YouTube is about clips of cats doing fun things and kids playing video games while they talk about it. At least we adults think that is what Google’s own video platform is about. But the younger generation – the Gen Zs and the Gen Alphas – think differently.

We interviewed a group of children and young people between the ages of 10 and 18 from Berlin to São Paul. We found that they use YouTube for a lot more than just entertainment. Since parents everywhere will be delighted, they use it for education as well.

Gen Z is the first digital native generation and the first generation for whom YouTube is the most popular social media platform. And while videos are becoming increasingly attractive in different age groups, it is a particular draw for the younger generations of internet users.

Open the classroom

It is therefore not surprising that this generation went online to learn. The internet has changed every aspect of our lives and education is no exception.

Where lessons used to be in classrooms, lecture halls or evening schools, you can now learn anything you like online by simply searching for it. And as COVID-19 is forcing schools and colleges to close in countries around the world, the shift from the classroom to online learning has accelerated.

Whether it’s a free university module on biology, a course on UX design or troubleshooting a broken bike, restoring an old sofa, or baking a really good leaven, you can find it on the internet. As long as you have a way to connect to the internet, be it fast 5G or relaxed 3G, you have access to information on almost anything.

However, it’s not just the obvious platforms – the online training providers, distance learning sites – and so on that you can get your school education on, as the younger generation is proving. Access to all of this information is secondary to what we do with it. That is the most significant change – not in the platform or in the format, but in the settings.

This is a generation that is actively looking for information online rather than just consuming it. For Gen Z and Gen Alpha, it’s a virtual space for learning and a way of learning that is fun, interactive, innovative and compelling.

Welcome to the YouTube school

When we asked our young respondents about their relationship with social media, and YouTube in particular, we found that they spend a lot of time watching game videos (including videos from other players). The big surprise, however, was that each of them said they learned something on YouTube, be it a skill, a new craft, or a complicated academic theory.

You are drawn to YouTube because it covers every topic imaginable. If you have a burning question – why does the ocean have tides, for example, or how to win at chess – find the answer on YouTube.

If you have a particular interest, from conservation to cooking, you can find endless information about it on YouTube. Whatever they want to know, whatever they are curious about, it will be covered in a tutorial or TED talk.

The socially savvy generation

At the same time, it is clear that these children and young people are not naive about YouTube. They are fully aware that there are negative sides to it. They know that too much time is spent on it and it can be addicting and that the comment areas can sometimes be bullying and toxic places. These young people are smart and have the ability to recognize and judge what is good and what is bad about the Internet.

Yes, they have learned to navigate the tips and pitfalls of the web so they can be entertained at all times. But they are also experts at using it as a tool and source of endless and instant knowledge. Thanks to the internet, they don’t have to rely on their teachers or parents to answer their questions. You can find out for yourself. And crucially, YouTube’s school gives this generation what the physical classroom could never really do: the ability to play and study at exactly the same time.

Our research also showed that while this generation might never have known a world without the internet, it doesn’t take it for granted or waste its potential. You are interested in interacting with it and taking full advantage of it.

Democracy at work

Our respondents told us that another reason they care about YouTube is because it feels more real and “raw” than other media outlets like Netflix or Instagram. This applies not only to the entertainment offered, but also to the educational side of YouTube.

They told us that learning on YouTube feels more democratic and personal because instead of learning from old teachers and professors, they are learning from their peers, charismatic free thinkers, and influential YouTubers. And they like the fact that they can interact and join in instead of being talked about and dictated about.

The internet has democratized everything from making music to gaining fame. It has made it possible to produce music in your bedroom and distribute it to a global audience, and it has made celebrities out of ordinary people who happen to have a knack for social media and a large Instagram following. This generation was brought up with a DIY attitude towards everything, so so is learning.

Far from worrying that social media and the internet will create a generation incapable of thinking for themselves or being the slaves of media consumption, our adult calmness assured that the opposite is true seems to be.

The internet helps young people grow up with independent minds about education and they are much more likely to approach it with a “why not?” Attitude than we ever were.