YouTube’s long overdue prank policy doesn’t do enough to protect kids

On January 16, 2019, YouTube released new guidelines for what type of challenge and prank videos it would allow on the site. While early reporting linked these new policies to the recent trend of Bird Box challenge videos, YouTube clarified that this change has been in the works for months and is “mainly concerned with videos that show children either hurt or in dangerous situations.”

If you dig into the FAQ about this policy update, you’ll find some explicit examples of the types of videos YouTube is targeting with this increase in enforcement:

We also don’t allow pranks that cause children to experience severe emotional distress, meaning something so bad that it could leave the child traumatized for life. We’ve worked directly with child psychologists to develop guidelines around the types of pranks that cross this line. Examples include the fake death of a parent, severe abandonment, or shaming for mistakes.

The “shaming for mistakes” example in particular calls to mind the DaddyOFive saga from 2017, making it clear that these guidelines are long overdue. While it’s laudable that YouTube is finally cracking down on videos that unequivocally traumatize children, this is just the tip of the iceberg of problematic YouTube content made for or with children. Here are a few steps YouTube could take to make the platform safer for kids.

Stop enabling Jimmy Kimmel’s cruel pranks

YouTube’s FAQ also namedrops Jimmy Kimmel’s Terrible Christmas Presents prank, which encourages parents to give their children a terrible gift, film their emotional distress, and upload it for the world to laugh at. But since this prank just causes emotional distress and not severe emotional distress, it’s held up as “beloved” instead of banned. The same goes for Kimmel’s similarly structured Halloween Candy and Fortnite pranks, which have collectively garnered hundreds of millions of views (and earned Kimmel and YouTube hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad revenue).

Kimmel is so confident in YouTube’s continued support for his pranks that he made a skit addressing the recent shift in policy.

But child psychologists have been speaking out against Kimmel’s pranks for years. Seth Meyers Psy.D. argues that young children do not have the mental capacity to understand the humor of these pranks, because their brains have not fully developed yet. He even gives straightforward guidance “under the age of 10 years, this prank should be avoided.” Meg van Achterberg points out “the children in the clips — most of whom appear to be between 3 and 7 years old — are reacting not so much to the temporary loss of candy but to a sense of betrayal that will linger long after their parents own up to the joke.” But it’s all just harmless fun, right? ”’Pranking your own children is not harmless fun, but is cruel and potentially damaging,” says Mark Barnett, Ph.D.

Just so we’re clear: Kimmel and YouTube are profiting off of encouraging parents to deceive children who are often developmentally incapable of understanding the humor of the pranks played on them. This is unethical.

One could also argue that these videos violate YouTube’s policies. YouTube’s Child Safety guidelines state that creators should “make sure [a minor’s] participation in your video is voluntary.” I highly doubt every parent pranking their child on Kimmel’s orders had a frank conversation with their child about whether they were comfortable having their emotional distress immortalized on YouTube (and probably not even getting a cut of the profit). Is a 5-year-old really capable of giving informed consent in this situation? In fact, these pranks sound a lot more like YouTube’s examples of content banned for bullying or harassment:

Maliciously recording someone without their consent
Deliberately posting content in order to humiliate someone

Do I expect YouTube to suddenly switch course and take down Kimmel’s child prank videos during the two month grace period for pranks that violate their new policies? Of course not, the incentives are all stacked against it and YouTube is notoriously slow to act even when their incentives are aligned with ethics.

Create Coogan accounts for all child performers on YouTube

Coogan accounts are one of the few safeguards in place to ensure that child performers’ earnings aren’t wasted by their parents. In the four states that require these accounts, 15% of a child performer’s earnings are withheld by the employer and placed directly into a trust account. While this works well in the traditional entertainment industry, where there are unions and permits and oversight, YouTube is another matter entirely.

To quote from Rachel Dunphy’s excellent article, The Dark Side of YouTube Family Vlogging:

This arrangement — in which advertisers pay YouTube, and creators are essentially commissioned — exists outside of the traditional rules for which both labor laws and advertising regulations were written, and this loophole has spawned a gaping chasm, which no one wants to take the responsibility to close.

While high-profile YouTube child stars like Ryan of Ryan ToysReview are on the record as having Coogan accounts, most of the child performers on YouTube are totally are the mercy of their parents to manage their finances responsibly.

