You may have stumbled onto some really questionable kids videos on YouTube, or realized that the youthful prankster your tween adores can also be a role model for thoughtless and dangerous behavior.
As a parent, you'll need to become a lot more involved in what your kid watches to make sure they keep off the nasty underbelly of YouTube — even with the Google-owned unit's recent commitment to do a better screening job.
Late last year, after a wave of media reports on how kids could easily stumble across videos that looked innocent — featuring beloved cartoon characters or ABC's — but were really violent or sexually explicit charades, and other reports that exposed how adults were exploiting videos of kids uploaded to the service, YouTube promised to do a better job handling kids content.
In November, it said it turned off comments on 625,000 videos and deleted 150,000 videos that were "targeted by child predators." Then, it announced plans to hire thousands of reviewers to remove inappropriate content and train its computer algorithms to do the same.
Remember that YouTube receives 400 hours of new submitted video every minute, and humans don't curate what's coming in. Google only responds after videos are flagged with complaints, meaning your young person may have seen it long before it's taken down.
A USA TODAY review found dozens of sexualized or violent cartoons that weren't restricted to adults, and that were only taken down or made to require a user give his or her age after the news site notified YouTube of the links.
But parents can act to clean up the YouTube experience at home, with several simple steps.
Go to the Settings section of YouTube (click your icon, top right, and click Settings) and enable the restrictive filter, which Google says will make for a safer, family friendly experience. However, in the past the filter has been accused of going too far, and also blocking out non-sexual videos with lesbian and gay themes.
Disable recommended videos
This is important, because even Google notes that with its endless loop of suggested videos based on your watch history, "sometimes your child may find content in the app that you may not want them to watch." That's what YouTube says in reference to the stand-alone YouTube Kids app (more on that below,) but the issue remains the same for both services. Extensions for the Chrome and Firefox browser are easy to install.
You may be uncomfortable with your kids seeing an endless array of sugared cereal and toy ads with their videos. You can pay YouTube $10 monthly for a subscription to ad-free YouTube Red, or use an ad-blocker. There are many free ones available for the web (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/adguard-adblocker/bgnkhhnnamicmpeenaelnjfhikgbkllg?hl=en) and mobile (check Google Play and Apple's App Store.)
YouTube Kids App
YouTube designed the mobile app as a safer place for kids under 12, and says some 11 million use it monthly. The videos chosen are based on the age of the viewer, but some questionable content has slipped through the cracks. (YouTube says it's less than 1%.) Like with the web YouTube, go to Settings to enable restrictive mode.
On YouTube Kids, unlike regular YouTube, a parent cannot enable restricted mode. Parents can turn off search and give their kids access to a more limited set of videos. Parents can also set up specific profiles for their kids.
You choose the videos your kids watch. That way, you won't fall down a questionable rabbit hole. "Kids use Google and YouTube to get their information," notes Sanjay Arora, the founder of Million Short, which is building a new kids search service. Google and YouTube are driven based on artificial intelligence and machine learning, "and that just doesn't work for keeping kids safe, not in 2017."
On YouTube, it's easy to pull as many as 50, if not more, of parent-approved cartoons into one playlist, a collection that will never be infiltrated by rogue content. To create a playlist, click the + sign underneath a video for "Add to." Click create a playlist, name it, and then start curating content for your kids this way. Create multiple playlists for your kids, and you're now a programmer.
PBS, Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and others have mobile kid apps with professionally produced, curated content. A new one, Jellies, just launched recently, with a $4.99 monthly subscription charge.
YouTube's not for kids. Really.
Finally, remember that despite kids programming being the most popular category on YouTube (four of the top five US channels feature kid content, according to Tubular Labs) YouTube says the channel is for teens and adults only. (Hence, the separate YouTube Kids app.)
"If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service," YouTube says. "There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.”
OK, parents, it's on you.