This article is part of Watching YouTube, a Slate series about YouTube.
If I know anything about YouTube, it’s that I don’t know half as much about YouTube as most American kids do. The video platform is a vast repository of content meant for—and, often, created by—people who are not old enough to drive. From the innumerable toy-unboxing videos that apparently cater to literal toddlers to the worldwide popularity of the Yodeling Walmart Boy to the many boisterous vloggers whose bewildering moves are tracked by legions of screaming adolescents, it is very clear that YouTube, like the Wu-Tang Clan, is for the children. Who would dispute it?
YouTube, for one. On Monday, the New York Times reported that a group of consumer advocates were set to file a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission alleging that the video platform, which is a subsidiary of Google, had violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The law requires web services to obtain parental permission before collecting identifiable data on users who are under the age of 13. YouTube, according to the complainants, collects that data regardless, toward lucrative ends. The issue with collecting data on children, of course, is that companies like to use that data to send those children targeted advertisements that their young brains might not be equipped to properly evaluate. “To bolster their case, the groups shared screenshots of Barbie advertisements set to appear between videos aimed at children,” the Times reported. “They also pointed to a number of channels for toddlers and preschoolers within ‘Google Preferred,’ a collection of top videos on the main YouTube site and app that are vetted and packaged for advertisers.”
In response, YouTube has adopted the Casablanca defense: It is shocked—shocked!—to find that children are watching videos in this establishment. “YouTube is not for children,” the company told the Times in an emailed statement that went on to tout its kid-friendly YouTube Kids app, which purportedly does not collect data (although it has had its own problems). The platform’s claim rests on a clause in its terms-of-service agreement, which each YouTube user tacitly accepts every time she watches a video or even just loads the website: “In any case, you affirm that you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under 13.”
This statement is flimsy and asinine, and YouTube certainly knows it. The existence of YouTube Kids, a more strictly policed app-based alternative to YouTube, does not in any meaningful sense prevent children from using the main site. To understand that, all you have to do is, well, look at YouTube.
YouTube hosts many, many channels featuring videos by and for children. Consider, for example, the channel Ryan ToysReview, which hosts videos of Ryan—a child—opening and playing with toys alongside his family. This channel has more than 13,000,000 subscribers, and it’s reasonable to presume that many of those subscribers are kids. “Toys Review for kids by a kid! Join Ryan to see him play with toys and review toys for kids!” the channel’s About page says. “Ryan will also love doing fun and easy science experiments for kids!” Clearly, this channel is a channel for kids! This impression is cemented once you watch Ryan’s videos. No one over the age of, say, 9—and 9 is pushing it—would be able to get any real enjoyment or satisfaction from this home-video-caliber clip of Ryan and his family playing a claw-machine game.
Or this hideous clip of Ryan and his family singing about the joys of having two hands:
More than 37 million people have watched that second video, which is one of the worst videos I have ever seen. “Of course you’d think that. You’re an adult. That video isn’t meant for you,” you might reply. And, of course, you are correct. It is meant to be viewed by children (well) under the age of 13 and perhaps by political prisoners under compulsion.
It’s not just the site’s many explicitly kid-centric videos that refute YouTube’s not-for-children claims. The Paul Brothers, Logan and Jake, are two of YouTube’s most successful vloggers. Their videos comply with YouTube’s service terms insofar as they are created and uploaded by adults. But spend any time at all in the Paul brothers’ universe and it becomes abundantly clear that their most passionate fans are all still in grade school. Whenever they go out in public, they are hounded by kids demanding selfies and autographs. The title graphics of their vlogs seem like they were designed by children to catch the attention of children.
So why does YouTube claim that kids under 13 aren’t supposed to use the service? Because it’s much easier for YouTube to say it isn’t its fault if millions of users disregard the terms of service than it is to verify the ages of each of its users. YouTube’s policy puts the onus of compliance on the user, not the service provider. If it were the other way around, YouTube would have to spend significant amounts of time and money weeding out improper and deceptive content. With its current policy, YouTube gets to profit from hosting child-friendly content while also shirking responsibility for the welfare of the children who consume that content. And that’s a great racket if you can get away with it.
YouTube’s approach here certainly isn’t novel. It’s a product of the same cover-your-ass mentality that has governed the entertainment industry’s loose ratings guidelines for decades.
Everyone in Hollywood knows kids watch R-rated movies without being accompanied by a parent or adult guardian, even though kids technically are not supposed to watch R-rated movies without being accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. I watched R-rated movies when I was a kid. I probably lied to my parents and told them I was seeing something else; I probably lied to the guy at the movie theater and said I had my parents’ permission. An R rating is a convenient fiction—a trompe l’oeil barricade that gives the public impression of restricted content while actually leaving countless points of entry for any zit-faced teen who wants to see Lethal Weapon 3.
I’m not a huge “Think of the children!” guy. Just as I doubt that kids suffer irreparable damage by watching R-rated movies, I also doubt that it’s particularly harmful for kids to watch toy-unboxing videos or the Paul brothers. In and of themselves, the individual videos on YouTube are not very different from any finite piece of content that do-gooders think might ruin kids’ minds. The difference is in the platform. YouTube is functionally infinite. When I went to see Lethal Weapon 3, the projectionist didn’t keep tabs on the parts I laughed at so that Cineplex Odeon could develop a consumer profile on my dumb 11-year-old self. Richard Donner also didn’t follow me home afterward so he could keep shoving product placements in my face. (Or did he?!?) YouTube does all of those things, in a manner of speaking. It is a two-way street, and your journey is the advertisers’ destination.
You can’t count on growth-focused businesses to willingly inhibit their growth by regulating themselves, and you shouldn’t count on YouTube and any other digital Gorgon to voluntarily abide by anything more than the most cursory letter of the law. “If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service,” YouTube’s 13-and-under terms-of-service clause concludes, in clear and direct language that seemingly leaves no wiggle room even for children to watch with parental permission. “There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.” How about YouTube? I’ve heard that’s a great one.