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What are young children watching on YouTube while their parents cook dinner, drive or work from home? A lot of advertising and very little educational content, a new study finds.
Some 95 percent of videos aimed at children ages eight and younger on YouTube contain ads, and many of those are hawking products for a much older audience, including whiskey, lingerie and violent video games, according to a joint study by Common Sense Media and researchers at the University of Michigan.
More than half of these early childhood videos contained up to two ads, while a third contained three or more ads – and 20 percent of those commercials contained content not suitable for children, including violence, sexuality, drugs or alcohol.
Children under the age of eight now watch an average of 39 minutes of online videos per day, double what they did in 2017, according to Common Sense Media’s 2020 census.
Screen time is also starkly divided along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Children from low-income households spend an average of two more hours per day with screen media than their higher-income peers, and on average, children of colour watch more screen media than white children do. Those disparities have continued to widen, according to Common Sense Media data.
All of that screen time means more exposure to advertisements, and researchers also found that their design was problematic. Banner ads blocked educational content, sidebars were designed to look like recommended video suggestions and some ads for video games showed “doctored versions” of popular children’s characters like Peppa Pig in an effort to get kids to click.
The report, titled Young Kids and YouTube: How Ads, Toys and Games Dominate Viewing, analysed more than 1,600 YouTube videos gathered from 191 parents and their kids aged eight or younger.
The videos in the study were streamed earlier this year on YouTube’s main site, rather than YouTube Kids, due to the high number of families who use the platform’s main site.
As the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools and forced parents to work from home and take care of small children, many have found themselves handing their kids their smartphones or popping YouTube videos on the TV to get work done.
But inappropriate ads appeared between 9 and 22 percent of the time in videos that were otherwise geared towards and deemed appropriate for young children.
Over a quarter of videos viewed by young kids contained ads that were targeted at older audiences, such as gaming videos with age-inappropriate games like Fortnite, reality vlogs with pranks and crude behaviour, and music videos or compilations that contained violence.
Some 30 percent of videos contained at least mild physical violence, the study found.
“In our study, most children were watching the videos with branded products or outrageous content that creators have posted to get more views, which leads to more ad revenue and getting featured in recommendation feeds,” the report’s co-author, Jenny Radesky, a researcher at the University of Michigan, said in a statement.
“Although great content for kids exists on YouTube, it’s not rising to the top,” she added.
Last year, YouTube and its parent company, Google, agreed to pay a record $170m fine to settle allegations by the United States Federal Trade Commission that it broke the law by collecting data on kids under 13 without the consent of their parents. That data was then used to curate ads.
After the settlement was reached, YouTube said it would limit data collection on kids’ videos “only to what is needed to support the operation of the service” and require content creators to label videos as made for kids or not.
But the report says there is more that YouTube could do to protect kids, such as moving all content directed at children from its main site to YouTube Kids “to ensure that ads are age-appropriate, and parents have more control over how to curate their child’s feed.”
The report also suggests that YouTube work with content creators to improve the quality of videos produced for children and develop metrics to evaluate them.