YouTube is easily the most popular video site, with an estimated 300 hours of content being uploaded every minute. Obviously, this incredible amount of content 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 read 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.
A much better choice is to use the YouTube Kids app for Android and iOS. This obviously rules out using it on a Windows laptop or PC, but most people have a compatible phone or tablet.
Is YouTube Kids safe?
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.
But as with any automated system, it isn't perfect. Reports started appearing from concerned parents about videos in 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.
YouTube has now posted an update on its blog which addresses some of these concerns and explains the new features which will help to avoid kids seeing anything inappropriate in the app.
First, there are now human-curated collections which are divided up into various categories such as Gaming, Learning, Music, Sesame Street. You can enable or disable any of these collections to limit what your kids can watch:
If you enable the 'Approved content only' then search will be disabled and content limited to only the collections you have selected.
Later this year another new feature will be added that will allow parents to cherry-pick every video and channel, giving even more control over what they can watch.
YouTube is also working on improving the algorithms that determine what should be available in the app if you choose not to restrict content to only certain collections and channels.
Many of the aforementioned offending videos have already been removed and the channels that created and shared them have been shut down.
Allowing your kids to watch videos 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. And if you're wondering if you should allow them to use social media, see Is Facebook safe for kids?