Protecting Children on YouTube: What Progress?

The YouTube Kids platform was created in 2015 and is described as a “dedicated and kid-friendly” application that gives them access to secure online content15.

For this purpose, the application offers various protection mechanisms intended to control the content made available to the youngest (1). However, if these mechanisms actually appear to be advances in protecting the youngest, YouTube Kids will unfortunately remain a platform offered only to content creators and not enforced (2). This last point therefore makes us question the real effectiveness of this creation.

1 – Protective mechanisms

Intended as a destination platform and designed for children, YouTube Kids presents various protection mechanisms specifically implemented on the application.

Comment space deleted. Under these mechanisms, we can thus note the deletion of the comment space. This one, unlike the classic platform, is not available on YouTube Kids.

If the comment space can be an opportunity for subscribers to share their opinions with their favorite content creators, it has unfortunately become the fixed place for various attacks (insults, inappropriate comments on the physical, on the content, harassment in a queue). The youngest are not immune to these outpourings of criticism, even hatred, as evidenced by certain cases16.

The removal of the comment space therefore reflects a desire to best protect the youngest from inappropriate comments and more generally against any form of harassment or violence that may manifest itself in this way.17.

Controlled and customized content. We can also highlight the fact that the platform intends to introduce many options that allow parents to control the content made available to the youngest.

When registering on the platform, parents are asked to configure the application by selecting a category based on age. Thus, three categories are proposed:

  • children aged 4 and under, known as the “toddlers” category;

  • the child from 5 to 8 years, known as the “small” category;

  • children aged 9 to 12, known as the “older” category.

These categories are intended to best adapt the content offered to the age of the child. Depending on the category selected, the content offered may be different and customized. For example, while it is possible to offer content on sex education topics such as puberty or reproduction in the “older” category, this content is not tolerated in the other two categories. Similarly, while it is possible to offer videos with opinions on beauty products, make-up tutorials adapted to the age of the viewers in the categories “biggest and smallest”, this content is completely excluded in the category “toddlers”.

Unlike the classic platform, which in principle offers content to everyone, without imposing filters by age18YouTube Kids runs a real sort of content by viewers age.

Exclusion of content that contains commercial elements. Finally, in terms of advertising more specifically, the platform has banned any kind of video including commercial elements.

In particular, the famous placements of advertising products are targeted, which have now become legion on digital platforms and other social networks.

The rules of the platform specify that videos that include paid product placements or promotions are prohibited and that these videos will be removed from the application. Some examples, guided by the recommendations of the FTC, are provided to illustrate these commercial elements. Direct encouragement of viewers to purchase a product, videos focusing on packaging or unpacking of products, encouragement of consumption or excessive accumulation of products are content that fall into this category and are therefore likely to be banned.

This ban also follows various terminations19. In 2015, the platform was accused of mixing entertainment and advertising20 by offering official chains of brands such as McDonald’s, Barbie or Fisher Price. In August 2019, the independent advertising watchdog, Truth in Advertising, filed a complaint with the FTC, citing the dangers of YouTube channels presenting content designed for children and where commercial content was approved, even encouraged21.

In fact, many children’s channels are best known for offering this type of content. For example, “unboxing” or “haul” videos are extremely common on children’s channels. These anglicisms refer to types of videos published on the Internet in which a person films himself unpacking and presenting received or purchased products. These videos have gone viral on the YouTube platform. Since 2020, it is estimated that the number of YouTube videos mentioning the term “unboxing” would have increased by 871% and that the phenomenon would have generated more than 1.1 billion views.22.

These product presentations represent a significant portion of the content aimed at children. In terms of the number of videos posted on YouTube, content with e.g. unpackings of chocolate eggs or surprise eggs from well-known brands such as Kinder or Disney represent more than 10 million results. Some of these videos would generate between 500 and 600 million views23. The extent of the phenomenon is therefore very real.

In addition, this type of content, which is highly valued by both children and parents, can generate astronomical revenue. A few numbers allow us to become convinced of the marketing impact of this type of video. According to Forbes magazine, 9-year-old YouTuber Ryan Kaji, known for his videos with toys, was ranked first among the highest paid YouTubers in the world by 2020. The latter would have recorded more than 29.5 million and 1.2 billion views between 2019 and 202024. Seven-year-old YouTuber Nastya came in seventh with more than 107 million subscribers and $ 28 million earned on her channel, including several content sponsored by brands like Danone or Legoland.25.

In France, channels like Swan and Neo, Demo Toys or Studio Bubble Tea have millions of subscribers26 and regularly presents videos of unpacking and presenting toys or other products that are likely to encourage the youngest to consume.

On October 13, the UFC-Que-Choisir Association also filed a complaint of misleading commercial practice against the television channel. Fast foodMcDonald’s France27. According to the association, McDonald’s would be guilty of covert advertising. The brand would have discreetly entered into partnership contracts with young youtubers to encourage their subscribers to consume the brand’s products. We will especially in certain videos see these young videographers pretending to open their own restaurant at home by only presenting products stamped “McDo”, unpacking surprise packages “Happy Meal”, all while generously thanking the brand28.

We thus perceive that these children’s channels can also be the channel for disseminating more or less disguised ads, and that this form of dissemination of commercial content is not exclusively reserved for channels for influencers who present videos to an older person.

This ban on commercial content on the YouTube Kids platform is therefore welcome, especially as the ban on commercials on children’s TV programs for comparison has been in place for several years.29.

Progress enough? At first glance, this restriction seems to be a significant step forward in protecting young people from the influence of internet advertising. However, one may ask oneself whether the YouTube Kids application really protects the youngest? In fact, the absence of an obligation to publish only content intended for children on this specific platform leads us to question the effectiveness of such creation.

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