2017 woke parents to the wonders and horrors of streaming video

Do you know what your children are watching?
Do you know what your children are watching?
Image: Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
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Streaming video exploded in 2017. Netflix surpassed 100 million subscribers. YouTube’s 1.5 billion users watched 1 billion hours of video per day. None of that made it easier to be a parent.

As these platforms grew, they paid closer attention to their littlest viewers. They knew if children were the future, they were also the future of TV. Disney announced it would launch a streaming service for kids and families in 2019. Netflix and Amazon added more programming for young viewers. YouTube grew its two-year old app for kids. And even HBO, which trumpets sex, violence, and profanity-laden shows like The Sopranos, The Deuce, and Game of Thrones, started airing the wholesome kids classic Sesame Street.

In many ways, it’s great for parents. These services are cheaper than cable or satellite TV, and in some cases, they’re free. They have endless hours of quality, family-friendly programming to keep kids occupied. Parental controls make it easier to sit kids in front of the TV without worrying about what they might stumble upon. And some of these services offer a reprieve from the commercials that dominate TV.

But there’s a dark side that became more apparent in 2017.

Most alarmingly, the New York Times revealed (paywall) in November that YouTube videos of popular children’s characters, like Elsa from Frozen and Marvel’s Spider-Man, dying tragically, urinating on one another, or doing other inappropriate and disturbing things were finding their way into YouTube Kids—the app that was supposed to be safer for children.

In light of the discovery, YouTube hired more humans to manually review the videos. It began age-restricting flagged videos on the main YouTube site that appeared as family content but contained adult themes, so that only people over 18 could view them. This automatically prohibits them from appearing on YouTube Kids. It began removing ads from and blocking inappropriate comments on videos that appeared to abuse the platform or exploit children. It will also be issuing guidelines for creators of children’s contents, among other efforts.

It was too little too late for some parents.

The kids app is populated by videos submitted to the main YouTube site that have been filtered by algorithms and machine learning and deemed kid friendly. The platform, which has been around since 2015, warns parents that it does not manually check every video and that “it’s possible your child may find something you don’t want them to watch” at signup. It relies on users—especially parents—to report videos they find inappropriate. Real people at YouTube then manually review the videos. Less than .005 % of the millions of videos viewed in the app were removed for being inappropriate in the 30 days ahead of the Times Nov. 4 exposé, the publication reported. The company has not updated this stat since.

It also has parental controls where parents can create individual profiles for their children that will filter content based on their ages. Parents can disable search, block channels and videos, set timers for how long each child can watch, and stop the app from using viewing and search history to recommend videos.

“Our team is made up of parents who are deeply committed to bringing enriching and entertaining content to families around the world,” a YouTube spokesperson told Quartz. “We use a combination of machine learning, algorithms, and community flagging to determine content in the YouTube Kids app. We’re committed to getting this right and are increasing resources to make the app better for families every day.”

But some family advocates argue the whole approach is flawed. Some kids may be watching on handheld tablets or smartphones that make it harder for parents to police minute by minute. Children can’t be relied on to report the videos themselves. And YouTube is operating on too big a scale to catch every inappropriate video that may slip through.

A whopping 400 hours of video are reportedly uploaded to the main YouTube site every minute, and can be from anyone, including the average person with a camera and internet access. Since launch, the YouTube Kids app has had more than 70 billion views and over 11 million weekly active viewers.

“Community flagging doesn’t work when it comes to children,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, which has filed complaints with Federal Trade Commission about YouTube Kids. He argues that the videos should be curated by humans. “Let’s change what YouTube Kids is. … The platforms that are safer are going to the be ones with many fewer videos. Kids don’t need 20,000 surprise egg videos anyway.” 

Golin was referring to the trope of videos featuring people opening foil-wrapped Kinder eggs with surprise toys inside. They’re similar to the “unboxing” videos of kids and adults opening up and playing with the latest toys that have become a pain point for parents, whose children then beg them for said toys. Some parents only let their kids watch YouTube with supervision because of this kind of content.

“I won’t let her watch YouTube Kids alone because the content can be bizarre,” said Tara Laishley, a US mother with an 8-year-old daughter. “She also likes watching ‘unboxing’ of toys and kids playing with dolls. I don’t get it.”

