The standards that apply for kids' programming on TV also should be enforced for online products.
It's disappointing that Google didn't voluntary follow the Federal Communications Commission's longtime TV standards. Its online YouTube Kids app ignores basic protections for children whose developing brains cannot grasp the difference between ads and entertainment.
The Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, has jurisdiction over online commerce, and it needs to catch up. Google apparently decided to push the envelope, given its mission as a public company is to maximize profits.
But as one of Silicon Valley's biggest successes — it could reach a market capitalization of $1 trillion in this decade — Google should be a leader in taking responsibility for the welfare of children viewing products designed for them. So should Netflix, Apple and any other valley company planning kids' programming.
Silicon Valley products are under attack on a variety of online privacy and safety fronts. In some areas, the balance between making a product both desirable and safe for everyone is hard to strike. With adults, it's fair to disclose the facts and let them choose what to use. But the tech industry needs to assure parents that it won't exploit children's vulnerability to advertising content.
The research on brain development is long-standing and undisputed; kids can't evaluate content the way grown-ups can. As to expecting parents to police their viewing — it's easier with television, when you can glance over and see what the kids are watching. It's hard when youngsters are using tablets and notebooks, often with more ease than their parents.
FCC rules launched in the 1970s limit the length of TV ads in children's programming and ban blurring the difference between advertising and entertainment. The FTC needs the same rules for online content.
Child advocacy groups protesting YouTube Kids say it's virtually impossible to tell when the app's programming stops and advertising begins. Video clips promoting toys and food products blur the distinction.
Google says it needs the advertising dollars to offer the content for free, making YouTube Kids available to all families. But is it really helping children in low-income families to get them crying for expensive toys and unhealthy foods their parents can't or shouldn't buy?
Increasing numbers of children are viewing content on tablets, smartphones and laptops. A 2014 University of Michigan study found that one-quarter of parents of kids 2 to 5 years old are allowing more than three hours of entertainment screen time each day — more than an hour longer than the maximum recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The FTC needs regulations for online programming as clear as the FCC's for television. But Google shouldn't wait. It has made a public relations blunder, and it should voluntarily change course with YouTube Kids.