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Santa Monica Consumer Group Critical of Google’s New Kids’ App

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April 9, 2015 -- Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog has a bone to pick with Google’s new YouTube Kids app, claiming it violates long-standing advertising safeguards for children.

According to Google, YouTube Kids is a free app “designed for curious little minds,” offering age-appropriate videos, channels and play lists.

Launched in February, “YouTube Kids features popular children’s programming, plus kid-friendly content from filmmakers, teachers, and creators all around the world,” according to Google’s description of the app.

But John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said his group and other nonprofits are asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the app, claiming it takes advantage “of children’s developmental vulnerabilities.”

“It’s bad enough when Google targets its behavioral ads at adults, but aiming ads at kids like this is absolutely unconscionable and must be stopped,” said Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director.

In a letter to the FTA, the Santa Monica organization and about seven others accuse YouTube Kids of “intermixing advertising and programming in ways that deceive young children, who, unlike adults, lack the cognitive ability to distinguish between the two.”

The app also features numerous “branded channels” for McDonald’s, Barbie, Fisher-Price, and other companies, “which are little more than program-length commercials,” said Simpson.

Children also are exposed to “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,” said Simpson.

The guidelines prohibit children’s programming from delivering commercial messages, limit the amount of advertising children’s programs can include, prohibit program-length commercials, and ban “product placements” or “embedded advertisements,” he said.

“The fact that children are viewing the videos on a tablet or smart phone screen instead of on a television screen does not make it any less unfair and deceptive,” according to the letter set to the FTC.

Simpson said Google is violating its own advertising promises that food and beverage ads will not appear on the app, which has advertising and promotions.

“There is nothing 'child friendly' about an app that obliterates long-standing principles designed to protect kids from commercialism,” said Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which joined Consumer Watchdog in the complaint.

Among the other groups asking the FTC to investigate were the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Public Citizen.