Kids and TechJul 04, 2019

In the News: What the FTC YouTube Investigation Could Mean for Kids Online Privacy

In the News: What the FTC YouTube Investigation Could Mean for Kids Online Privacy

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating the streaming platform for potential child privacy concerns—here’s what parents need to know.

Take a glance around at an airport, family restaurant or shopping mall, and you’ll probably see an excited kid enjoying a video on a device. And more than likely, it’s a YouTube video. That’s because YouTube is the number one platform for kids 6–12. Even YouTube Kids—ranked the 45th most popular platform for children—can’t compare. Kids just love YouTube, which makes the recent news about a Federal Trade Commission investigation into the platform important news. At the heart of the issue is YouTube’s collection of data, and whether or not they are indeed a platform for children. Below, we explore the background and look at what the news means for families.

Online privacy legislation for children

Ever since April 2000, websites and online platforms targeted towards kids have had to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Before this legislation, online companies were able to collect personal information from minors, and lawmakers worried it could be used for predatory marketing—or even worse—lead to kidnapping or stalking. COPPA put strict regulations in place, and if a site or platform violates them, they could be fined as much as $16,000 USD per affected child!

But COPPA isn’t universal—it only applies to sites and services that are directed towards children, or when companies have “actual knowledge” that kids are users. That means that many platforms—YouTube included—can skirt the regulations by pointing to their 13+ terms of service.

Adult platform, kids content

While they say they’re a platform for adults, many of YouTube’s most popular channels feature content that appeals to children. Think: unboxing videos, cartoons and gameplay of Minecraft. And if you have young kids, you’re probably familiar with ChuChuTV, Ryan ToysReview and Cocomelon—all of which are popular and entertaining channels on the adult YouTube site. Cocomelon alone has more than 51 million subscribers, and Ryan ToysReview pulled in an estimated $11,000,000 USD in ad revenue in 2017. Since the kids content on the platform is so lucrative, there has been little incentive for YouTube to crack down on it. And according to the Washington Post, the fact that kids and preteens are active users on YouTube is something of an “open secret” in the tech industry.

With all this in mind, you might wonder how YouTube can continue to claim they’re not for kids. As it happens, consumer and privacy advocates weren’t buying that claim, and many lodged formal complaints with the FTC. Now, YouTube might find itself in hot water because it tracks personal data and uses advertising algorithms as if it’s a platform not directed at kids.

Facing an FTC investigation

Some parents already had concerns about YouTube—with recommendation engines that skew towards extreme videos, and the potential for kids to click through to inappropriate content. And since the Washington Post reported last week that the FTC launched its investigation, many parents are adding child privacy concerns to the list as well. A potential silver lining? It seems that the investigation has prompted YouTube to engage in some self-reflection: apparently the platform is refining its algorithm to crack down on extreme content, and even briefly considered moving all its kids content to YouTube Kids.

While it’s not clear yet what the outcome of the investigation will be, many in the tech world believe it’s long overdue. And regardless of the results, it seems to have spurred some much-needed internal conversations at YouTube headquarters—welcome news, since the streaming platform is wildly popular for both kids and parents!

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Image Credit: Fizkes / Adobe Stock