YouTube Kids under attack by USA congress

YouTube Kids is a colorful, stripped-down version of YouTube, full of animations, bright colors, and cartoon avatars meant to keep the youngest internet users engaged.

Loved by many parents, it’s been dogged by concerns over its advertising, branded content, and inappropriate clips slipping through for a while.

YouTube Kids clipWhen scrolling through the app, kids can see everything from Nickelodeon song mashups to prank series to baking videos — a cheerful-seeming microcosm of the actual YouTube channel but made for kids under the age of 13 years.

In a recent letter (April 6, 2021) from the Congress Oversight Committee to Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, the Committee outlined clearly what their concerns are with YouTube Kids:

YouTube Kids, as the name suggests, serves an audience of children, but it appears to be serving up inappropriate, low-education, highly commercial content. I believe that may be ascribable to your advertisement-based business model and reliance on free uploads of user- generated videos without adequate quality control. YouTube profits from this disservice of children with more paid ads and more corporate revenue.

and this:

One research team found that “[a]lmost half of videos viewed by children eight and under featured or promoted products for them to buy,” while “[o]nly about 4% of videos had a high educational value offering quality, developmentally appropriate content.” This analysis paints a picture of a wasteland of vapid, consumerist content, such as “toy unboxing” videos, “toy play” videos, and videos of people playing video games.

However, Congress members also say they are worried that its default autoplay setting is a manipulative design tactic meant to keep children online for as long as possible. The autoplay algorithm might select endless cartoons with the same main character; a never ending line up of celebrities reading their favourite books or poor quality content that could be harmful. This takes control away from parents, making it harder for parents to protect their children.

How to Contribute to YouTube Kids

YouTube suggests the following broad-ranging guidelines for potential contributors that:

  • Children are the primary audience of the video.
  • Children are not the primary audience, but the video is still directed at children because it features actors, characters, activities, games, songs, stories, or other subject matter that reflect an intent to target childr
  • Personalised ads for ‘viewers’ are not allowed on YouTube Kids according to the YouTube guidelines.

Not Enough! Says the Congress Oversight Committee

This lack of effort for appraising content is also highlighted in the letter from the Committee in reference to content:

YouTube Kids spends no time or effort determining the appropriateness of content before it becomes available for children to watch. YouTube Kids allows content creators to self- regulate. YouTube only asks that they consider factors including “the subject matter of the video, whether the video has an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys or games, and more.” In practice, creators can designate any content as “made for kids.” Once they do, the videos may be posted to the YouTube Kids platform…

…YouTube’s lax approach to designating “made for kids”content also stands in stark contrast to how YouTube scrutinizes paid ads. According to YouTube, paid ads are “approved as family-friendly” and “undergo a rigorous review process for compliance with our policies.”

YouTube Kids clipThe Congress letter has many concerns about the quality of the content and the process by which content is made available to children on YouTube Kids.

When parents set up YouTube Kids it is advised to go very carefully through the pages of the set up and tailor them for your child’s age and interests so they do not wander off into areas you may not approve of. You may also need to look at the set up again as your child develops.

However, child safety advocates say YouTube Kids feeds children algorithmically curated videos that run indefinitely and the autoplay feature  keeps one video coming after another with no pause or interruption. When one video ends, another video selected by YouTube Kids’ recommendations algorithm automatically plays.

Info about turning off autoplay in YouTube can be found here  but note there is nowhere to turn off autoplay in YouTube Kids, as the algorithm automatically plays the next video—the company said they were looking into it way back in May 2021!

YouTube states that:

YouTube Kids was designed to be a safer and simpler place for kids to explore their interests through online video. We work hard to keep videos on YouTube Kids family-friendly and use a mix of automated filters built by our engineering teams, human review, and feedback from parents and caregivers to protect our community. We are constantly working to improve our safeguards and offer more features to help parents create the right experience for their families. But not all videos have been manually reviewed. If you find something inappropriate that we missed, you can flag it for fast review. This makes the app better for everyone.

Exactly how YouTube Kids will update the autoplay feature remains to be seen. The Congressional Committee has requested some very  detailed data and statistics from YouTube about YouTube Kids, perhaps their pressure will be the enough for the changes needed!

Note: (See Mark Zuckerberg interviewed by Congress about YouTube Kids in March 2021).