Parents in Utah and all over the country say they no longer know whether to trust YouTube Kids after a scandal becoming known widely as “Elsagate.”
The YouTube Kids app was introduced in early 2015 and has been a staple of the online entertainment world for parents. The stripped down version of the tech giant Google’s online video platform pulls in billions of views and is supposed to be a safer place for kids to find videos of their favorite toy reviewer or catch up on some Peppa the Pig.
The site is supposed to do a better job of filtering content for their target audience of children than YouTube’s main application, and the algorithm serves the videos that kids can’t get enough of.
Take this video from the wildly popular Ryan ToysReview (9.4 million subscribers) posted on Monday, for example. It has already pulled in well over 1 million views.
But there’s a darker side to the brightly colored thumbnails and poorly drawn cartoons. Children have been stumbling into some highly inappropriate material.
In June of 2017, a moderator of a small community on the social media site Reddit who goes by the name TheLocalGamer sounded the alarm on something that he felt more people needed to know about.
The title of his post was right to the point: “I think it’s time more people knew about Elsagate.”
“If you go on some YouTube channels like SimpleFuns, the videos that are supposedly for young children (2-5 years old) show very suggestive content that very few parents would approve of,” he said, describing the inappropriate things he found after some digging into some popular YouTube channels that contained inappropriate content.
The content ranged from ranged from the nonsensical to videos depicting sexualized children’s characters, kids eating feces, committing self harm, underage drinking, as well as death and dismemberment.
“The worst part,” TheLocalGamer said, “most of these videos make it past the YouTube suggestive filter. That means that even with the child-friendly YouTube Kids app, very young children could be exposed to this.”
This was the beginning of the subreddit r/ElsaGate that now has an active community of over 57,000 subscribers that go to the site and post videos that they’ve found on the online video platform that contains some of the inappropriate content to draw attention to the problem and help each other report this content to YouTube.
In a report from CNN Tuesday, pediatrician Free Hess said that the first time she was alerted to these videos was in July when another mom told her about a cartoon video that she found that her son was watching where a man in sunglasses appeared in the middle telling children about how to slit their wrists.
“It makes me angry and sad and frustrated,” Hess told CNN. “I’m a pediatrician, and I’m seeing more and more kids coming in with self-harm and suicide attempts. I don’t doubt that social media and things such as this is contributing.”
Hess also told CNN that YouTube is quicker about making sure that these kinds of videos are pulled from its Kids platform than the regular YouTube site, but adds, “Once someone reports it, it’s too late because a kid has already seen it,” she said.
Elsagate caught national attention in late 2017 when The New York Times ran an article that told the story of an Indiana family that had an encounter with these disturbing videos slipping past the filter.
Staci Burns told the Times about a night when she was cooking dinner when her 3-year-old son told her about a monster that was scaring him.
When she walked over she found her son watching a 10-minute clip (now removed from the site) titled, “PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized,” that showed a crude animation intimidating the popular Nickelodeon show where the characters were screaming in a flaming car that had crashed into a light pole.
In a conversation with The Verge, one of the moderators of the r/ElsaGate subreddit said “It’s very difficult to draw that line.” User Lfodder said, “We don’t want to make any association with wild speculations that might discredit the movement.”
He says that they’re trying hard to make sure that they’re spreading the word without the exaggerating the threat or sparking any physical action.
Many of these videos are found and watched by children because they are suggested by the site and generally autoplay at the end of a video, and since the kids being targeted are usually too young to type, Lfodder says, these videos continue to play.
YouTube has created a system to try and help parents, allowing parents to curate the content that their kids can see based on a profile that you create.
YouTube provides the options to parents when signing up to “allow your child to explore YouTube Kids. Our automated systems select content from the broader universe of videos on YouTube Kids,” they say.
The other option limits the channels that kids can access to those channels That YouTube has verified and also disables the search function.
“We work hard to exclude content that’s not suitable for kids, but we can’t manually review all videos,” they go on to say and then ask for parents help in finding inappropriate videos.
“If you find something inappropriate that we missed,” they say, “you can report it for fast review.”
In a blog post by CEO Susan Wojcicki talked about the YouTube platform can be a “force for creativity, learning and access to information,” but said too that she has seen how, “bad actors are exploiting our openness to mislead, manipulate, harass or even harm.”
One of the ways that she says YouTube is trying to get ahead of this problem and others the site has seen is to hire thousands more manual human reviewers.
Social media is here to stay, and the American Academy of Pediatrics says that the risk that social media poses to children can be bigger than parents realize.
“Most risks fall into the following categories: peer-to-peer; inappropriate content; lack of understanding of online privacy issues; and outside influences of third-party advertising groups,” the organization says.
But doctors say that there are plenty of benefits that are associated with spending appropriate amounts of time on social media that include the opportunity to communicate and develop their creativity, grow ideas and learn from others with diverse backgrounds and foster unique social skills.
One of the best things that you can do to help protect your kids from coming across these videos online and other harmful things is to make sure that you are supervising their time online.
Greatschools.org says the mentality of “‘Do as I say, not as I do’ just doesn’t work when it comes to technology. If your face is pasted to an electronic screen most of the time, your impressionable offspring will consider that normal — and do the same.”
Other experts advise to:
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