Being a parent in the digital age can be tricky — just ask Mary Wandler.
Her six-year-old daughter Zahara was browsing videos of the cartoon My Little Pony when she stumbled onto a parent’s nightmare: graphic sexual content right in the middle of a children’s video.
“It kind of makes me sick to my stomach,” Wandler says. “How can there be people out there doing this just to hurt children?”
Wandler isn’t alone — not by a long shot. In recent months, YouTube has come under fire for allowing violent, sexual, disturbing cartoons to slip through the cracks of its algorithms and into the playlists of children. Many of these videos have racked up millions of views.
“I was aware that stuff could come up that wasn’t appropriate, but I never thought it would be a young children’s cartoon,” Wandler says.
“The people that are uploading these videos to YouTube — they’re professionals,” explains Marv Dorner, a web developer who knows a thing or two about how this sort of thing happens. “They’re always gonna find a way to get around the system.”
Dorner says it all comes down to SEO, or search engine optimization. It’s all about making your video blend in. By giving it a misleading description, title, and keywords, and topping it off with a thumbnail image, nearly anything can be disguised as children’s content.
So what’s being done to stop it?
“There’s really no way to tell until somebody complains,” Dorner says.
That’s YouTube’s first line of defense: other users flagging content as inappropriate. Once that happens, YouTube staff can age-restrict that content, or delete it altogether.
But the company says it’s doing even more than that. In a statement given to KX News, a spokesperson with YouTube had this to say: “We’ve taken deliberate steps to tackle many of the emerging challenges around family content on YouTube, including […] demonetizing and age-gating content that inappropriately targets families.”
“We’re committed to getting this right,” the spokesperson added.
Additionally, the company says it plans to grow its moderator team to about 10,000 people to scan for inappropriate content.
Still, parents like Mary Wandler aren’t willing to risk it — and her daughter still isn’t allowed to touch YouTube. “We actually use Netflix. That seems to be a much safer option,” she says.
So what are the best ways to avoid danger on YouTube?
- First, you should bypass the YouTube app altogether, and download the YouTube Kids app. It automatically filters out content that isn’t labeled as suitable for children.
- You can also turn off Auto-Play — that way, your kids only see the videos that you or they click on.
- Only subscribe to videos from sources you trust, like Disney or Nick Junior.
- Remember that the best filters aren’t perfect. The best filter is you — and watching videos with your kids is the safest step you can take.