If YouTube was truly dedicated to protecting the millions of underage performers on their platform, they could split AdSense payments for channels with child stars to multiple accounts. They could require that those channels provide proof that all children involved in production have Coogan accounts as part of the application to the Partner Program.

Taking this a step further into restorative justice, YouTube could also retroactively ensure that all the kids featured in their biggest viral hits received a fair share of the profits. David of David After Dentist is almost 18, is any of the $150,000 his dad made left for him?

To be clear, it is not YouTube’s legal responsibility to fund Coogan accounts, even in states where they are required. This is a moral responsibility. It is highly unlikely that YouTube would ever pursue this course of action unless a new national law was passed that closed the loopholes and held platforms like YouTube accountable for protecting the children earning them millions of dollars. The oldest members of Generation Z are starting to reach voting age — don’t be surprised when they rally around this issue.

Make YouTube Kids a safe place for kids

YouTube Kids is a mess.

If you missed James Bridle’s exposé on the horrors of kid’s content on YouTube (and more broadly the problems of algorithmic approaches to content) go read it now. It is the best explanation of the structural issues that make YouTube Kids a mess. Since the article went viral in November 2017, YouTube purged the most horrific content and launched new controls in the YouTube Kids app, but truly awful content still finds its way onto the platform and gets millions of views.

The absurdly defensive language of the YouTube Kids FAQ makes it clear that YouTube has no interest in taking any responsibility for the safety or integrity of the app.

Our automated systems select content from the broader universe of videos on YouTube. We work hard to exclude content that’s not suitable for kids, but we can’t manually review all videos and no automated system is perfect.

YouTube could in fact manually review all videos that go on YouTube Kids, they would just have to make significant changes to process and infrastructure that they don’t want to make. If no automated system is perfect, then maybe they should stop using an automated system and commit to policing YouTube Kids so that parents (and advertisers) know that it’s a truly safe environment.

YouTube Kids could even offload the costs of manual review to creators who want to be on the platform. As the owner of a business that produces videos that are generally consumed by children, I would absolutely pay $100 per hour of content to have my videos reviewed for inclusion in a premium YouTube Kids app that is guaranteed to be child-friendly. I know this because I already pay to have my YouTube content re-edited for distribution on other kids apps like Epic! and JAM. These apps have much stricter guidelines for what content is allowed on their platforms and I am happy to go through the review process, because I know it means my content is in good company. (I also get a better return on investment in the long run on these platforms than I do from YouTube).

I’m sure advertisers would also pay a premium to reach kids in a safe app where all content is manually reviewed to be kid-safe. While YouTube has made visible progress wooing back advertisers like AT&T by implementing new brand safety features in the two years following the adpocalypse, there has been no visible progress in winning back the advertisers who left in the aftermath of Bridle’s article. While the demonetization adpocalypse garnered a lot of attention from journalists and was the subject of many vlogs and analyses, the YouTube Kids adpocalypse was a much quieter adpocalypse.

My channel’s CPM dropped by about 40% in the aftermath of Bridle’s article and shows no signs of recovering. I’ve heard privately from other kids and family creators that they saw similar hits in the same time frame. This loss of revenue directly led to me downsizing my company from two full-time employees to 1 barely part-time employee and going from 2–3 videos per week down to 1 video in the last 6 months. Kids creators are more reliant on ad revenue and less able to leverage sponsorships and fan funding sources like Patreon. When conscientious content creators are impacted like this and the algorithmic garbage content is still allowed to proliferate (and profit), kids content on YouTube gets that much worse.

Short of instituting manual review, YouTube could roll out some kind of self-certification program for YouTube Kids similar to SafeFam. This could pair with the monetization self-certification they have been rolling out. But there’s been no indication YouTube has anything in mind like this for YouTube Kids.

I’m hugely pessimistic about YouTube’s likelihood to address the issues with YouTube Kids. Despite their claim that YouTube Kids was “built from the ground up to be a fun, family-friendly place for kids and families,” it is clearly just a reactive COPPA CYA move rather than an experience designed with child safety in mind. YouTube knows that a huge percentage of the audience using YouTube is under the age of 13, but they cannot legally acknowledge that. YouTube Kids was a band-aid solution that makes their collection of children’s data legally defensible.

What do you think? Will YouTube ever be a safe place for kids? Or will children’s concerns continue to be an afterthought for the media platform is the number one destination for Generation Z?