The Danger of YouTube Kids

Image Source: Illustration by Alex Castro/The Verge

Image Source: Illustration by Alex Castro/The Verge

Chloe Hurd, Writer

If you are a sibling to a small child that owns an iPad, I’m sure they not only recognize the YouTube logo but also know exactly how to navigate the program to find the video they desire.

With general outings and the never-ending paternal hunt for calm, it’s tough to resist YouTube’s enticing promise of blissful silence. However, if you observe a toddler for any amount of time on YouTube, you’ll notice that whatever little attention span they have is being smashed into pieces. “They’ll channel-flick like a retiree with a billion channels and a comfy chair, following endless YouTube recommendations down an increasingly bizarre rabbit hole.”(Dani de Placido(Forbes))

Now, this is not a denotation of the internet as a whole. The internet influenced the culture, politics, and interpersonal ties that I believe to be important to my identity in ways that I have always thought to be positive. I’ve always been a skeptic of the internet and everything it’s brought, but I believe it’s generally productive and useful. I say this right away because describing this situation challenges my own beliefs and prejudices in important ways.

To begin, consider the following: YouTube is unquestionably bizarre. I’ve been aware of its peculiarity for some time. There were several stories written about the Surprise Egg craze last year. The act of unwrapping Kinder and other egg toys is depicted in these videos, often at agonizing length. That’s all there is to it, but they captivate children. There are tens of thousands of these videos, and children viewing them.

But how do these videos become so popular? A method of raising video views is by keyword/hashtag association, which is a whole other dark art in and of itself. When a trend, such as Surprise Egg videos, hits critical mass, content creators flock to it and make hundreds upon thousands more of these videos in every variation. This is where all of the strange names in the list above come from: branded content, nursery rhyme titles, and “surprise egg” all crammed into the same word salad to capture search results. Add in sidebar placement and “up next” autoplay rankings and you have the perfect formula to captivate the youth.

Once again, the number of views on these videos should be regarded seriously. A large percentage of these films are essentially generated, viewed, and even commented on by bots. That is a strange universe all by itself. However, it should not be overlooked that there are many actual children, connected to iPhones and tablets, viewing these over and over again — accounting for the exaggerated view figures — learning to type simple search terms into the browser or simply tapping the sidebar to bring up another video.


What is ElsaGate?

Elsagate is a series of videos that have garnered attention from the mass of the internet, often being flagged and eventually taken down for inappropriate content. Some videos are live-action, while others are animated. For some reason, the majority appear to have Spiderman and Elsa together, with Elsa frequently depicted as pregnant. Most are a jumbled mass of garbled conversation and incomprehensible activities.

Let me be clear: none of these videos have any value. There is no narrative, no goal, and nothing for a child to learn. They’re so unstructured that they often come off as absolutely random. “They’re neon-lit, saccharine-filled junk food for your child’s brain, and most have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, according to view counts.”(Dani di Placido(Forbes))

But “Elsagate” is more than just a cheap cash grab. Concealed within the loops of horrifically bad animation or frightening live-action dress-ups, are scenes of violence and/or sexuality featuring children’s favorite animated characters. Many star the popular Frozen sisters, Anna and Elsa, having their clothes ripped off and being mocked by Spider-Man or the Joker. It felt weird typing that statement, but the fact that these videos are explicitly aimed towards children isn’t funny.

Given how many children are viewing, YouTube’s obvious failure to adequately moderate its content is highly concerning. The popular YouTube channel “Toy Freaks” (which has since been banned) was founded in 2012, and many of its videos portrayed children in terrible situations, such as writhing in pain or vomiting on camera. “Toy Freaks” previously ranked 68 on Socialblade’s list of the most visited YouTube channels, with a whopping 8,547,801 subscribers. 

Someone or something, or some combination of people and things, is using YouTube to systematically fear, traumatize, and abuse children on a large scale, forcing me to reassess my own assumptions about the internet on every level.

 Only when major companies like Adidas, Mars, and Hewlett-Packard stopped advertising on YouTube has the site made a concerted attempt to clean up the unpleasant content directed at children.

The enormity of the situation appears to indicate that we have unleashed a monster beyond our control. YouTube is seen by one billion people every day, and the website reaches more people in the United States than any TV network. You may believe that network television is full of mind-numbing garbage, and you may be correct. Nevertheless, the information is heavily filtered through producers, executives, writers, directors, and the viewer itself.

The information we let the children around us watch surely shapes their image of the world, and it’s horrifying to think about how many toddlers have been affected by “Elsagate” in ways we can’t fathom.

The New York Times, in a subset of this issue titled “On YouTube Kids, Startling Videos Slip Past Filters” exposes the usage of knock-off characters and nursery rhymes in troubling content, framing it as a matter of moderation and legislation. The problem has been discovered as YouTube Kids, an official software that professes to be kid-safe but is not, because it instills false trust in users.

I think it’s for the best that we turn to planned programming for children’s content. As it is under much stricter guidelines and teaches children basic moral principles. Keeping many children away from ever experiencing the potential of Elsagate content.