My daughter loves watching television and so she loves YouTube. I hate it. Well, no, I hate the things she watches there, and I hate how YouTube doesn’t offer a proper way for me to whitelist what she watches.
The YouTube Fire Hose
Children like dopey children’s songs, bright colors, and unpacking things. So, naturally, a video showing a pair of hands opening brightly colored surprise articles that reveal toys, with a dopey sound track underneath does well for that age group.
Of course, as with all social media hits, everybody and their uncle will jump on the bandwagon. So, as you’d expect, there’s a gazillion videos of toy revealing and bright colors with dopey music on YouTube.
Your child will find them. And then, after it finishes, the Youtube Algorithm will send your child down the rabbit hole. A fire hose of bright colors, toys, and the same f*ing song over and over again.
My daughter loves every minute of it.
Below the surface
The sheer magnitude of such videos is astounding. At first you think there must be an end somewhere, but there are thousands upon thousands of these children-aimed videos. I’ve run into broadly six types.
First, there’s your regular kid-aimed videos. There’s your Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol, and other run-of-the-mill child programs. I suppose a lot of it is illegally uploaded, but it’s there nonetheless.
Secondly, there’s videos of children playing with toys. Come Play With Me is a huge hit, and so are many others. Still, reasonably understandable. The nasty part is that there is often corporate sponsoring of the toys shown. You just don’t know how much. Come Play With Me, for example, features a fortune in dolls. Maybe they were bought, maybe they were given for marketing purposes.
Third place, there’s the adult hands unboxing LOL surprises and/or playing with Play-Doh. Bright colors, same corny music. Yeah, great. Unfortunately, the thing is very commercially oriented, prepping my daughter to become a Consumer, capital C.
Category four is endless streams of nursery rhymes with animations of varying quality. Some look okay, others are just creepy. They are more prolific than cockroaches though.
Then there’s category five, the weird crappy 3D bright color movies of colored balls, with 3d cars in weird settings, gorilla models playing with ducks, and so on. These movies are mind boggling. I can see somebody had some fun with Blender or Maya, but the whole idea of these movies flabbergasts me. Still, my daughter loves them, so I guess they work.
And finally, there’s category six, the dark zone. You see, among all the brightly colored things, there’s the scary stuff. The nasty videos that live on Youtube and accidentally get added to the list. It’s stuff that is very much not suitable for children.
Follow the Money
Youtube is making Google tons of money, but it’s doing the same for some of the more famous streamers.
Come Play With Me has a ton of followers and apparently generates about two million a year in revenue. Yep, those videos make that much money. Those disembodied hands also make a living unboxing toys.
And those weird nursery rhymes and 3d animations of cars are probably AI generated. There are infinite variations of the things, and they generate a shit-ton of views. So many, in fact, that I’m suspicious. My daughter loves those movies, but there are so many of them she rarely sees the same one twice. However, they all have views in the hundreds of millions. Are there that many children watching all day? Or are their also bots at work, somehow circumventing Google’s detection and generating ad revenue for who knows what sinister party?
All in all, the bottom line is simple: these YouTube videos make money for people. A lot of money.
Google is notoriously bad at moderating YouTube. This is mostly because the money doesn’t come from you, it comes from advertisers. You, as a viewer, needs to keep watching, and needs to keep seeing relevant advertisements.
Note that content creators are only indirectly relevant. Doesn’t matter who produces something, or what the quality is, as long as it keeps you watching. And those crappy 3D generated cars do exactly that: keep your kid glued to the advertisements.
YouTube doesn’t care about content creators directly, and it doesn’t care about your child’s mental health directly. Caring goes only so far as wanting you to not forbid your kid to watch YouTube. So, Google tries to filter out category six, the nasty stuff, but that’s it. Google doing manual moderation of content would work best, of course, but given how much is uploaded to YouTube every minute, it’s just not a viable option.
This is really the bane of all the disruptive tech, the Ubers, Airbnbs, and YouTubes of the world. There is no human-moderated system for any of them, leading to rapes in Ubers, fraud on airbnb, and YouTube being filled with hoaxes and crap while honest creators get boned. And yeah, you as a parent get screwed as well. Because the disruption of the 4th industrial revolution is starting to show its key weakness: moderation doesn’t scale.
YouTube for Kids
Oh, but wait, there’s an alternative! YouTube for Kids. Google’s answer to all my woes… Sort of. Not.
YouTube for Kids allows parents to set age limits and control what their kids see. Awesome! Too bad YouTube is still relying on that same AI-based moderation, because it doesn’t work for shit.
I tried YouTube Kids. Putting on the age limits resulted in not being able to Come Play With Me, or the Dutch 40-years-running-children’s-go-to song sensation ‘Kinderen Voor Kinderen‘.
That wasn’t gonna fly with my daughter. So, maybe the parent-moderated setting would work. I could just whitelist what I wanted. Interestingly, it did not work that way. I could only add two Come Play With Me episodes and most of Kinderen voor Kinderen was just missing. I feel that if I whitelist a channel, YouTube should respect my decision, but no. For some reason YouTube for Kids seems to think its algorithms know better what is suitable for my child.
So, yeah, I put YouTube Kids aside for now. And maybe that’s what Google wants. To be able to say it can protect children, while most parents are forced to circumvent this protection and still show the full YouTube offering. Raking in more cash for Google in the process.
Screw YouTube. I hate it for making it difficult for me to manage my child’s viewing habits. I hate it for the nightmare I see ahead of me when my daughter is a teenager.
But heck, YouTube also gave us infinite cat videos. I still love you YouTube, and still watch you a lot. And hate you…
I feel dirty.