Guest Columnists

YouTube Kids App Runs Afoul of Parents

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is borrowing an argument from Dr. Seuss in its complaint against Google with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In the story “Horton Hears a Who,” Dr. Seuss penned the famous phrase, “A person’s a person no matter how small.” In the center’s April 7 complaint of the Google-owned YouTube Kids app aimed at preschoolers, they believe a screen’s a screen no matter how small – or where it is.

“It doesn’t matter that a kid is watching a TV or something on YouTube Kids. They deserve protection,” said Josh Golin, the new executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

What do kids need to be protected from? Let Golin count the ways.

First off, “the advertising on YouTube Kids was unfair and deceptive,” he said. “Part of it was that there are long-standing rules on children’s television that requires separation of advertising and programming, and on YouTube Kids that separation doesn’t exist.”

Another point of contention has to do with the “unboxing” videos that have a niche on YouTube. More users may be familiar with the videos where a kid unwraps a present and shrieks with delight after seeing what it is.

“Sometimes adults open up a toy and they talk about it and they say where you can get it,” Golin said. “Some of them, they have relationships with media companies and toy companies. That is a form of marketing. There is no disclosure.”

He added, “Google also says they don’t allow food advertising on the app, and there’s all sort of television advertising on the app, and McDonald’s has its own channel on the app. …

“You’re deceiving parents when you say they won’t be seeing food marketing on the app when in fact there’s a lot of it.”

All of this was discovered by people at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood because of the promise held by YouTube Kids.

“The first reason that parents would download this app is for parents to avoid the content that we all know is on YouTube proper,” Golin said.

By itself, the content discovered that led to the April complaint would be enough to give many parents pause when considering whether to download the app for their children’s use.

But there was more.

“We noticed that we were finding all sorts of inappropriate content through the (app’s) search function. That originally wasn’t our concern,” Golin told Catholic News Service.

“We would just pick words at random. We did ‘beer commercial’ and we got beer commercials. We did ‘playing with matches’ and, sure enough, there were (videos of) people playing with matches.”

It gets worse. Other videos on YouTube Kids showed how to juggle knives while balancing a chain saw, tasting battery acid, how to make chlorine gas, how to tie a noose, “My Little Pony”-themed pedophilia jokes, and Bert and Ernie from “Sesame Street” dubbed with a profanity-laced scene from the movie “Casino.”

To add insult to injury, YouTube Kids tracks what the user watches, then suggests similar videos for them to watch. This formed the basis for a second complaint filed with the FTC in mid-May.

Google uses an algorithm to pluck videos from YouTube for the YouTube Kids app. There are, apparently, still some bugs to be worked out.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood found several allies to make a joint complaint with the FTC. Among them: the Center for Digital Democracy, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, Public Citizen and Corporate Accountability International.

They went directly to the FTC, according to Golin, because “the problem was so serious and pervasive we wanted to let the public know about it, and the FTC,” fearing that if they just went to Google, the inappropriate videos would be yanked.

“Once we went public, all the ads we cited went off the app, but you can still find others,” he said.

Mark Pattison is the media editor for Catholic News Service. 

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