Alarming content is being found hidden in videos on YouTube and YouTube Kids, and the company, owned by Google, can't seem to remove it fast enough before more pops up.
If you have young children or grandchildren, you probably have no issue handing them a tablet and letting them watch videos on YouTube Kids, play games, access apps, or more while you get dinner ready or sneak in an extra half hour of sleep on the weekend. But proceed with caution. Recently, several people have reported finding clips strategically hidden within seemingly innocent videos, like an episode of Peppa Pig, or video footage of the popular gaming app Roblox. In one case, a man with sunglasses appears about four and-a-half minutes into a video of a cartoon. He walks in the frame and addresses the kids, showing them how to slit their wrists. "Kids," he says in front of a backdrop meant to look like it's from a children's show, "remember, cut this way for attention, and this way for results." He then walks off stating "end it," and the cartoon resumes. In most cases, the disturbing clips are found deep within the videos to give the impression to parents that the video is safe before they walk away, feeling assured that their child is simply watching an innocent cartoon.
Dr. Free N. Hess posted about finding the aforementioned clip last summer on her blog PediMom. She was successful in getting the video removed after alerting YouTube to the harmful content, and notes it took about a week for the video to be taken down. But earlier this year, she discovered another cartoon with the same clip hidden within it. This time, it was available on the standard YouTube site, not YouTube Kids. While that means young kids might not have seen it, kids over the age of 13, including impressionable teens, could have easily come across it. This time, YouTube took the video down within days of Dr. Hess alerting them.
Dr. Hess, a pediatrician, told CNN that the existence of such content makes her sad and frustrated. "I'm seeing more and more kids coming in with self harm and suicide attempts. I don't doubt that social media and things such as this is contributing."
YouTube Kids is dubbed a "family-friendly place for kids to explore their interests." And indeed, it, for the most part, is. However, as with any online service, bad guys find their way around filters. And once they do, it's hard to get them out. Just as you need to protect your kids against online predators who lurk in chat rooms and on social media sites, terrible people are finding new ways to mess with kids' minds through video, in many cases with the goal of enticing children to do harm to themselves or others.
What can YouTube do about this? The company does remove offending videos once it is alerted that they exist. But relying on users means that at least one child (or parent) has to come across a video that squeaked by filters first in order to notify them, at which point harm could have already been done. YouTube says it is "making constant improvements to our systems and recognize there's more work to do." The fact that it takes several days before content is moved from YouTube to YouTube Kids means that hopefully someone will flag an offensive video before it gets there, and becomes accessible to the eyes of young children. But what if the someone who finds it is a fragile, impressionable 14- or 15-year-old who accesses the regular YouTube site?
These hidden, subliminal-like clips only represent the tip of the iceberg of inappropriate content masquerading as being for children that has made its way to YouTube Kids. Back in 2017, CBC reported about seemingly innocent cartoon videos for kids that are actually twisted versions of kids' shows, or that feature popular kids' characters. They depict everything from torture to abuse and sexual themes. The videos sometimes appear to be legitimate versions of an animated series, but then show terrible happenings, from car crashes to demons. In one video, a version of Peppa Pig is seen eating her father, while in another "episode," she's drinking bleach. Dr. Hess also came across a video inspired by the popular Minecraft video game that depicted a school shooting.
The issue is that hundreds of actually harmless videos of these popular shows or games, or featuring popular characters, exist on the site, so finding the one or two that's warped and disturbing is like locating a needle in a haystack. Especially when, on the surface, they seem perfectly normal. YouTube moderates and filters content as best it can, but by and large, the site must rely on its users. Is it possible for one company - even one owned by Google - to stay a step ahead, monitoring and removing such videos, and videos with hidden clips, quicker than malicious folks can add them?
If YouYube Kids wants to take responsibility for facilitating the haystack chocked full of content for children, they must also be able to locate the needles. And quickly. But it's important for users, particularly parents, to help, too, by diligently alerting the site whenever something is discovered. YouTube, urges Dr. Hess, should also work harder to take offending videos down more quickly. YouTube says it is looking into new parental control options as well that would allow parents to select only specific videos and channels in the app that their kids have permission to watch.
For now, if you plan to continue to allow your children and grandchildren to view videos on YouTube, including not just young children, but also teens and pre-teens, and not just YouTube Kids, but YouTube overall, it would be wise to talk to them about the possibility of coming across such disturbing videos. And keep a closer eye on what they are watching. A quick glance might suggest it's just an innocent cartoon, but there could be evil lurking beneath the surface.