Some of that “bizarre” content might include videos of adults acting like children, or weird, unofficial mashups of popular children’s characters, as detailed in a Medium post in November. They’re not inappropriate. But they aren’t necessarily what parents want their kids watching either.

New platforms, like Jellies, are cropping up to help solve these problems for parents. The app, which costs $4.99 a month to subscribe to, has positioned itself as a safer version of YouTube Kids, where all the videos are curated by real people and there are no ads or overtly commercial videos, like unboxing clips.

But there are so many streaming services out there that it can be hard for parents to keep up with them all.

“What hopefully will happen, in response to what’s happening with YouTube Kids, is an alternative will pop up and that will be sufficient for young children,” said Golin.

For now, parents like Laishley prefer trusted sources like Netflix and PBS Kids.

Netflix’s children’s content can be walled off so that kids can roam the platform freely without encountering titles their parents might not want them to watch. The same is true for Amazon Video, which licenses popular PBS Kids shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Caillou for its Prime Video subscription service. The content on both these platforms is more akin to what you’d find on traditional TV in that it’s primarily from established studios and production companies like DreamWorks Animation, Scholastic, and Disney. It’s not uploaded by users.

Both Netflix and Amazon have been investing more in children’s programming, as well. Of the 400 or so original series, movies, and specials that Netflix announced by June, 60 of them—about 15%—were kids programs, Quartz previously reported, based on data from Netflix’s website. Nearly one-third of those kids programs were newly launched or coming to the service soon. And Netflix is experimenting with choose-your-own-adventure style video and other interactive programming to make the shows more exciting for kids and parents. The company said more than half of its subscribers around the world watch kids and family programming on a monthly basis.

Netflix spent about $6 billion on content this year. It’s unclear how much of that budget when toward kids’s programming. The streaming-video platform said in early 2016 that it would double the number of family-friendly (paywall) original series over the next year, to 35 shows.

Amazon, which started making its own kids shows in 2014, has also been loading up on kids content. Originals aimed at young viewers have become a bigger part of its content strategy as it looks for more shows with global appeal. As with its adult programming, Amazon has turned toward progressive shows for young viewers that serve underrepresented audiences, such as Danger & Eggs, which is set in a town where a trans woman is mayor, and Annedroids, a series that promotes STEM interests among young girls.

As an added bonus, these platforms don’t have commercials. Exstreamist estimated that Netflix alone saves kids from watching more than nine days of commercials per year.

Last year, YouTube rolled the Kids app into its ad-free subscription-streaming service YouTube Red, so parents have the option of streaming YouTube without the ads.

There is a downside to these subscription services, though. They make TV so easy to watch that kids can lose hours in front of a screen without realizing it. (Adults can attest to this, too.) Kids under the age of 9 spent an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes a day in front of screens this year, up from 1 hour and 55 minutes in 2013, Common Sense Media estimated (pdf), based on a survey of US parents. That wasn’t drastically different from the 2 hours and 15 minutes spent in 2011, but most of the time then came from TV and DVDs. Now, 35% of that time, or 48 minutes per day, comes from mobile devices, which makes it harder to monitor what kids are seeing and doing.

In another survey, conducted by Gallup, US parents reported that their children spent nearly 19 hours per week in front of screens—more than twice the recommended amount of media time, Quartz reported.

There’s a small subset of US parents who are bucking this trend, Stephen Balkam, head of the Family Online Safety Institute, told Quartz. Anecdotally, he said he’s hearing from more parents who are waiting until their kids are teens to buy them their own smartphones. There’s a movement in the US called Wait Until 8th—the grade when many children turn 13—which offers resources to parents who want to hold off on buying that first smartphone. More than 6,400 parents across the 50 states have pledged to delay smartphones for their children until at least 8th grade on the site, according to the organization.

“There’s a significant minority of parents who are putting off tech to a later date,” Balkam said. 

In the end, whether it’s watching YouTube with your kid, or holding off on buying them a cellphone, there seems to be no substitute for good parenting when it comes to streaming video. Balkam recommends talking to kids early and often about what they’re watching and where they’re watching it.

He also said parents should set the example. “Be a good digital role model yourself,” Balkam said. “Parents, put your phones down at dinner. Shut your laptop when your kid comes to cuddle on the couch. Because that’s the number one thing we hear from kids, by the way, that parents are too distracted.”