Cover photo from TubeFilter.
YouTube, the world’s largest video-sharing platform, receives an estimated one billion unique visitors each month—that’s almost 3 times the amount of visitors to Netflix, Vimeo, and Hulu combined.
While YouTube’s popularity doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon, a recent phenomenon is making many people question the safety of this giant video platform, especially for kids.
The wave of disturbing content found on “kid-friendly” YouTube channels
On average, humans around the world collectively watch one billion hours of video on YouTube each day, and children have become one of the biggest drivers of YouTube viewing in recent years. This led to the development of YouTube Kids—an app that provides a “safe” version of their services curated with content geared toward younger audiences.
But as recent events have suggested, even a supposedly secure space isn’t fully protected from the dark sides of the internet. Kids barely old enough to walk can easily navigate a cell phone or tablet, and all they have to do is click on an innocent-looking thumbnail or title to enter a world of disturbing content.
In growing numbers, creators of kid-targeted content are sneaking in explicit and disturbing scenarios and scenes. This bizarre but concerning issue is made worse because these videos combine what kids find attractive with what YouTube is likely to promote to its viewers, deceiving both kids and parents alike.
YouTube doesn’t allow pornographic content, according to their guidelines, so what do these videos promote that’s so concerning?
These videos feature creepy, live-action dress up or low-budget animation of violent and/or sexual scenes, glamorized by a child’s favorite animated character—like Spiderman, Mickey Mouse, Hulk, or Frozen’s Elsa and Anna.
The characters eventually engage in bizarre, disturbing behavior: urinating or defecating on each other, chopping off fingers, being stuck with needles, getting kidnapped or buried alive, being groped, cannibalism, dismemberment, murder, incest, bondage, sexual assault, drug abuse, cheating on spouses, and a variety of pornographic sexual acts—like the characters performing sexual acts on each other or children performing sexual acts on older men. There have been reports of suicide instructions being inserted in some kids’ videos, too.
In other words, this is more intense stuff than would normally appear in kid-friendly videos.
For example, one popular video features Frozen sisters Anna and Elsa having their clothes torn off by Spiderman. Another titled “Spiderman Watching Under Anna’s Skirt!” received over one million views.
These videos are understandably traumatizing for children on a massive scale. Most have been viewed hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of times.
There’s also been a pattern of predators leaving sexual comments on YouTube videos of children.
What makes kids the perfect target?
Who or what is behind all of this content? The fact that countless videos are out there and ready for consumption by any unsuspecting kid can be a lot to process. But take a minute to consider why these videos might be used specifically to target children.
The content kids—and humans in general—consume undoubtedly helps shape their perception of the world, what’s acceptable or healthy in society, and their own sexual templates.
We may not know exactly why the trend of including upsetting and explicit scenarios in these videos is spreading, though it’s clear that content like this can be used as a way to groom kids, get them hooked on what they’re watching, seek out more hardcore and explicit versions, and normalize or even imitate the behavior.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility to consider how these videos can normalize degrading and humiliating acts that are so popular in mainstream hardcore porn today.
After all, by exposing children to explicit content early and fostering their continued porn consumption throughout teen years, the porn industry can create a lifetime customer by the time they reach adulthood. There’s no evidence to suggest the porn industry is behind all of these videos, while it doesn’t hurt that it can pave the way for kids to be interested in their product.
YouTube’s response to kid-targeted, explicit content
YouTube has said they’ve taken steps to remove inappropriate content after receiving backlash from the public, and from several major YouTube advertisers who pulled their ads following this unsettling discovery of child exploitation on their platform.
In 2017, YouTube confirmed that it had terminated over 270 accounts, removed 150,000 videos, and turned off comments on over 625,000 videos targeted by child predators. They also removed ads from almost 2 million videos and over 50,000 channels masquerading as family-friendly content.
In December of 2017, Malik Ducard, YouTube’s Global Head of Family and Learning, shared an open letter about this issue. Here’s what it said, in part:
“Content masquerading as family-friendly on YouTube, a small amount of which has appeared in YouTube Kids, is an issue that we have been deeply focused on. Let me be clear in stating that content that deceives or harms families is absolutely unacceptable and to combat this content we needed to take significant action. We have clear policies against these videos and we enforce them aggressively,” he wrote. “While we can’t talk with everyone, we are actively engaged with creators, educators, family experts, trusted partners and flaggers, influencers and more to get this constantly evolving landscape right, and will continue to expand that effort.”
This was clearly over a year ago—and the issue is still present today even despite the other steps they’ve taken. So what can we do? Clearly, relying on YouTube to make changes isn’t a solid first option.
While these efforts by YouTube aren’t dismissible, there seems to be a much bigger underlying problem. The high volume of explicit or disturbing videos packaged as “kid-friendly” found on their site proves that YouTube’s algorithms—among the most sophisticated in the world—aren’t 100% effective at protecting children.
Removing or filtering content clearly isn’t a full-proof solution. The best solution? Parents being aware, proactive, and involved in what their kids are consuming.
Is there a solution?
The prevalence of this type of content even across seemingly “safe” platforms reiterates the importance of having conversations with kids about porn.
While monitoring what kids do online is important, honest, ongoing, and open communication and education are essential and empower kids to consider and identify harmful content.
Discussing the harmful effects of pornography and the risk of exposure to it on a wide variety of social media platforms may not be an easy conversation to have, but you don’t have to do it alone.