Why Children's Fondness for YouTube Puts It at Risk

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The majority of parents whose children watch YouTube say their children have seen disturbing content on the site.

The majority of parents whose children watch YouTube say their children have seen disturbing content on the site.


Photo:

dado ruvic/Reuters

A new survey shows YouTube is hugely popular among families with young children. That could be a problem for YouTube.

Amid concern from children’s advocacy groups that the Google-owned video website is profiting from advertisements targeted at minors, the survey from the Pew Research Center shows that more than four out of five parents with children 11 and younger have given them permission to watch a YouTube video. More than one-third of those parents let their children watch videos on the site regularly, according to the results of the survey published Wednesday.

The survey also showed that the majority of parents whose children watch YouTube say their children have seen disturbing content on the site.

The findings could lend support to a group of consumer-rights and children’s privacy advocates that filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in April, accusing Google of knowingly collecting data from underage YouTube viewers for the purpose of targeting ads. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 makes it illegal for businesses to collect information from minors under 13 without getting explicit consent from their parents.

In response to the complaint, Google has said it doesn’t allow anyone under 13 to create an account on YouTube, and when it finds children who have violated that policy it kicks them off the site. The company also offers YouTube Kids, a child-friendly video app that doesn’t collect data on minors.

“Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us,” a YouTube spokeswoman said in a written statement. “Because YouTube is not for children, we’ve invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children.”

YouTube Youth

According to a new survey, most parents with children under age 11 say they let their young ones watch YouTube.

Children allowed to watch

34%

Regularly

47

On occasion

19

Never

Encountered unsuitable content for children

61%

Have

37

Have not

No answer (2)

Source: Pew Research Center survey of 4,594 U.S. adults surveyed from May 29 to June 11, 2018. Margin of error of +/– 2.4 percentage points.

Pew’s survey questions focused on parents who knowingly give their children permission to watch YouTube. The researcher didn’t specifically ask about the YouTube Kids app. The results were based on a nationally representative survey of more than 4,500 U.S. adults, Pew said.

Even if minors are logging into the app with the knowledge of their parents, YouTube is breaking the law by collecting data such as the geolocation of those users, said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, one of the groups that filed the FTC complaint.

In a letter to Google in September, Reps. David Cicilline (D.-R.I.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R.-Neb.) pressed the company to share information about how many children are watching YouTube. Google wrote back last month, saying it doesn’t have age information indicating any YouTube users are under 13.

“They are acting as if everyone who used YouTube is over 13, so [The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act] doesn’t apply,” Mr. Cicilline said in an interview. “It just defies reality the notion that kids don’t use it.”

A spokeswoman for the FTC confirmed that the agency received the YouTube complaint, but declined to say whether it was reviewing the matter.

Popular children’s content on YouTube includes cartoons and toy “unboxing” videos, and clips that are directed toward children are typically grouped together under the Parenting and Family section of the site. However, a universe of more mature content is one click away. Among parents who let their young ones watch YouTube, 61% said their child has encountered videos that were unsuitable for children, Pew said.

For adults, YouTube is increasingly used for more than just entertainment. Pew found that about one in five YouTube users, or about 13% of the total population of U.S. adults, rely on the site to understand news and current events.

The growing prevalence of news content on YouTube has put pressure on the company to filter out false information and hateful content. More than two-thirds of users say they encounter videos that “seem obviously false or untrue,” while 60% say they have seen videos of “people engaged in dangerous or troubling behavior.”

In its analysis of all YouTube users, the researchers found 81% said they at least occasionally watched the videos the site recommends after they finish watching the first video—a trend that suggests the power of the YouTube algorithm.

The researchers also found a surprising trend with this algorithm. According to Pew, each video YouTube recommends tends to be slightly longer in length than the last video a user watched. The average video watched on YouTube is 9 minutes, 31 seconds, while the second video users watch tends to be 12 minutes, 18 seconds, and gets longer after that.

Write to Douglas MacMillan at douglas.macmillan@wsj.com