I have three boys, aged nine, five and one and given a choice, all they’d ever do is watch YouTube. (OK, maybe not the baby, but give him a week.)
I’m not exactly sure when this happened. One day it was all Paw Patrol and Pixar movies, then suddenly they were obsessed with a vlogger named Dan with blue hair and two pugs who spends his days playing Minecraft while shouting, “Epic man!”
The boys’ obsession with Dan became so mono-maniacal that I announced a YouTube fatwa, deleted the app and uploaded its sweeter, cuter younger sibling: YouTube Kids, feeling smug in the knowledge I could now let the boys languish with the iPad unchecked while I cooked dinner in peace.
Well no, as it turns out. Just when I thought it was safe to listen to the six o’clock news while chopping an onion, it has come to my attention that YouTube Kids is neither safe nor trustworthy, despite its “family friendly” description on the App Store.
Just to be clear, I am not the kind of mother who slices grapes or sterilizes bottles (literally, not one ever). I’m pretty impervious to maternal anxiety in part because I believe so firmly in the robustness of my kids’ bodies and minds. Where other, more vigilant parents might look at the iPad and see a world of danger, I have always seen 30-to-60-minutes of blissful, silent free time. By extension, you will never find me “co-watching” children’s programming with my kids, since to my mind it defeats the purpose of iPad time entirely, which is this: Everybody wins.
But after taking an extended tour around the bizarre and troubling world of YouTube Kids, I have deleted the app forever.
While the problems this Google-owned platform are going through are hard to quantify or accurately describe, here goes: There appear to be rogue human agents or robots, or most likely a combination of both, who are creating and disseminating disturbing and violent content on YouTube Kids with a view to mesmerizing—and in some cases traumatizing—children systematically and for profit.
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Cruise around the site and without much trouble you will find the following: Strange content that appears to be generated by human-led content farms or bots. These videos range from the inexplicable and mind-numbing (millions of “surprise egg” videos of people’s hands opening up an endless array of Kinder egg-type toys) to the deeply unsettling (entire channels devoted to small children pulling gross-out stunts and staged “naughtiness” videos with angry admonishing parents that smack creepily of amateur porn without the actual sex) to the downright corrupt (violent and bizarre pirated cartoons involving Peppa Pig drinking bleach or Spiderman urinating on Elsa from Frozen).
Since the story broke widely earlier this month, YouTube has been trying desperately to contain the damage by insisting such content is the exception and not the rule. Malik Ducard, YouTube’s global head of family and learning content, recently told the New York Times that the inappropriate videos were “the extreme needle in the haystack,” but that “making the app family friendly is of the utmost importance to us.”
And a boiler plate statement released by the company early this week insists that they are updating their age restriction and monetization policies worldwide in an attempt at “improving our apps and getting this right.”
But when you’re talking about a platform that allows for hundreds of hours of content to be uploaded every minute, much of it generated and viewed by machines, it’s hard to generalize or make realistic promises. YouTube might say they want their kids’ app to be child-friendly but in order to make it so, many experts speculate they’d have to dismantle the existing platform altogether. In its current form, the YouTube platform is a vast uncontrollable beast that’s both highly profitable and vulnerable to exploitation.
The main point here is that parents should not think of YouTube Kids as a controlled or curated viewing experience for children.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter!In an excellent in-depth piece for Medium.com, the technology blogger James Bridle argues that the way YouTube Kid’s platform is structured makes it inherently susceptible to abuse for the purpose of showing videos to children for profit. “What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatize and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to this kind of abuse,” he writes.
The problem, it seems, is bigger than YouTube, bigger than Google and indeed bigger than the internet as a whole. YouTube Kids is simply the childhood version of a problem that afflicts us all: Distorted perceptions of reality borne as a result of spending hours each day interacting with an algorithmically-manipulated media in which the line between trusted news source and pernicious, anxiety-inducing fiction has been indelibly blurred.
By letting your kids spend time on the app you are essentially exposing them to the kindergarten equivalent of Russian-spy-generated fake news.
The good (and real) news is, we are living in the golden age of curated children’s entertainment. Big streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime as well local apps like Treehouse (Canada) PBSKIDS (US), Ceebeebies (UK) offer brilliant educational programming you can actually trust. YouTube Kids is another beast entirely, and not a remotely tame one. I’ve deleted it, and I feel better for it. And this from a mother who doesn’t slice grapes.