YouTube is under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for allegedly violating children’s privacy. While the video streaming platform’s executives claim the service isn’t for kids, young people make up most of YouTube’s regular users, and many of its most popular creators are young children.
Is YouTube bad for kids, and what should parents know about keeping their kids safe on the site?
1. Kids Are On YouTube
YouTube (currently owned by Google) reaches about 81% of internet users in the US, according to Comscore Data, and a significant portion of those viewers are under its recommended age limit. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found among kids age 11 or younger, 80% had watched YouTube at least once, and 34% did so regularly.
And that’s according to parents, many of whom have no idea what their kids are doing on a computer or smartphone.
Insight Strategy Group reports that children from age five to 12 spend more time on YouTube than anywhere else on the internet. According to Tubular, a social media analytics tool, children’s videos (nursery rhymes, educational games, etc.) accounted for more than half of the 20 most viewed videos on YouTube in April. A kids’ singalong channel called “CocoMelon” racked up 2.7 billion views in May alone.
Whatever YouTube was intended for, kids are on the site, coming across a wide range of content.
2. YouTube Isn’t Meant for Kids
YouTube’s official blog claims the website “has never been for kids under 13,” even though the FTC investigation has shown children are very profitable for the site.
YouTube is often in the news for harmful videos involving children, like severe pranks, and disturbing content aimed at young viewers. It’s been in an almost continuous scandal since 2016, when videos using child-friendly animation to depict characters doing things like setting fires and drinking bleach started appearing on the site and racking up views. While there is a lot of age-appropriate and educational content on YouTube, there are also a lot of videos kids shouldn’t be seeing, which is why parental supervision is still important.
3. The “YouTube Kids” Option
In response to some of this controversy, YouTube created “YouTube Kids,” a separate video app for children. The app is targeted to kids age three to 11, and features parental controls and “advanced” content filters. The goal of YouTube Kids is to be an age-appropriate solution, offering partner options such as Sesame Street and the PBS channel.
Without the use of parental controls, young children can gravitate over to adult YouTube, where they can be exposed to inappropriate content.
4. YouTube Is Under Investigation for Child Exploitation
As of June 19, the FTC is officially investigating the website for violation of children’s privacy. They are under pressure from consumer groups and privacy advocates, who claim YouTube has been collecting underage users’ data. This collection directly violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), passed in 1998.
Beyond tracking and targeting young viewers, the website’s algorithm has made it easy for pedophiles to find videos of kids, often leaving predatory comments and uploading videos to pedophile forums. Researchers from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center add that YouTube’s algorithm actually recommends videos of young children to adult users with predatory viewing histories.
Just this week, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who is a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FTC, wrote a letter to the commission recommending penalties against YouTube and the deletion of children’s user data. The Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood sent a similar letter.
5. It’s Not Just YouTube
A lot of these problems with underage users and inappropriate content for kids aren’t just happening on YouTube. Social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat, as well as most multiplayer video games, were also originally intended for adults but have become very popular with preteens. The FTC just issued its highest penalty yet in February for violations against kids’ privacy: $5.7 million against TikTok, a music video app.
6. Kids Still Need Parent Supervision
The main takeaway here: kids still need a parent or guardian to help guide them toward educational, fun, age-appropriate content on the internet. There’s no need to ban your child from YouTube forever — there’s still a lot of kid-friendly entertainment on the site — but make sure to monitor their viewing history until you’re comfortable with them exploring videos on their own. Tell your kid they can talk to you if they see anything scary, and watch with them when you can.
YouTube Under Investigation — Sources
Pew Research Center
Insight Strategy Group
YouTube’s Official Blog
Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center
The Verge: YouTube Can’t Remove Kid Videos Without Tearing a Hole in the Entire Creator Ecosystem
Letter from Senator Edward Markey
CNET: YouTube’s Kids Content Prompts Calls to FTC to Hold Site Accountable
Wired: YouTube Has Kid Troubles Because Kids Are a Core Audience
New Statesman America: Why YouTube Mums are Taking Their Kids Offline