Kids love YouTube—and during a pandemic when 33% of parents still reporting having no childcare at all—so do tired mamas.
No parent should be shamed for using screen time to get a moment of chill during this super stressful (and seemingly never-ending) pandemic, but unfortunately, surprise eggs are not the only surprise on YouTube.
A duo of new reports published this week by Common Sense (a non-profit organization dedicated to digital well-being for kids) finds the amount of time very young kids spent watching online videos has doubled since 2017. By early 2020 the youngest kids were spending an average of 39 minutes per day watching online videos on YouTube and other online video platforms.
Common Sense surveyed parents about their kids screen use and what videos they were watching on YouTube. The report finds a whopping "95% of early childhood videos included some form of advertising, and one in five videos viewed by children 8 and under contained ads that were not age-appropriate." Basically, it's not just ads for toys—kids are seeing commercials for violent video games, lingerie, whiskey and political campaigns even when the actual video they are watching is age-appropriate.
It's interesting that this report came out the same week that the Advertising to Kids Survey (by the National Financial Educators Council) found 80.2% of Americans believe advertisers should not be targeting kids under eight years old.
Parents don't want companies shilling whiskey, or even toys, to kids, but it is happening more and more as the youngest kids move from watching TV to watching hand-held screens.
In the 1990s advertisers couldn't buy commercial time for whiskey or bra during the Saturday morning cartoon block, but such restrictions don't exist in our new, constantly connected world.
As more and more kids have access to a phone or tablet (Common Sense finds access to mobile devices is driving the increase in screen time as nearly half (46%) of 2- to 4-year-olds and more than two-thirds (67%) of 5- to 8-year-olds have their own phone or tablet), time on YouTube gets harder to supervise...but some parents feel like time on YouTube is the only break they get.
As one parent explained via the survey: "Sometimes when she is focused on watching the phone she will eat, relax or let me get things done. Otherwise she is going one hundred miles a minute and just wants to play."
Parents can't play all day. Sometimes you have to load the dishwasher, or work from home. This is why throughout history, parenting has not been done in isolation. But in this moment in history many parents are isolated, with no childcare and no prospect for a break. We cannot shame these parents for doing what they need to do to survive the parenting marathon that is 2020. But people are casting some shade at the companies taking advantage of these algorithms.
Almost 60% of people who took the Advertising to Kids survey say advertising to kids is unethical. But when have YouTube creators and advertisers cared about ethics?
This is not the first time inappropriate content aimed at YouTube's youngest viewers made the news.
Last year Florida mom and pediatrician Free Hess, founder of the child safety website, PediMom, went viral after altering the world (via the Washington Post) to an unknown number of videos promoting suicide to children on the YouTube Kids app.
"My research has led me into a horrifying world where people create cartoons glorifying dangerous topics and scenarios such self-harm, suicide, sexual exploitation, trafficking, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and gun violence which includes a simulated school shooting. All of these videos were found on YouTube Kids, a platform that advertises itself to be a safe place for children 8 years old and under," Hess wrote on PediMom.
At the time, spokespeople for YouTube were quick to point out that the Google-owned platform relies on both user flagging and smart detection technology to flag content that violates its policies. "Every quarter we remove millions of videos and channels that violate our policies and we remove the majority of these videos before they have any views," the spokesperson told the Post in a written statement.
YouTube is aware that kids love it and that they can be exposed to inappropriate content on the platform, but history has proven it's really hard for YouTube to police YouTube.
Back in 2017 the inappropriate use of beloved kids characters like Peppa Pig, Spider-Man and Elsa became international news after a viral Medium post by writer James Bridle and a report by The New York Times illuminated the weird, creepy and downright disturbing videos YouTube users were creating featuring the characters.
In 2018, YouTube announced plans to roll out a non-algorithmic version option within parental controls in the YouTube Kids apps that serves up content curated by humans who know the difference between the real Peppa Pig and a crazed counterfeit version.
The thing about YouTube is that while it's been around for so long that some of its stars don't remember a world where it didn't exist, it's still kind of a Wild West, anything-goes content portal, and while it certainly attracts some creators of quality kids programming, it's also open to people who don't care about kids at all.
Jenny Radesky, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician and researcher at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and a co-author of Common Sense's YouTube report.
"Although great content for kids exists on YouTube, it's not rising to the top. In our study, most children were watching the videos with branded products or outrageous content that creators have posted to get more views, which leads to more ad revenue and getting featured in recommendation feeds," she explains.
Parents can take action on these issues by saying no to unsupervised YouTube (which can be really hard, but is doable).
If you know you're going to want to have a video handy in case of emergency (like a long wait at the the doctor's office or just a random Tuesday where you have back-to-back Zoom meetings and no childcare), download legit videos (like an episode of Sesame Street) from Google Play or the Apple App Store and save the YouTube sessions for when you can devote as much attention to the screen as your child can, and monitor their content consumption in real time.