YouTube Kids: Infomercials As Toddler Fodder?

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When YouTube Kids launched in February, Google heralded the app as “the first Google product built from the ground up with little ones in mind.” The Internet giant said its new app would make it safer and easier for young children to find family-friendly videos on their parents’ smartphones.

But now 10 children’s and consumer advocacy groups charge that YouTube Kids sneaks in lots of infomercials for products and companies, violating laws about unfair and deceptive advertising while targeting a vulnerable — and lucrative — new market of preteens, toddlers and even babies. A coalition of groups asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate, and hopes to spur standards for children’s online content similar to long-standing rules about television advertising for children.

“In this day, there should be a single set of rules to protect children regardless of what screens they use,” said Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which signed the complaint along with the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, Consumers Union and others. “Today’s youth are online and often simultaneously viewing programming on multiple screens. It doesn’t make sense to just have rules to protect kids in old media when a new world has emerged.”

Pushing products

YouTube Kids features a simple interface with large colorful buttons and allows for voice navigation. Google said it curates the content with algorithms and some spot checks to be appropriate for children. Searching on words like “sex” or “violence” generates the message “try searching for something else.” But saying the word “toys” as a search, for instance, turns up videos — some created by users, some by companies — promoting products such as a Minnie Mouse Electronic Cash Register and Planet Orbeez Adventure Park Playsets.

Such videos don’t appear to comply with Google’s advertising policy for YouTube Kids, which states: “Ads need to be clearly branded by the advertiser and/or product marketed in the video. The ad needs to be distinctive to the user that this is an ad, and not general YouTube content.”

Google: It’s kid-friendly

Google said in a statement that it consulted many child advocacy groups in developing YouTube Kids. The app has tools to let parents limit their children’s screen time, and to turn off sounds and search, and it doesn’t let children click through to purchase products, it noted.

Google said that “ad-supported experiences for kids” ensure that children from all economic backgrounds can watch. “Great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it,” it said.

Nell Minow, who runs the site about appropriate media for children, agreed that advertising-supported content is necessary — but she doesn’t believe Google is holding up its end of the bargain.

“When (YouTube Kids) makes no distinction for sponsored content, then Google has failed in its commitment that everything on that channel will be family-friendly,” said Minow, who is not involved in the case. “Google has said they are curating material they guarantee is OK for children, so they have to do better than this.”

Hearkening back to a famous quote from her father, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow, who once called television a vast wasteland, Nell Minow said the Web is far worse.

“The Internet is a toxic waste dump by comparison,” she said. “If I were the FTC, I would require a very, very bright line between sponsored and non-sponsored content for children online. Sponsored content should have a big red frame so you know it’s from someone who has paid to be there.”

The advocates laid out three specific complaints about the app: It mixes advertising and programming in ways that could deceive young children; it has numerous branded channels for companies or products such as McDonald’s, Barbie, Fisher-Price and others that essentially run lengthy commercials; and it distributes lots of user-generated segments featuring toys, candy and other products without disclosing if the video creators are compensated by product manufacturers.

Georgetown Law Professor Angela Campbell, who worked with the coalition, said YouTube Kids is laden with lengthy videos “where you can’t tell if it’s an ad or not,” such as the genre known as “unboxing” in which users open the packaging of new toys or other goods, often exclaiming with delight.

“Google promotes this as a safe, family-friendly place designed for young children and says it reviews all advertising and has policies that it has to be clearly identified,” she said. “That sounds really great, but they don’t follow their own policies, so that is misrepresentation.”

Children’s TV shows have limits on how many minutes of commercials they can show, but users of YouTube Kids could theoretically spend hours watching promotional videos.

Although parents can disable YouTube Kids’ search function, Google touts it as one of the app’s benefits. “With larger images, bold icons and more, it’s fast and simple for little thumbs to navigate,” it said in a press release. “And we’ve built in voice search so that even if your child can’t spell or type, they can still find videos of things they’re curious about.”

Lengthy and unsubtle

Voice searches on specific products like Barbie resulted in blatantly promotional videos, often several minutes long.

Google’s YouTube Kids advertising policy says ads for consumable food and drinks are prohibited. However, a voice search on “McDonald’s” brought up an entire McDonald’s channel called “imlovinit” and a seven-minute promotional video called “What are Chicken McNuggets made of?” The words “compensation provided by McDonald’s” appeared in small white type for a few seconds at the video’s start, while the end offered links to other McDonald’s-sponsored videos such as “Is McDonald’s beef real?” and “What are McRib patties made of?”

Tech analyst Larry Magid consulted with Google on early versions of YouTube Kids and wrote enthusiastic reviews of it. He said he didn’t come across the promotional videos for McDonald’s and others on his own. Google is among the funders of his nonprofit, which focuses on online privacy and security.

“There is a lot of content on YouTube that’s inappropriate for children, so it’s good that Google made an effort to provide age-appropriate content,” he said. “The fact that they sponsor it through commercials is simply a reality of commercial media. But there is a long-standing principle of separating out commercial content from programming, and it’s important that Google get that right.”

Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, which receives funding from 110 tech companies, including Google, consulted on a pre-release version of the app. He said it passed such privacy tests as not collecting personal information, not requesting e-mail addresses, not requiring Google account registration and not linking to third-party sites. He said the sponsored content doesn’t bother him.

“The app is a far more conservative and cloistered environment than what kids are otherwise likely to be exposed to,” he said.

The trade commission “has received the letter and will review the concerns raised by these groups," FTC spokesman Justin Cole said in an e-mail to U.S. News & World Report.

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @csaid

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