In its relentless search to organize the world’s information, Google may have stumbled in its efforts to present the results to children. Six weeks after a coalition of consumer advocates accused Google of using ‘deceptive and unfair’ ads in its YouTube Kids app, the same group is raising new concerns about access to videos that are inappropriate for children.
"Our new claims are really about deceptive practices," said Aaron Mackey, a graduate fellow at Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation, citing Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
The coalition, which sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday as a supplement to the previous complaint, includes the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy. The groups allege that the app, which is marketing to children ages 5 and under, allows kids to access inappropriate videos -- including some that have nothing to do with children at all. Some of the unrelated videos are unremarkable, like videos of corporate filings. Others, though, will raise eyebrows with explicit language, jokes about drug use and pedophilia, and frank discussions of pornography, violence and suicide.
"When Google set up the app, it said it was a child-friendly app that parents can feel comfortable leaving their kids alone to navigate and learn how to start searching using their voice," Mackey continued. "We found videos that are not appropriate for kids under 5. It's deceptive to tell kids that this is a safe product. ... Anyone, with just a little bit of searching, can find a lot of inappropriate content."
Cursing and alcohol use may not be so different from what young children encounter passing on television or on city streets, but discussions of suicide or parental abuse are something else.
The video below, compiled by CCFC, shows some of the most egregious examples of what was available to children on YouTube Kids:
While YouTube removed some of the content that the coalition's letter flagged as deceptive or unfair from the channels in the app, the videos themselves remained accessible through the app's search function.
The coalition wasn’t the first to notice the issue: Two weeks ago, a user named Marco Acevedo started a petition on Change.org asking Google to “recall the YouTube Kids app" because it allows access to content that's unsuitable for children under 5.
When Larry Magid wrote that YouTube Kids is a parent's best friend, he expressed sentiments that many parents share. As I wrote in an earlier column, my own family has used YouTube to watch "The Muppet Show," "Sesame Street," cooking videos and any number of videos about animals on our mobile devices, at home and in transit. If screens and smartphones are part of the modern lives of adults, they're part of their children's lives as well. The questions parents face now are how to integrate them and what we allow on them.
“Parents are likely to believe what Google has claimed about YouTube Kids,” said Josh Golin, associate director at CCFC. “The app has been specifically set up for kids to use and Google has told them it's a safe place, but that's clearly not true, based upon the sheer amount of content we've found.”
"Children are still developing self-confidence, identity and understanding of independence from their parents at that age," said Dale Kunkel, an emeritus professor of communication at the University of Arizona. "To hear material like this, that parents kill children or some children kill themselves, is going to be very upsetting to the average child."
Kunkel, who has studied the effects of television violence, sexual content and advertising on young people, advised the coalition on the original complaint.
"Young children are uniquely vulnerable to commercial persuasion," he went on. "They don't understand persuasive intent, role-playing or abstract thinking. I saw that the YouTube Kids app was advertised and marketed as family-friendly and safe when it came out. When I used it, I was dumbfounded. Most of the advertising and marketing tactics would be illegal on TV."
Kunkel was referring to the Children's Television Act of 1990, which requires the holders of television broadcast licenses to provide educational programming for children and limit the amount of advertising in those programs. Online videos that are streamed over wireless networks to smartphones, tablets and laptops, or over wired networks to set-top boxes and computers, fall outside of CTA, given that they require no broadcast license.
"Young people, in particular, are growing up in a cross-platform world," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and a party to the coalition's complaint. "What should the rules be? They're true on screen, so why aren't they true elsewhere?"
As with so many aspects of today's converged communications, technological innovation has raced far ahead of the rules and regulations set up for a far less connected world. There's no reason to expect that to change any time soon, either, with major corporations like Viacom, Comcast and Verizon experimenting with or exploring on-demand video and Internet Protocol television services, racing to compete with giants like Google, Amazon and Apple.
"By making their first app for kids like this, Google is trying to set the lowest common denominator," said Chester. "We've asked FTC to act as the parent to get Google to clean up its room."
When I was growing up, the daytime TV available elsewhere on the dial didn't pose much of a risk: soap operas, game shows, talk shows and cartoons, along with ads cleared for broadcast before "late-night" viewing. The rise of connected smartphones and tablets has erased all of those distinctions. On-demand TV means there's no daytime or late-night programming anymore. On YouTube, you can find graphic violence and sexual content, to say nothing of outright pornography. In the coming years, online videos and apps will be a part of the lives of hundreds of millions of children, in places and contexts far beyond the local PBS channel on TV in a living room or playroom.
The Federal Trade Commission confirmed that it received the new letter and will review it, but would not comment further. Last month, in response to the original complaint regarding deceptive advertising, the regulator said it would review the charges, and also recommended that parents visit OnGuardOnline.gov for resources about protecting children online.
Ironically, the problem that the consumer advocacy groups found lies in search, the essential function that Google performs 100 billion times every month. Moreover, once a child uses search to find inappropriate content, the recommendation engines on Amazon or Netflix that might help a parent to find more relevant programming can also be problematic -- the other side of feedback loops.
"Let's say that a kid accidentally stumbles on a video," said Kunkel. "Because of the recommendation function, it will automatically recommend more problematic videos."
Responding to the criticism, YouTube acknowledged that its mix of automated controls and user feedback is not 100% accurate, which means it's possible for parents -- and children -- to find inappropriate videos. YouTube suggested that parents flag problematic content or consider limiting the available videos to those on the app home screen by turning off the search function.
“We work to make the videos in YouTube Kids as family-friendly as possible and take feedback very seriously,” said a YouTube spokesperson. “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 latter may be the best option for parents who aren't always around when their children are using the app. But a parent who comes back to find her child watching a video that's not offered in the app may not be satisfied with a mechanism that flags problematic content after it's discovered, as opposed to only allowing videos that are specifically designated for children.
Kunkel suggested that Google is going in the wrong direction: It should "whitelist" videos, not depend on an algorithm and user-flagging.
"You can't filter everything on YouTube and make it acceptable to kids that way," he said. "Google is trying to shift the paradigm for kids. In my lifetime, whenever media was developed for kids, it was developed specifically for kids and presented to specifically to kids. What Google is trying to do is take all the media in the world, filter it a little, stream it all through and say it's OK. ... They should just take content that's been developed for child audiences."
YouTube emphasized the amount of educational and entertainment content available on its "open platform," as opposed to the channels of programming on broadcast TV. That's not wrong, but there's an inherent tension between being an "open platform" while also attempting to host and create programming specifically for young children.
No one I spoke to who is involved in the complaint wants content on YouTube to be censored. Rather, they want an app that would never enable very young children to access violent or disturbing videos. The idea behind YouTube Kids, where children stay within the confines of a kid-friendly app with kid-friendly content, remains sound. It meets a need, even if the initial execution has been flawed.
YouTube is one of this young century's marvels, sharing humanity's triumphs and nature's wonders, while also serving an important role in helping adults bear witness to our worst habits. As parents, we owe it to our children to monitor their exposure to the latter, as well as to commercial messages.
"The Internet is the most powerful information, selling and branding mechanism ever created," said Chester. "There's a balance, like anything in life. We want kids to participate in the online world, and the same time, you want to temper its excesses."
"Do you want your kids to have unfettered access to these videos?" he continued. "Do you want your kids to grow up so influenced by commercial culture that it overpowers other things? If the most powerful tech company on the planet promises you a safe environment, what should we expect?"