Imagine a 3 year old in front of a screen watching Peppa Pig (their favourite TV character) hanging by a noose - the victim of a lynch mob. As the video continues the child sees Peppa explicitly swearing, violently stabbing her brother; and then Peppa’s family acting out a sex scene inspired by 50 Shades of Grey.
Parody and unauthorised online children’s content is an issue writer James Bridle brought attention to recently with his article Something is wrong on the internet.
My audit of these videos shows that in an odd way they actually resonate with a young child’s level of development. This helps us to understand why they get so many views.
However the inappropriate and unsafe messages they communicate to children has worrying implications. Being aware and taking a few key steps can help minimise these experiences in your household.
What children are viewing
Young children have rapidly become prolific users of the internet, including watching online videos. While many of the videos are suitable, others use unscrupulous gimmicky methods to profit from a young and impressionable audience.
My experience is that these videos fall into three categories.
Parody cartoon videos: These depict well-known characters in violent or lewd situations. For example, there are videos of Elsa (from the Disney movie Frozen) angry and using a machine gun, and Paw Patrol characters (a Nickelodeon show popular among pre-schoolers) visiting a brothel.
Disturbing imagery: Other clips depict disturbing imagery, characters or storylines. These include for example, Dad Punches Kid in Face, a video which depicts a father punching his young child in the face for “being naughty”.
Sneaky advertising: Equally worrying, other videos elicit sneaky advertising tactics to persuade children to buy new products. For example, Ryan’s Toy Review is one such video channel with more than four billion views. While the content of this category of videos is generally not violent or sexual, it equates to children sitting in front of never-ending ads day after day.
Why kids watch these videos
The way that children engage with the questionable online videos can be perplexing, and worrying, for parents.
However, when put in the context of what we know about key behavioural characteristics of children as they develop, it’s not that surprising.
The videos often feature something that children are really interested in - toys, playing, and/or popular characters they know. If a child is a fan of the characters, or even owns some of the toys depicted in the video, the connection will be even stronger.
Many of the videos portray odd events. From a child development perspective, things that are unexpected – like an adult wearing a nappy, or their favourite wholesome character being evil – are a great source of humour for young children.
Many of these videos centre on taking a new present or toy out of a box. As any kid on Christmas morning will tell you, guessing what’s inside the wrapping is half the fun. It will also likely conjure up happy memories for the children of receiving a present themselves.
Some of the videos feature child presenters – children enjoy watching their peers on the screen, and they get pleasure from watching others open presents. The problem is that it can also fuel an incredible desire and anticipation for these particular toys or products.
Shady knock-offs, and no filters
Regardless of their amusing appeal to kids, children are seeing video content not produced by reputable content producers. Instead, they are knock-offs created by anonymous users with names such as Brick Man and Melon Troll. These channels game internet search algorithms to automatically play their video as soon as the last clip the child is watching finishes.
Even though a child may be on a video sharing platform for kids, this does not mean that all inappropriate content will be effectively filtered out. For example, a child might search “Peppa Pig” and whatever videos are titled or tagged with “Peppa Pig” appear on their search list. Based on the original search, more suggested videos then appear. Parents state that it is in the suggested videos that the worrying content often appears.
Online videos are a lucrative business, and to capitalise on this process, the algorithms are now informing what is produced. Hashtags and keywords now play a big part in the video content.
Recent research shows that as a result, children are increasingly exposed to videos containing advertising and disturbing images that are indistinguishable from regular programming.
A layer of ethics
An algorithmic approach removes a layer of ethics that is included when humans make decisions in production of content.
YouTube Kids is a very popular site on which kids watch these videos, and owner Google has pledged to improve its algorithms. Google states that amongst other changes, in the last week it terminated more than 50 channels and has removed thousands of videos under their newly revised Community Guidelines.
Another issue that must be addressed is allowing the option to turn off suggested videos automatically playing.
What parents can do
More than 300 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute, which makes this issue difficult to manage. Amendments from Google will likely take a while.
It is therefore important parents use strategies to protect their family. Five steps parents can do right now are:
- Report and block anything inappropriate,
- Install an ad blocker (very easy to do and free),
- Turn on restricted mode
- Draw up a personal video playlist for your child much like a music playlist),
- Watch online videos with your child (not necessarily all of every video but enough to be familiar with what they are watching).
The online world is in a constant state of innovation, but it can be a positive part of life if we watch changes that occur, understand the effects on users and address concerns.