Last night, while I was getting ready to record a podcast, a Hangouts message came in from my nine-year-old son. He wanted me to see a video – one that he thought was very important – and then discuss it with him. That video turned out to be a ten-minute clip of YouTube personality Maxmello — who runs the Reacticorns YouTube channel with his wife Wengie — and made a heartfelt appeal to viewers to check out some of the unpopular changes he’s made to the channel. to understand.
In September, YouTube settled a pair of lawsuits from the FTC and the New York Attorney General for $170 million. The lawsuits alleged that Google-owned YouTube blatantly violated COPPA, the Childhood Privacy Protection Act. COPPA hinders the ability of websites to purposefully target and collect personal information from children under the age of 13, and – in part – requires sites “targeted at children” to “obtain verifiable parental consent” before collecting personal information; it also allows parents to view such information once it has been collected.
While YouTube’s terms of service state that users in the US must be at least 13 years old, the reality is that millions of American kids, like my kids, watch YouTube a lot. In some cases, underage YouTubers watch content without ever logging in; in others, they may be using their parents’ account, or they or their parents may have created an account for them that is simply lying about their age.
Prior to YouTube’s settlement with the FTC, the stance was that YouTube’s TOS excludes children, and the content is all “family-friendly, but general audience” rather than being explicitly aimed at children. It therefore did not have to comply with COPPA regulations. The settlement includes an admission that some YouTube content is aimed at children and therefore falls under the regulatory scope of COPPA; Google will henceforth make efforts to identify and label such content.
The $170 million in fines paid by YouTube is a downer compared to parent company Alphabet’s staggering quarterly revenue of $38.9 billion. But going forward, the FTC has been targeting content creators directly, declaring — both in bold and italics, so we know they’re super serious —”COPPA applies [to YouTube content creators] the same way it would be if the channel owner had their own website or app.FTC Chairman Joseph Simons underlined how serious the agency is in targeting creators directly by describing them in a press conference as “fish in a barrel.”
In other words, despite never collecting, receiving, or accessing children’s personal information themselves, YouTubers posting wacky videos that kids might like are now personal on the hook for up to $42,530 per video if they don’t directly mark those videos as “made for kids.” The FTC then provides guidelines that are used to determine whether content is aimed at children:
- the subject
- visual content
- the use of animated characters or child-oriented activities and incentives
- the type of music or other audio content
- the era of models
- the presence of child celebrities or celebrities who appeal to children
- language or other features of the site
- whether advertisements promoting or appearing on the site are aimed at children
- competent and reliable empirical evidence about the age of the public
So far, the solution seems obvious: if a bunch of kids like your stuff, then label it as for kids, right? So YouTube content creators like Maxmello and Wengie — who, like YouTube itself before September, consider their content to be “family-friendly and general audience, but not kid-oriented” — just tag all their stuff and move on. Easy.
Unfortunately, many creators fear that YouTube’s handling of the new “child-oriented” content will largely come down to the content – to quote the late great Douglas Adams – being displayed at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in an unused toilet, with a sign on the door that reads “Watch out for the leopard.”
Chadtronic, the creator of game content on YouTube, claims that videos marked as “for kids” will not feature notifications or comments, will not be searchable, suggested or recommended, and will generate 90 percent less overall revenue. While Chadtronic doesn’t base its claims, they are widely shared by other content creators who are desperately concerned about both legal liability and the impact on their income of the new rules.
We’ve found no evidence that videos made for kids have become “unsearchable” or a reliable estimate of the exact impact on ad revenue, but an official announcement from YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki confirms that comments, notifications and personalized ads are all being disabled on such videos. Lack of push notifications means traffic will be slower to get to newly posted videos, which in turn could cause that creator’s AI-based recommendation system to deprioritize videos from YouTube because it characterizes them as “less engaging.”
In some better news, Wojcicki also announced that YouTube will continue to “invest in the future of quality content for children, families and education” by establishing a $100 million fund dedicated to creating “thoughtful, original content for children”.
Thoughts of a concerned parent
As a parent, I’m glad the FTC is serious about protecting children’s data, but I’m dubious about the agency’s approach. It’s easy to write off “silly” YouTube channels as unimportant, but the reality is that people have built entire careers around producing popular, much-loved content, both for kids and “kid-friendly adults” — and those people have no control over how their viewers’ data is collected and used, nor do they have huge legal teams to beat settlements in “pocket change” territory like YouTube did.
Meanwhile, I’m really concerned about my kids’ safety on YouTube — trolls splitting suicide instructions into videos, or making Peppa Pig drink bleach, or bizarre AI-generated content that could subtly mold young minds in unforeseen and unproductive ways — will be much less affected. The trolls presumably don’t earn any significant income in the first place, and the AI farms already operate on the principle of massive chunks of cheaply produced waste rather than directly employing humans to create carefully engaging videos.
I hope Wojcicki’s $100 million fund helps alleviate the impact on content creators that are clearly for kids, like Blippi and the parents behind Ryan’s World. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that it will help creators like Chadtronic or Maxmello and Wengie, who create “children’s hearts” content for general consumption by the public. Such content could easily violate the FTC’s regulatory enforcement, but probably wouldn’t fit into YouTube’s classification of “thoughtful, original content for kids” because it wasn’t specifically aimed at kids in the first place.
List image by Reacticorns/YouTube