Prominent advocacy organizations charged on Tuesday that the YouTube Kids app, marketed by Google as a family-friendly and child-appropriate platform, is in fact neither, featuring "disturbing" and "potentially harmful" content.
The latest accusations were issued by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Center for Digital Democracy as an update to an earlier complaint against Google, owner of YouTube, filed with the Federal Trade Commission on April 7.
Google claims that the app is "packed full of age-appropriate videos, channels, and playlists" that "parents can feel good about" and "kids will love." The company states, "When families search in the app, we use a mix of input from our users and automated analysis to categorize and screen out the videos that make parents nervous."
"In the rush to expand its advertising empire to preschoolers, Google has made promises about the content on YouTube Kids that it is incapable of keeping."
—Josh Golin, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
But advocates charge there is plenty for parents to be nervous about. The organizations say they reviewed the children's app and found "Explicit sexual language presented amidst cartoon animation," as well as "Graphic adult discussions about family violence, pornography and child suicide." They also say that some material even included jokes about pedophilia.
"In reviews on Google Play and iTunes, parents report finding pornographic cartoons, videos laced with profanity, and videos featuring graphic violence," states the complaint.
This content is especially insidious, given that the platform includes voice-enabled search functions that advocacy groups say are specifically marketed towards preschool-aged children.
Some of this content was compiled by the organizations into a video mash-up:
Google claims the app provides controls that allow parents to disable the search function. But the advocacy groups say that, for an app specifically targeting kids, its protections are far too weak.
"The breadth of the inappropriate material available on the app is deceptive in light of Google's public claims to parents that YouTube Kids is a safe place for children under five to explore," the letter charges. "Google's representations that the app is safe for children have been an integral part of Google's promotion of YouTube kids to parents."
The groups say this is no small violation.
"Federal law prevents companies from making deceptive claims that mislead consumers," said Aaron Mackey, the coalition’s attorney at Georgetown Law's Institute for Public Representation, in a press statement. "Google promised parents that YouTube Kids would deliver appropriate content for children, but it has failed to fulfill its promise. Parents rightfully feel deceived by YouTube Kids."
Tuesday's complaint follows previous charges issued by numerous children’s and consumer groups, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that "videos provided on YouTube Kids intermix commercial and other content in ways that are deceptive and unfair to children and would not be permitted to be shown on broadcast or cable television."
"In the rush to expand its advertising empire to preschoolers, Google has made promises about the content on YouTube Kids that it is incapable of keeping," said Josh Golin, associate director of CCFC. "As a parent, I was shocked to discover that an app that Google claims is safe for young children to explore includes so much inappropriate content from the Wild West of YouTube."