When Yasser’s four-year-old daughter started using words like ‘rubbish’ and ‘stupid’ a tad more often than usual, his wife and him were surprised and curious to locate the trigger. While there were a few people she interacted with at home, no one was using such language around her. It was then that Yasser realised there may be a silent culprit at play: His smartphone.

“We often forget that it isn’t just us or the kids using the phone. It’s both. The kind of content we watch as adults and the humour we enjoy is open for kids to access on apps like YouTube.” says Yasser. It isn’t just adult browsing habits that may influence children. YouTube as an app has been facing increasing criticism ever since parents discovered the app’s tendency to move to unrelated and often inappropriate content. Content which, as James Bridle concludes in his Medium article, games the algorithm to rank higher based on trending keywords and search volumes rather than more kid-friendly youtube videos. These channels often have content that spoofs or imitates more popular content like ‘Peppa Pig’ or ‘Elsa’ from the movie ‘Frozen’ and adds a dark twist. Why do creators do this and why does it work?

The answer is all in the moolah. Channels such as ‘Fizzy Toy Show’ captivate children using highly saturated, colourful sequences showing various toys being unboxed and unwrapped. The creators of such kids toy channels are estimated to have over a million subscribers and earn anywhere between $8000-$140,000 a month through YouTube’s AdSense program.

The Quest for Kid-Friendly YouTube Videos

In 2015, parents began complaining about content being shown to their children that involved cartoon characters and inappropriate subjects like torture, pregnancy and disturbing imagery. As a response, YouTube launched ‘YouTube Kids’ – which guaranteed a safe space with exclusively kid friendly youtube videos for toddlers and young children, who were just getting a hang of the internet. This appeared to work for a while, until reports surfaced again of video makers gaming the youtube kids app algorithm enough that a few disturbing or inappropriate videos slipped through the filters.

Daniel, a market researcher and anthropologist based in Bangalore, India recalls “When our daughter started viewing Peppa Pig on YouTube, we watched a few episodes with her and decided it was appropriate. Once, however, we noticed a very well made spoof that was a total horror story. It involved Peppa Pig at the dentist and contained heavy amounts of torture and content that would’ve been horrifying for a child, encouraging us to switch to YouTube Kids”.  A look at the video reveals it to be truly horrific, replete with Peppa Pig’s screams, crying and the awful drilling noise heard at the dentist, makes the blood curdle. While the youtube kids app is a safer zone, the possibilities of horrific content slipping through still remain.

So why are creators indulging in an excess of this disturbing content? The highly lucrative nature of these keyword-centred videos seem to play on children’s inherent curiosity to see their developing inner psychologies, interests and anxieties reflected on screen (like the dentist video) and the fixation they show for bright explosive colours and phenomenon. Yet, this doesn’t mean the content is appropriate for children or what they want and need to develop well-rounded personalities. Daniel maintains that the larger debate involves children and their access to screens.

“At home, we have a fairly strict limit on screen time. We don’t want YouTube to become a way to occupy them. I’d say the maximum amount of time is an hour a day, and there are plenty of days where they don’t watch YouTube at all. Even the content in Bollywood dance videos can be questionable. My daughters love the music and the dancing, but the influence of these videos can be alarming at times. So, we’ve decided to entirely avoid showing Bollywood videos to our daughters”. Apps like YouTube Kids or other video content can be great and also useful as a way to keep children engaged when adults are stepping out to meet friends, doing chores at home or simply want some quiet time. “The debate around screen time is a conversation, but putting an end to malicious videos is definitely an urgent need”, he concludes.

Shweta, a capital asset AP advisor based in Guelph, Canada and a mother of two girls, also recalls her daughter and niece viewing bizarre content on YouTube. “The strangest thing I’ve seen her and her cousin watch was people hitting their heads off a fan. I thought that was very odd. I also sometimes hear them talk about people who have videos of kids who pretend to be princesses and try to live their lives temporarily as princesses.YouTube is great for teaching kids rhymes, shapes, colours, ABCs and so on, but this other content can be very bizarre.”

The reactions from YouTube have included assuring parents that algorithms were only getting smarter, encouraging them to report the ‘rare’ inappropriate video and use filters or define and use only “trusted channels” for their children. The lack of human oversight in these areas continues to be a major gap, especially when the audience are young, impressionable children. The Google owned platform has, according to reports pulled down 8.3 million videos between October and December 2017 for content violations including sexual content, spam and dangerous acts.

But is it all bad and scary? Certainly not. “It isn’t all negative, says Yasser. Last week, my daughter and I watched a video on how to plant a mango seed, and we’re now going through the process of germinating the seed and planting it together. It has been a great summertime activity. I’d say the benefits are plenty, but parental discretion is definitely a growing necessity.”

Ideas for a safer, more productive internet experience for your kids:

  • Have a discussion with your partner and child about limiting screen time. Enforce this time limit.

  • Subscribe to ‘Trusted Channels’ on the youtube kids app. Download it if you haven’t already.

  • Turn on the right content filters

  • If you feel videos are inappropriate but want your children to still enjoy the respective songs or audio content, use a Bluetooth speaker to play the audio and keep the video away, on a phone or device.

  • Ask your child to communicate to you if they see anything scary on the screen.

  • Introduce your child to more child-friendly content – like a Ghibli film!

  • Revisit animated classics like Lion King and shows from the (in my opinion) golden age of cartoons on TV like Captain Planet.

  • Cutting off access to connected devices and sharing prescreened content will put your mind at rest and keep you excited about showing your children your old favourites.

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