As I wrote in Raising Children in a Digital Age (2014): ‘As one 11-13 year-old said: “You can find anything on there.” YouTube is now the second most popular search engine. There is a lot of great information on YouTube, but also a lot of inappropriate content. YouTube has a safety mode … but YouTube itself admits that it’s not particularly effective, and a quick search for “YouTube safety mode” will bring up multiple videos instructing users how to turn it off!’
In November 2015, YouTube launched YouTube Kids in the UK, nine months after its American release, describing it as ‘made for curious little minds’. As current safety options aren’t particularly effective, parents wanted more control over the material their children see, a process that YouTube Kids simplifies.
The new app bars non-childfriendly ads, although some parents in the US have contested that the app is not standing by its own policies, especially in terms of branded channels screening promotional videos, or product promotion on popular vlogger channels. This raises concerns as only 16 per cent of eight to eleven year-olds in the UK can identify the difference between content and advertisements, and few understand how YouTube is funded. Most social media is funded by advertising, and David Kleeman (the former president of the American Centre for Children and Media) challenges critics to identify how else children’s material can be funded, as there is no ideal system.
YouTube Kids uses algorithms to filter out inappropriate videos, but there’s no such thing as a perfect algorithm. Parents can report any material that slips through the net. Comments have been stripped out, as has the ability to upload videos or search for inappropriate terms. A timer can be set to limit how long children use the app for. YouTube Kids says that it’s only tracking users enough to provide recommendations, but that these records can be wiped in the app settings.
No app is perfect, and this is not the only platform seeking to offer safer internet experiences for children and supporting parents in their role. As I emphasised in my book, digital activities can be done together, and should be surrounded by conversation, conversation and conversation!
Dr Bex Lewis is senior lecturer in digital marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University