YouTube offers an easy solution for busy parents: it can entertain children for hours and is easily accessible on a myriad of devices. However, the site also features many violent and disturbing videos that would never be allowed to air on television. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates children’s television programming, it is difficult to apply the same standards used for broadcast media to user-generated content platforms like YouTube.
FCC regulations are rooted in a concern for children’s wellbeing. In the 1980s, the line between entertainment and advertising was blurred by programs like Strawberry Shortcake and Transformers, which were tied to popular collectible toys. Toy developer Bernard Loomis coined the term “toyetic” to describe programs which could be easily merchandised and marketed to children. There is money to be made by targeting kids, particularly because they influence their parents’ purchasing decisions and can be single-mindedly persistent. After watching hours of television each day, children will know exactly what toys they want, specifically because their brains work differently from adult consumers. The FCC has found that children under the age of six cannot distinguish between commercials and entertainment, and therefore don’t understand the “persuasive intent” of commercials.
After receiving complaints about toyetic children’s programs in the 1960s, the FCC responded by forcing broadcasting companies to log portions of the shows as advertising before eventually pushing them off the air. Yet, the demand for toys still persisted, and the regulations cracked under pressure from merchandisers. In 1984 the National Association of Broadcasters relaxed the regulations it had imposed on itself and, as a result toyetic programming exploded. Between 1983 and 1988, the revenue from toy sales related to television shows jumped from $26.7 billion to $64.6 billion.
When toyetic programs reached a peak in the 1980s, teachers’ associations and public interest groups expressed concern with the effects of media on children’s development and lobbied for the passage of the Children’s Television Act. Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s television, warned that toyetic programming deceived children and outcompeted the educational programs that provided positive developmental benefits to children. Intervention was needed. For the best results, children’s media needed to be a collaborative project between television companies and the federal government.
The Children’s Television Act was created with this goal in mind. First, it sought to protect children from predatory advertising. Second, it was enacted to improve the quality of entertainment and create programming that serves the educational and informational needs of children. Congress found that television had the capability to benefit society, if it was regulated properly. Under current FCC guidelines, commercial television broadcasters must provide at least 3 hours of educational programming per week. Additionally, stations must limit the airtime of commercials in relation to entertainment.
The Chairman of the FCC has asserted that children’s video content should not treat its viewers as “little consumers,” because children are not ready to make the same decisions about products as adults. Standards exist for what children should be watching, but the nature of streaming technology has made it harder for the FCC to implement those standards. When Congress introduced legislation to regulate broadcasters, it acknowledged that the private market was not acting in the best interests of children. The relationship between merchandisers, the FCC, and broadcasting companies has determined what American children experience and demand. Regulating children’s entertainment in the 21st century also requires collaboration between the government and the private sector.
The YouTube Kids app has brought attention to modern children’s entertainment and the impact it has on healthy development. In 2015, YouTube developed a version of its website specifically for children, with a suite of parental controls and an interface simplified for small hands with less motor control. Its features are meant to empower parents and allow them to limit what their children watch. By customizing these settings, a parent can handpick what channels their child has access to and blacklist certain searches. While only 10% of parents surveyed by Common Sense Media believe it is YouTube’s role to monitor content, 60% did not use parental controls on YouTube, or were not aware of their existence. The transition from television to digital media has placed the burden on parents to monitor their children’s internet use.
Given Congress’ earlier determination that an unregulated private market cannot protect children or work in their best interests, it isn’t surprising that YouTube Kids has run into issues. In 2017, technology news websites such as The Verge and Medium ran articles about disturbing children’s videos that were making their way onto YouTube and generating millions of views. The videos also appeared on YouTube Kids and were not flagged for their frightening content. In some, familiar characters like Peppa Pig or Spiderman drink bleach or are buried alive. Following recommended videos in the sidebar, a child could end up wandering from licensed Disney videos to bizarre and frightening compilations of characters swapping heads, pulling each other’s limbs off, or being injected with giant needles.
Other videos are more blatant advertisements than the toyetic shows of the 1980s. Unboxing “surprise egg” videos, in which adults slowly unwrap and play with toys, are incredibly popular with young viewers. YouTube has produced its own educational content, available through the YouTube Kids app channels #ReadAlong and #TodayILearned, but it’s possible for a child to spend hours on the app watching nothing but advertisements. YouTube is a different medium from broadcast television, but the impact it has on children’s wellbeing can be just as profound. The standards established by the Children’s Television Act would be difficult to apply to YouTube, but identifying problems with its recommended video algorithms is a good place to start.
The AlgoTransparency Project, founded by former YouTube engineers, is working to show how YouTube’s algorithms shape our access to information. It identifies keywords that content creators use to have their videos show up in searches and in the recommended sidebar –“learn”, “color”, “nursery rhymes”, and “shape” are all popular. These words appear in nonsensical strings as the titles of videos. “Learn Colors Cream and Learn Sports ball With Water Sliders for Kids Cartoon Songs For Children” has 197,212,167 views, for example. Another video, since removed from the website, was titled “Mickey Mouse Baby Drops Insects into Baby’s Face New.”
These videos entice children with bright colors and disturbing humor to keep them watching for hours and make money from the advertisements. Though YouTube has made YouTube Kids safer by giving parents more control, it has a responsibility to modify its algorithm for children’s content in a way that prioritizes safety, not profit. If television companies cannot treat children as consumers with conscious autonomy, YouTube should not treat them as such. With the right regulations, YouTube would be forced to step up and take responsibility, and Congress shouldn’t be afraid to take action.
Photo: “Child Reading“