, they may want to consider watching videos before allowing their children to view them.
But ideally, it’d be great for moms and dads to watch these vids with their kids, too. Parents can offer important context and insight, and they might even learn something new themselves.
Marsella Evans is the Plugged In intern for Summer 2022.