For years moms and dads have been warning each other about stealthy, disturbing videos that slide into YouTube search results for familiar characters like Peppa Pig, Elsa, or the gang from Paw Patrol.
Now, finally, YouTube is cracking down on videos that hijack beloved characters and basically turn them into nightmare fuel.
YouTube’s announcement of a new policy on the “inappropriate use of family entertainment characters” comes after a viral Medium post by writer James Bridle and a report by The New York Times amplified the phenomenon some parents have dubbed “Elsagate” (as searching for Disney's Elsa can yield some bizarre, very non-Disney results).
Under the new policy (which is being implemented but not yet in effect), videos that are flagged by users and deemed age-restricted won’t be visible to those who aren’t logged into YouTube, those who are logged in on a minor’s account, or to those browsing via the YouTube Kids app.
“The YouTube team is made up of parents who are committed to improving our apps and getting this right,” YouTube’s director of policy Juniper Downs said in a statement posted to several sites.
This comes after another policy change earlier this year that made such videos ineligible for monetization. That policy may have removed some of the incentive for the makers of such videos, but for parents of kids who had already been frightened by them, the change came a little late.
Some parents feel let down by YouTube Kids. When it was announced in 2015, Google touted the app as “a safer and easier [way] for children to find videos.”
“Parents can rest a little easier knowing that videos in the YouTube Kids app are narrowed down to content appropriate for kids,” Shimrit Ben-Yair, YouTube Kids group product manager wrote in a blog post announcing the app back in 2015
Unfortunately, videos featuring kids’ characters engaged in violent or otherwise disturbing acts made it passed the algorithms that separate regular YouTube from YouTube Kids.
YouTube knows this, and notes it in the YouTube Kids Parental Guide: “No algorithm is perfect. This means your child might find content you don't want him or her to watch. If this happens, please flag the video.”
It doesn’t seem like a lot of parents are flagging those videos, though. According to YouTube, less than 0.005% of videos watched in the YouTube Kids app over the last month were pulled after being flagged. Meanwhile, YouTube is rolling out new profiles that tailor the Kids app experience to the child’s age, changing the home screen to feature less text for the little kids, and more for the reading-age crowd.
The setup process for the new profiles gives parents more information about how to block and flag any inappropriate videos that get past though the algorithm. “Remember, our systems work hard to filter out more mature content from the app. But no system is perfect,” Balaji Srinivasan, YouTube Kids Engineering Director wrote in a recent blog post introducing kid profiles.
Hopefully, the changes will see YouTube Kids become a safer way to stream, but some parents are choosing to bypass the minefield of user generated content in favor of more official sources (with the added bonus of better production values).
More and more vetted reputable kids content is available online these days. The companies who make it know that average daily screen time for kids on handheld devices is up 10 times over 2011 (while TV time for little kids is down), and trusted content makers are following the kids to the mobile world. YouTube isn’t the only option for those moments when you simply need to stream (like when there’s an excessively long wait in the pediatrician's waiting room).
Disney’s video site provides a place to watch the real Elsa while we wait for Disney’s highly anticipated streaming service, and the PBS KIDS Video app only hosts the kind of content you would find on the public broadcaster. Netflix offers the non-bootleg versions of many kids shows, Nickelodeon has its Noggin app, and some cable providers offer on-the-go streaming in addition to regular TV.
No matter where you’re getting your online videos, experts say the best way for kids to consume it is with a parent. Having mom or dad as a video buddy can help kids become more discerning viewers since we’re there to teach them about media literacy.
“What we strongly recommend is for parents to curate kids’ media content when they’re young and to co-view with them, so that they can model the idea of critically engaging with media,” Matthew Johnson of Media Smarts told Convergence, a magazine by the Humber School of Journalism.
The YouTubers who hijack the characters our kids trust and do violent, upsetting things with them are pretty skilled at getting past the algorithms, but they can’t get past a parent’s own eyes. Our kids may not be able to spot a bootleg Peppa, but we can.