Google’s YouTube Kids is even worse than we thought. A month ago Consumer Watchdog joined a coalition of prominent children’s and consumer advocacy groups in a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission requesting an investigation of Google, charging the company with unfair and deceptive practices in connection with its new YouTube Kids app.
Today two groups — the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) — updated the complaint showing that the app is featuring many videos that would not meet any definition of “family friendly.” Google claims YouTube Kids is a safe site for kids under five to explore.
CDD and CCFC found a significant amount of content that would be extremely disturbing and/or potentially harmful for young children to view, including:
-- Explicit sexual language presented amidst cartoon animation.
--Videos that model unsafe behaviors such as playing with lit matches, shooting a nail gun, juggling knives, tasting battery acid, and making a noose.
-- A profanity-laced parody of the film Casino featuring Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.
-- Graphic adult discussions about family violence, pornography, and child suicide.
-- Jokes about pedophilia and drug use.
-- Advertising for alcohol products.
Here’s a video compilation documenting some of the inappropriate content:
Our coalition’s original complaint detailed a number of the app’s features that take advantage of children’s developmental vulnerabilities and violate long-standing media and advertising safeguards that protect children viewing television. Among the specific practices identified in the complaint were:
-- Intermixing advertising and programming in ways that deceive young children, who, unlike adults, lack the cognitive ability to distinguish between the two;
-- Featuring numerous “branded channels” for McDonald’s, Barbie, Fisher-Price, and other companies, which are little more than program-length commercials;
-- Distributing so-called “user-generated” segments that feature toys, candy, and other products without disclosing the business relationships that many of the producers of these videos have with the manufacturers of the products, a likely violation of the FTC’s Endorsement Guidelines.
The CDD and CCFC update documents an even more troubling problem. It says:
“Google does not, in fact, “screen out the videos that make parents nervous” and its representations of YouTube Kids as a safe, child-friendly version of YouTube are deceptive. Parents who download the app are likely to expose their children to the very content they believed they would avoid by using the preschool version of YouTube. In addition to the unfair and deceptive marketing practices we identified in our initial request for an investigation, it is clear that Google is deceiving parents about the effectiveness of their screening processes and the content on YouTube Kids.”
My colleague, Jeff Chester, executive director of CDD, put it this way: “Google gets an 'F' when it comes to protecting America’s youngest kids. The failure of the most powerful and technologically advanced media company to create a safe place for America’s youngest kids requires immediate action by the FTC.”
YouTube Kids was supposed to be a sort of walled garden where kids could enjoy online videos without being exposed to the tawdry and seamier side of the Internet. It’s not.
The problem is that Google is relying on an algorithm to screen content. When it comes to content for children, human curation is essential. My understanding is that the FTC is taking our complaint very seriously. Today’s filing makes the case even stronger. I urge you to check out the video from CDD and CCFC. And then, why don't you drop the Commission a line asking them to throw the book at Google and YouTube for Kids? You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org