Last night, a YouTube building in Los Angeles lit up with quotes from parents and educators whose children are being harmed by the company’s addictive features—autoplay and algorithm-driven recommendations. The message from these parents was loud and clear: the half-measures YouTube announced this week to curb how children are harmed on its services are not good enough.
As a part of the first mass-mobilization of parents to end child surveillance, more than 10,000 parents have signed a petition calling on YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to make simple changes to protect kids who use the platform.
"It feels like seduction of kids, their minds and money,” Judy in Clifton, VA said of her experience with YouTube. Her words were projected on the YouTube building. “I am appalled by YouTube’s constant advertising and urging to watch the next video and encouragement to consume and buy more.”
Photos of the YouTube Petition Delivery Action are available for use here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1i_ZXcDhbOPi99n57fqXShYP1lTz5Reo5?usp=sharing
The petition’s first demand is that YouTube "Set autoplay to be off by default for all kids content on YouTube and YouTube Kids." YouTube announced this week that it would set autoplay off by default, but not for all content kids may like to watch.
Angela in Andover, MA spoke to the strain autoplay has put on her family, in the context of her son’s education: “School would assign a video on YouTube to watch at home, and if I didn’t keep close tabs on it, he would be watching several videos in a row. No child is going to just turn off an endless string of videos like that. It’s maddening that it requires me to yell at him to turn it off.”
Emily in Gainesville, GA echoed Angela’s stress: “I put on YouTube for my kids thinking they’ll just watch one video, but another one always starts playing. I can’t turn it off, and…it drives me crazy. I’m a single mom.”
Stephanie, an educator in Flagstaff, AZ, also signed the petition and spoke to the real impacts of autoplay that she sees in her classroom: "YouTube’s autoplay of new videos stunts the kids’ creativity because they don’t have to think about what they want to explore next. While [YouTube’s] goal as a company is to make money, [autoplay] is not best for our children and the growth of our society.“
The petition’s second demand acknowledges that at a rate of 500 hours of video being uploaded per minute, it is impossible for YouTube to meaningfully vet videos that are marked as being "for kids". The petition asks that YouTube simply "End algorithm-based recommendations for kids’ content entirely." YouTube’s recent changes do not address this demand at all.
"My sons have both been recommended Neo-Nazi propaganda on YouTube channels aimed at kids," said Amanda, a parent in Walnut Creek, CA. Her experience of the harms of YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations were shared by several parents.
"One time my daughter was watching what she thought was Blippi and then some guy came on and started making fun of him and calling him gay," said Emily in Lexington, KY, who went on to say that she stopped letting her children watch YouTube after that experience.
Will in Washington, DC spoke of his four year old daughter being recommended unboxing videos after watching science-themed content on YouTube Kids: "Now, she wants those toys, stuff that’s not age-appropriate, because she saw them on YouTube. Why did YouTube have to show her that?”
Marianne in Des Plaines, IL, has experienced problematic YouTube Kids’ recommendations in the educational context: “In my PreK class, I was shocked to find out that the kids were laughing like crazy and dancing to a totally inappropriate rock video that had followed the move and freeze song I had on.”
"What parents are asking for is incredibly simple: that YouTube stop with the half-measures and turn off its addictive features for kids content," said Lia Holland (she/they) Campaigns and Communications Director at Fight for the Future, a privacy group which helped organize the action. "Currently, there are almost no meaningful protections for kids online. We’re watching Big Tech companies act just like Big Tobacco—aiming to profit off of addicting young people to their products while completely denying they are doing it. These companies have thus far shown they are incapable of behaving responsibly, and that legislative action to rein in addictive and opaque algorithms, paired with robust digital privacy laws, is the surest path to protect people from their invasive and harmful practices."
Speaking of YouTube’s actions, this week, Justin Ruben, ParentsTogether Co-Director said, "This is an important step, and YouTube should extend it to all children’s videos, even if they’re watched on regular YouTube. But it shouldn’t have taken 18 months of pandemic and years of criticism to force this change. YouTube needs to take a proactive approach to making their product healthy for kids—they shouldn’t have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into implementing partial solutions."
“Parents deserve the right to make choices for their children who are too young to do so themselves,” read the message from Annapoorne in Clinton, WA. “Stop putting money as your top priority and help raise kind, knowledgeable citizens."
Learn more about the campaign to end child surveillance at EndChildSurveillance.com