I don’t believe in censorship, and I think it’s the responsibility of parents to keep their kids away from inappropriate content on the Web. However, if a service is specifically aimed at children and marketed as a safe offering for them, that’s exactly what it should be. YouTube Kids, on the other hand, is loaded with content that children should never see, according to the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy, two consumer protection groups.
“YouTube Kids is rife with videos that would not meet anyone’s definition of ‘family friendly,'” the groups wrote in a letter asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. “In fact, YouTube Kids contains many videos that would not only be disturbing for young children to view, but potentially harmful.”
In the video below, which uses clips that the consumer groups say were all pulled from the YouTube Kids app on the same day, you see a Budweiser ad, an instructional video on how to grab your crotch like Michael Jackson, a lecture about suicide, and footage from kids cartoon “Animaniacs” accompanied by a funny, but clearly inappropriate, song from “Family Guy.” Some of the clips are filled with profanity and references to pedophilia.
A YouTube representative responded to the charges:
“We work to make the videos in YouTube Kids as family-friendly as possible and take feedback very seriously. Anyone can flag a video and these videos are manually reviewed 24/7 and any videos that don’t belong in the app are removed. For parents who want a more restricted experience, we recommend that they turn off search.”
The Google Play store describes YouTube Kids as appropriate for children under 5 years of age, but even toddlers can use its voice-search feature. That search function, the consumers groups claim, does a poor job filtering content and doesn’t do enough to stop children from finding inappropriate video.
When YouTube Kids first launched, Shimrit Ben-Yair, the app’s product manager, called it “the first Google product built from the ground up with little ones in mind.”
Unfortunately, the statement doesn’t appear to be in line with reality, the groups claim. “The fact that children can find the very content that would make many parents nervous demonstrates that Google’s promise to screen out certain content is a hollow one,” they groups wrote in the FTC letter.
The consumers groups, along with eight others, last month claimed that YouTube Kids targets ads at children in violation of laws about unfair and deceptive advertising. The groups cited lengthy promotional videos from McDonald’s, Mattel, Fisher-Price and others. The FTC is investigating the advertising-related claims, but it has not yet issued a statement.
Websites can’t do a parent’s job, but they also shouldn’t claim to be safe places for children when they clearly aren’t. Google should simply know, and do, better.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.