YouTube is easily the most popular video site online, with an estimated 300 hours of content being uploaded every minute. Obviously, this incredible amount of information can make it hard to properly regulate what should and shouldn't appear. So, in order to protect younger viewers, Google created YouTube Kids.
Now stories are emerging that this not all that it seems to be, and your children could be watching videos that are wholly inappropriate. We investigate how safe YouTube Kids really is and what you can do to protect your children.
For more information on internet safety in general also try reading our How to keep children safe on the internet guide.
Should I allow my children to watch YouTube?
There is a wealth of excellent, family friendly content on YouTube. From fun tips and tricks about school, to educational channels, music, creative pursuits, and any number of interesting ways to waste time. But, there is also much to which you wouldn't want your child exposed.
We won't go into the details, but very strong language, aggressive opinions, crude and cruel behaviour, all has its own little corner on the site. You shouldn't be able to find anything truly nasty, as YouTube has strong restrictions on nudity and violence, but it's best to treat it as an adult-oriented site.
The main problem comes from videos that are recommended in the watch next list. Most of these should be fine, but it only takes tapping on a couple of wild cards here and there to skew the path of a viewer into rougher material.
If you can't sit and watch the content with your child, then one option is to use the Safety mode. This will at least filter out a fair amount of inappropriate content, but it's not a fool-proof option.
To do so you need to go to YouTube in your PC browser then click on the icon in the top right corner that represents your account. In the drop-down menu look for Restricted Mode.
Click on this, then from the menu box that appears you'll want to toggle the setting on by using the button at the bottom of the window.
It's a similar method in the iOS and Android apps. Tap on the account icon in the upper right corner, select Settings, then toggle on Restricted Mode.
Of course, it would make sense to use the YouTube Kids app instead, as it has been primarily designed with this in mind. But, well, you're going to have to keep an eye on that one too.
What's the problem with YouTube Kids?
For the most part YouTube Kids is fine. The dedicated iOS and Android apps focus on content for younger children, and there is plenty of Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol, and various Disney related characters to while away the hours.
This was until reports started appearing about videos on the app that had a decidedly darker tone. Back in March the BBC revealed the appearance of several shows that mimicked the likes of Peppa Pig, using the same animation styles and characters, but with a decidedly nasty edge.
One particular episode that become infamous was of Peppa in the dentist's chair being essentially tortured. Others have characters being locked in a house which is then burned down, Mickey Mouse having his ear chopped off by one of his kids, plus many other 'parodies' that children would find distressing.
Understandably this lead to an outcry, as young viewers were being tricked into selecting videos that seemed to feature their favourite characters, only to have awful things happen to them.
While YouTube has strict guidelines for content, the creators of these videos, by using keywords and characters that would normally be associated with children, managed to bypass them. This seems to show one of the main weaknesses in how YouTube approves content.
Due to the volume uploaded, algorithms rather than people vet the videos, and these can be fooled. Clever use of keywords then ensures the dubious episodes are promoted up the ranks so that they appear in the recommended videos that YouTube offers viewers.
It's an almost perfect storm that uses YouTube's own practices to promote the offensive material, which then actually generates money for the creators.
Viewers reporting a video as offensive will have it most likely removed, but of course this can only be done after the event.
YouTube has responded to the reports by changing how videos are monetised, and refining the age restriction parameters. In an interview with the Guardian, YouTube's Director of Policy, Juniper Downs, stated,
'Earlier this year, we updated our policies to make content featuring inappropriate use of family entertainment characters ineligible for monetisation We're in the process of implementing a new policy that age restricts this content in the YouTube main app when flagged. Age-restricted content is automatically not allowed in YouTube Kids. The YouTube team is made up of parents who are committed to improving our apps and getting this right.'
Since the reports YouTube has taken down many of the offending videos and closed the channels that created and shared them. Whether this will be enough to prevent any other 'stealth' attacks is too early to tell.
To make the YouTube Kids app as safe as it can be we recommend using the built-in settings. Open the app, tap on the padlock in the bottom right corner, then enter the number listed at the top of the screen. Tap Settings and then you can either turn of Search, which will restrict your child to then content offered on the Home screen, or tap the Home screen age level option to change the videos available to either All kids, Pre-school, or School age.
Allowing your kids online, especially unaccompanied, is always a risk. If possible, try to have them in the same room as you, and discourage the use of headphones.
The constant chatter of high-pitched characters and ludicrously happy music might drive a bit mad, but you'll at least know what they're seeing.