When YouTube first debuted in 2005, it was a revolutionary platform. Broadband internet had just about become the norm. Until then, streaming relatively large files like videos over the internet seemed like a pipe dream. By this time, cell phones had color screens capable of displaying videos in a reasonable quality. Initially, most mobile video content consisted of short clips, but YouTube enabled users to upload and share original video content and watch other people’s.
A lot has changed since then. YouTube is now one of the most-viewed websites globally, and many content creators earn a living from uploading videos to the platform. YouTube has slowly transitioned from being a video-sharing platform to the social media service that it is today. This transition has had consequences for the site and its users.
YouTube and Kids
The Child Online Privacy and Protection Act covers every online service that collects and sells user data, including YouTube. COPPA says that users must be 13 years old to consent to data collection or have their parents’ permission if they are under 13. For those hearing about data collection for the first time, Smartproxy guide about web scraping can help a lot with the basics.
YouTube has always hosted content by and for children. In 2015, it launched YouTube Kids. YouTube Kids is a curated version of the platform with certain features disabled. It should be safer for children to use without parental supervision. Sounds great, right?
The problem is that YouTube launched its Kids service in response to some very troubling incidents.
Malicious actors can infiltrate any online service. It is a sad indictment of the world we live in that any service which attracts children will also attract predators. Of course, it isn’t YouTube’s fault that these people are trying to take advantage of the service. But YouTube’s response in this department has historically been lacking.
The Elsagate saga unfolded over several years. The full details of the story aren’t important, but it culminated in a string of videos being uploaded that appeared to be child-friendly. These videos featured popular children’s characters like Elsa from Frozen and, at a glance, seemed to be harmless.
However, while these videos would start in a child-friendly way, adult content would be spliced halfway through. In many cases, these splices were designed to cause a jump-scare and frighten children. There were also some examples of overtly sexual and offensive videos being produced to trick children into watching them.
Many children use YouTube to watch their favorite cartoons. Because YouTube will pay content creators through advertising, TV networks and studios put their content on YouTube to open an additional revenue stream. But there are also a lot of people uploading other people’s copyrighted material seemingly without consequence.
These unofficial uploads of popular shows are another common target for the type of behavior we outlined above. In one example, a children’s cartoon plays normally until the halfway mark. At that point, the camera cuts to a man in sunglasses with a craft knife. He then shows the audience, assumed to be a child, how to cut their wrists. The video goes as far as explaining to kids what direction they should cut “for attention” and which way to cut “for results.”
YouTube deleted the video. But it only did so more than a week after the first report. It also took multiple complaints from parents and interest from major media outlets before YouTube would take action.
Content like this easily makes it past the platform’s algorithms. YouTube claims to have tightened up its moderation procedures to rely less on algorithms to weed out harmful content. But most of these videos are only identified when an unsuspecting parent or child views them.
What Should Parents Do?
Many parents, understandably, think that YouTube Kids is safe for their children to use unsupervised. YouTube promotes it as a child-friendly alternative to the main platform. Parents can register an account for their child on YouTube Kids and set up whatever restrictions and content filters they like. Parents can also see what videos their kids have been watching on their profile.
Unfortunately, none of this guarantees that your children will only see suitable content. As much as YouTube likes to promote the service as being completely safe for children, anecdotal reports of inappropriate content continue to flood in.
YouTube Kids is an improvement on standard YouTube in terms of child safety. But if you want to keep your children safe from the harmful video content on YouTube, the only way of doing so is to vet every video personally before they watch it. For most parents, this just isn’t worth it.
There is now a plethora of streaming services that you can subscribe to, many of which cater to children. These streaming services, such as Disney+ and Netflix, are much safer. You can be certain that any kids show on Disney+ is a genuine kids show, and there are no nasty surprises. Netflix has a Kids Mode, which only shows content suitable for children. You can also set up a PIN to watch content not suitable for children.
Given that most kids today have several internet-connected devices in their homes, keeping them off YouTube altogether is a losing battle. However, you can set up a filter on your internet router to block access to YouTube’s servers entirely. If you want to be certain that your children aren’t being exposed to unsuitable content on the platform, this is the best way of doing it.