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Don't Let YouTube Babysit Your Children

Don't Let YouTube Babysit Your Children
From Gizmodo - November 11, 2017

Maybe its happened to you. Youre cruising around YouTube and then boom: a video of Spiderman hanging out with girls in bikinis trying to make Elsa from Frozen jealous and then the Joker appears, ready to fight. This would seem like a weird video to any sane adult. But the weirdest thing is that its actually made for kids.

YouTube is aware of the issue. On Thursday night, the company quietly announced that it wants to crack down on these inappropriate videos. Let me offer up YouTubes defense in its own words right away.

Earlier this year, we updated our policies to make content featuring inappropriate use of family entertainment characters ineligible for monetization, YouTubes director of policy Juniper Downs told Gizmodo in the same canned statement given to everyone. Were in the process of implementing a new policy that age restricts this content in the YouTube main app when flagged.

This new policy should prevent the creepy videos from showing up in the YouTube Kids app, which launched in 2015. But the change would not necessarily prevent kids from seeing it on YouTubes website or the regular YouTube app, although YouTube hopes that preventing the creators from getting ad revenue will stop them from making their bad videos. As Downs explains, the new age restriction policy is not yet in place, so were not yet sure how well it will work.

Currently, ifa child who knows how to use a computer or a smartphone, theres a very good chance that they could Google spiderman elsa and get a weird bikini video in the search results. Theyll probably get a whole bunch of them, actually. I sure did when I performed that search in an Incognito Window. The age restriction policy is not yet in effect, and I was not prompted to confirm my age before watching several sexualized videos featuring superheroes and Disney princesses. The videos are very popular, too. This Spider-Man-Elsa masterpiece, for instance. has over 25 million viewswho knows how many are botsand a 40 second pre-roll ad bringing in revenue for its creator as well as YouTube:

Before we dive deeper into the worrisome issue, let me float a couple thoughts. You should not let your young kids watch YouTube unsupervised. You also shouldnt use this unfiltered video site as a babysitter. And you certainly shouldnt trust that the YouTube Kids app is carefully curated by trained humans and free of inappropriate videos, because its not.

Im not a parent, so I dont have personal anecdotes to back up these thoughts. I have been covering YouTube and the internet for a decade, though. Sadly, more than ever before, its machines that are deciding what adults and children see online.

YouTube uses algorithms and machine learning to control how videos surfaces in search results. Thats actually part of the reason that these uncanny videos exist. Theyre designed to show up in search results and the suggested videos widget in order to reach more viewers, many of whom are unsuspecting children. The YouTube Kids app includes an extra layer of filters meant to ensure theyre family friendly, but even YouTube now admits that the system doesnt work 100 percent of the time. Its close! The company says that only 0.005 percent of the videos on YouTube Kids were removed for being in appropriate. That still sucks for the handful of kids who saw the bad videos.

This isnt a new problem for YouTube. News that YouTube will finally address the disturbing kids video problem follows a New York Times report on the issueas well as YouTubes failure to deal with it. The young mother at the center of the story described a terrifying experience when her son came to her crying after watching a YouTube video with the title PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized. PAW Patrol is a Nickelodeon show, though the video itself was an unlicensed knock off featuring death and dying by fire. The characters were familiar to kids. The dark themes were disturbing.

That seems to be some sort of sick rubric, too. It might even be accidental. As artist and writer James Bridle pointed out in a Medium post earlier this week, countless YouTube channels have found success by using popular TV and movie charactersSpiderman, Elsa, Peppa Pig, Hulk, and so onin videos that recycle popular kid-video tropes. This includes memes like bad baby, educational themes like learning colors, and viral trends like unwrapping candy. (Who knew?) Bridle argues that many of these videos seem manufactured using both stock animations and actors, and then theyre packaged in such a way that they gain traction in search results. These tricks include old school SEO stuff like keywords in the title as well as simply making videos longer to suggest credibility and probably encourage parents to pull the YouTube-as-babysitter routine.

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