The other night while I was getting ready to record a podcast, a Hangouts message came beeping in from my nine-year-old son. He wanted me to watch a video—one which he believed was very important—and come discuss it with him afterward. That video turned out to be a ten-minute clip from YouTube personality Maxmello—who, along with his wife Wengie, runs the Reacticorns YouTube channel—making a heartfelt appeal to his viewers to understand some unpopular changes he’d made to the channel.
Back in September, YouTube settled a pair of lawsuits from the FTC and the New York Attorney General for $170 million. The lawsuits alleged that the Google-owned YouTube has been flagrantly violating COPPA—the Childhood Privacy Protection Act. COPPA reins in the ability of websites to deliberately target and harvest personal information from children under the age of 13, and—in part—requires sites “directed to children” to “obtain verifiable parental consent” prior to collecting personal information; it also provides means for parents to review such information once collected.
Although YouTube’s terms of service state that users must be at least 13 years of age in the US, the reality is that millions of American children—like my kids—watch a lot of YouTube. In some cases, underage YouTubers watch content without ever logging in at all; in others, they may be using their parents’ account, or they or their parents may have created an account for them that simply lies about their age.
Prior to YouTube’s settlement with the FTC, its position was that YouTube’s TOS excludes children, and its content is all “family friendly, but general audience” rather than being explicitly child-directed. It therefore it did not need to comply with COPPA regulations. The settlement includes an acknowledgement that some YouTube content is directed toward children and therefore does fall under the regulatory scope of COPPA; Google will henceforth make an effort to identify and label such content.
The $170 million in fines that YouTube paid is, compared with parent company Alphabet’s staggering $38.9 billion quarterly revenue, chump change. But moving forward, the FTC has put content creators themselves directly in its sights, stating—using both boldface and italic, so we know they’re super serious—”COPPA applies [to YouTube content creators] in the same way it would if the channel owner had its own website or app.” FTC chairman Joseph Simons underscores how serious the agency is about targeting creators directly by describing them in a press conference as “fish in a barrel.”
In other words, despite never actually collecting, receiving, or having access to kids’ personal information themselves, any YouTubers who post silly videos that kids might enjoy are now personally on the hook for up to $42,530 per video if they don’t directly flag those videos as “made for kids.” The FTC goes on to provide guidelines it uses to determine if content is directed to children:
- the subject matter
- visual content
- the use of animated characters or child-oriented activities and incentives
- the kind of music or other audio content
- the age of models
- the presence of child celebrities or celebrities who appeal to children
- language or other characteristics of the site
- whether advertising that promotes or appears on the site is directed to children
- competent and reliable empirical evidence about the age of the audience
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, much like YouTube itself prior to September, consider their content “family-friendly and general audience, but not child-directed”—just tag all their stuff and move on. Simple.
Unfortunately, many creators fear that YouTube’s handling of the new “child-directed” content largely amounts to putting said content—to quote the late, great Douglas Adams—on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory, with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.”
YouTube gaming content creator Chadtronic alleges that videos marked “for kids” will have no notifications, no comments, will not be searchable, will not be suggested or recommended, and will make 90 percent less total revenue. Although Chadtronic does not source his claims, they’re being widely shared by other content creators desperately concerned about both legal liability and the impact on their income from the new rules.
We were unable to find evidence of made-for-kids videos becoming “unsearchable”—or any reliable estimate of the exact impact on ad earnings—but an official announcement made by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki confirms that comments, notifications, and personalized ads will all be disabled on such videos. Lack of push notifications means traffic will come more slowly to newly posted videos, which in turn could lead to YouTube’s AI based recommendation system deprioritizing videos from that creator because it characterizes them as “less engaging.”
In somewhat brighter news, Wojcicki also announced that YouTube will continue “investing in the future of quality kids, family, and educational content” by establishing a $100 million fund dedicated to the creation of “thoughtful, original children’s content.”
Thoughts from a concerned parent
Speaking as a parent, I’m glad that the FTC is taking the protection of children’s data seriously, but I’m dubious of the way the agency is going about it. It’s easy to write off “silly” YouTube channels as unimportant, but the reality is that people have built entire careers around the production of popular, well-loved content both for children and for “child-hearted adults”—and those people have no control over how their viewers’ data is harvested and used, nor do they have enormous legal teams to beat settlements down into “pocket change” territory as YouTube did.
Meanwhile, the things I genuinely do worry about regarding my kids’ safety on YouTube—trolls splicing suicide instructions into videos, or making Peppa Pig drink bleach, or bizarre AI-generated content which could be subtly shaping young minds in unforeseen and unproductive ways—will be far less affected. The trolls presumably aren’t making significant revenue in the first place, and the AI farms are already operating on the principle of giant swathes of cheaply produced garbage rather than directly employing humans to carefully create appealing videos.
I hope that Wojcicki’s $100 million fund eases the impact on clearly-for-children content creators like Blippi and the parents behind Ryan’s World. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely to help creators such as Chadtronic or Maxmello and Wengie, who make “child-hearted” content for general audience consumption. Such content could easily fall afoul of the FTC’s regulatory enforcement—but would likely not fit YouTube’s classification of “thoughtful, original children’s content” since it wasn’t intended specifically for children in the first place.
Listing image by Reacticorns/YouTube