Kids love videos— the sillier the better. And it’s a rare parent who hasn’t used them to secure a little quiet time. Today YouTube is, by far, the largest source of videos of all kinds. When they created an app for children in 2015, many parents assumed the content would be carefully curated and reliably child-friendly.
Much of it is. YouTubeKids lets young children happily swipe through a vast collection of content, much of it featuring familiar characters like PAW Patrol to educational clips from sources like PBS Kids.
But mixed into this video stew is user-created content with enormous variation in subject and quality. A small percentage include bizarre and even traumatizing images, sometimes of those same beloved characters doing lewd and violent things.
How does this happen? Google uses artificial intelligence to decide whether a video is suitable for children. Although AI has come a long way, it doesn’t always spot problems that would be glaringly obvious to people.
In its defense, Google warns that children may encounter inappropriate content and asks that parents flag such material so other kids won’t see it. Google also keeps changing its policies in an effort to stay ahead of so-called bad actors, but often it seems the robots and their handlers are playing catch-up.
Even when content is properly curated, parents need to be aware that children see a lot of commercial messages on YouTubeKids. The Red subscription may be free of paid advertising, but children still have access to entire channels created by companies like Hasbro or McDonalds.
Unfortunately, the parental controls for YouTubeKids are very limited. Parents can’t set their own filters for content or create playlists of acceptable videos. Most kids will still explore by swiping, so it’s good to know about these options:
Change the password. Find the Grown-ups only section in the YouTubeKids app, and unlock it by using the random four-digit passcode. The numbers are spelled out so pre-readers can’t use the code.
Disable search. Searching for videos increases the likelihood that children will see something unsuitable. Google allows parents to set up a profile for each child, so search can be enabled or disabled depending on the child’s age and self control. Off should be the default.
Review history. Because YouTubeKids doesn’t have filters, parents can’t necessarily keep kids from seeing something they don’t want them to see. The app does make it easy to review history which at least allows a conversation, after the fact, about why a video is objectionable.
Block videos you don’t want your child to see.
Report videos no child should see. Reporting gets the attention of human screeners who are actually counting on conscientious parents to let them know about unsuitable content that slipped by the AI screening.
Set limits. To its credit, YouTubeKids does include a timer. Once it’s set, a colored progress bar lets your child see how much time is left in a session. When the clock runs out, a “Time’s Up” animation appears and the app locks until a parent enters the access code.
Consider other options. Last but not least, consider other options. YouTubeKids may have the largest collection of videos but, when it comes to kids, quality is preferable to quantity. Companies like Disney, Nick Jr. and PBS Kids have brands to protect so they are likely to be more careful about what appears in their apps.