A House subcommittee is investigating YouTube Kids, saying Google’s video service is feeding children inappropriate material in “a wasteland of vague, consumerist content” so it can show them ads.
Despite Google agrees to pay $170 million in 2019 to settle allegations that YouTube has collected personal information about children without their parents’ consent.
In a letter sent tuesday YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki told the US House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy that YouTube is not doing enough to protect children from material that could harm them. Instead, it relies on artificial intelligence and creators’ self-regulation to decide which videos get on the platform, according to the letter from the committee chair, Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi.
And despite changes in the wake of the 2019 settlement, the letter notes, YouTube Kids is still showing ads to children. But instead of basing it on kids’ online activities, it now focuses on the videos they watch.
YouTube said it has tried to provide children and families with protections and controls so they can watch age-appropriate content. It also stressed that the 2019 settlement was about the mainstream YouTube platform, not the children’s version.
“We’ve invested significantly in the YouTube Kids app to make it more secure and to provide more educational and enriching content for kids, based on principles developed with experts and parents,” the company said.
The congressional inquiry comes a year into the pandemic that has closed schools and left work-from-home parents increasingly dependent on services like YouTube to keep kids entertained. This has led to a rethink of “screen time” rules and guilt over the amount of time children spend in front of screens, with some experts recommending that parents focus on quality, not quantity.
But lawmakers say YouTube Kids is anything but quality.
“YouTube Kids does not spend time or effort determining the eligibility of content before it becomes available for children to view,” the letter reads. “YouTube Kids empowers content creators to self-regulate. YouTube only asks if they consider factors such as the subject of the video, whether the video emphasizes children’s characters, themes, toys or games, and more.”
Children under 13 are protected by a 1998 federal law that requires parental consent before companies can collect and share their personal information.
According to the 2019 settlement, GOOGL of Alphabet,
Google agreed to partner with creators to label material aimed at children. It said it would limit data collection when users watch such videos, regardless of their age.
But lawmakers say that even after the settlement, YouTube Kids, which launched in 2015, continued to exploit loopholes and advertise to children. While it doesn’t target ads based on viewer interests like the main YouTube service does, it tracks information about what kids watch to recommend videos. It also collects personally identifiable device information.
There are also other sneaky ways ads reach children. A “large number” of children’s videos, the letter says, smuggles covert marketing and product placement ads by “child influencers”, who are often children themselves.
“YouTube does not appear to prevent such problematic marketing,” the letter reads. The House’s research team found that only 4% of the videos it watched had “high educational value” and provided appropriate material for development.
The kids app has helped make YouTube an increasingly attractive outlet for the ad sales that generate the bulk of the profits for Google and its parent company, Alphabet, which is based in Mountain View, California.
YouTube brought in nearly $20 billion in ad revenue last year, more than doubling its total just three years ago. The video site now accounts for about 13% of Google’s total ad sales, up from just over 8% in 2017.
The House Subcommittee recommends YouTube completely disable ads for children 7 years and under. It also asks to give parents the option to disable the “autoplay” feature, which is currently not possible (although parents can set a timer to limit their kids’ watching videos).
The lawmakers are asking YouTube to provide them with information about YouTube Kids’ top videos, channels, and earnings, as well as average time spent and number of videos viewed per user, among other information.