On January 1, YouTube videos for kids will look much different. But will it be better?
If the YouTube generation had its own version of The Wiggles, it’d be Bounce Patrol. It’s not just that they’re both Australian children’s music groups, although that’s probably the main thing.
Bounce Patrol is made up of a handful of adult cast members who are so perky you feel tired just watching them, who wear brightly colored T-shirts and sing nursery rhymes about Christmas and Old MacDonald and sometimes the alphabet. Like The Wiggles, Bounce Patrol is wildly popular among its target demographic of preschool- and kindergarten-aged children: At more than 11 million subscribers, its YouTube videos have been watched 6½ billion times.
Unlike The Wiggles, though, much of Bounce Patrol’s content is inspired by the YouTube algorithm. Among the troupe’s most popular videos is a 20-minute compilation of the viral, if not bizarre, “Finger Family” song, and its most-viewed video ever is a rendition of “Baby Shark” that currently has more than a billion views. It’s also resulted in a successful business: The ad revenue garnered by Bounce Patrol subsidized a team of around 10 people to produce the group’s songs and videos.
For the past several years, Bounce Patrol’s videos, by virtue of being on Youtube, have also collected data on millions of children. The videos are preceded by targeted or “behavioral” ads, which means that YouTube has been illegally mining the data of kids under 13 without their parents’ consent — and in September YouTube was fined a record $170 million by the Federal Trade Commission for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
As part of the settlement, YouTube agreed to implement a policy effective January 1, 2020, which states that no child-directed content can feature targeted advertisements. If creators fail to label their channels as “made for kids,” they risk being fined by the FTC.
Channels like Bounce Patrol now face a double bind: Shannon Jones, Bounce Patrol’s creative director, says she’s expecting Bounce Patrol’s YouTube revenue to drop by 90 percent. She says she understands the importance of protecting kids’ data, but with less incentive to create children’s content for YouTube, she wonders where kids will go instead. More homes than ever have scrapped cable in favor of streaming; many don’t even get PBS. Sesame Street, the show that was revolutionary in its commitment to being available for free, is now behind the HBO paywall. YouTube, Jones argues, needs to stay kid-friendly.
Bounce Patrol has submitted a comment to the FTC sharing its concerns. But there isn’t much else individual creators can do to protect their livelihoods from the changes coming to YouTube in the new year. Kids’ videos, once a relatively lucrative cottage industry on a platform that expressly courted them, will likely never be the same. Whether or not it’ll be good for the kids who watch them is a more complicated question.
The history of children’s videos on YouTube is not a very happy one for most people involved. It is now a parenting rite of passage to watch toddlers quickly learn that pressing a few buttons on a screen can deliver hours’ worth of rainbow-soaked animations that turn their brains into passive iPad receptacles. Much like the panic over TV-glued children in the 1950s and ‘60s, today’s parents are concerned over a far more unpredictable kind of screen time while also being thankful for its unique ability to keep kids quiet and docile. Have you ever attempted to coax a transfixed child out of their 900th viewing of “Johny Johny Yes Papa”? I have not, and I hope I’ll never have to, because it sounds terrifying.
Well-intentioned video creators, meanwhile, lament the fact that their biggest hits are the lower-quality viral songs demanded by the YouTube algorithm, rather than the educational videos backed by academic research and taught in preschool classes. Journalists and cultural critics are flummoxed by phenomena such as “surprise eggs,” in which an entire video is devoted to watching a pair of (usually adult) hands unwrap an average supermarket Kinder Surprise to discover what minuscule, worthless knick-knack is inside.
Other massively popular trends include videos of other children unboxing and playing with toys, which amounts to little more than free advertising. The experience of sitting at the YouTube kid’s table is mostly confronting innumerable hours of neon thumbnails paired with headlines spouting search-engine-optimized gibberish, which don’t always actively harm anyone but don’t exactly provide anything good, either.
Sure, you can find Sesame Street clips on there. If you watch Peppa Pig videos long enough, you can also find a really weird version in which all the colors are inverted and the famously 7-foot tall pink pig is emerald green. This is, of course, not even remotely the most uncanny or disturbing video on children’s YouTube: In 2017, a series of controversies stemming from seemingly innocent yet ultimately violent or sexual videos being served to kids came to be known as ElsaGate, which led YouTube to demonetize videos that “made inappropriate use of family-friendly characters.”
The latest scandal in kids’ Youtube, though, is a far more existential one. In September, the FTC fined the Google-owned YouTube $170 million to settle charges that it illegally harvested children’s data in order to serve them personalized ads. The law it violated is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, a rule enacted in 1998 to protect the privacy of children online, which requires website operators to obtain parental consent for children under 13 before collecting information like names and screen names, addresses, phone numbers, photographs, geolocation, IP addresses — all things that a cookie, an information-storing mechanism used by YouTube and virtually all websites, would contain.
As of November, video creators were asked to specify if their content was “made for kids,” which sent many creators scrambling to determine whether topics like gaming or family vlogging counted as child-directed content. Once they label a video as “made for kids,” targeted ads will no longer appear on the video, meaning the creator loses out on a lucrative and commonplace type of digital advertising. Instead, only “contextualized” ads, which are based on the content itself, will appear. In addition, “made for kids” videos will no longer include a comments section or end screens that allow viewers to subscribe to a channel, which are used to increase engagement and foster repeat viewers. The penalty for not labeling content correctly could be severe: The FTC can sue individual creators for up to $42,530 per violation.
Throughout its history, YouTube has stubbornly maintained that it’s a site aimed at users 13 and over, freeing the platform from obtaining parental consent to track user data. Yet the FTC’s investigation found that Google had been touting YouTube’s popularity with children to toy brands like Mattel and Hasbro in order to sell ads, including the assertion that YouTube is the No. 1 website regularly visited by kids.
The FTC’s fine is arguably a pittance of what Google owes. Though it may be a record-breaking fine for the organization, as Recode’s Peter Kafka explains, $170 million is basically “a rounding error” in YouTube’s profit, which could reach around $20 billion this year. Two of the FTC’s five commissioners voted against the settlement, with one arguing the fine should have been in the billions.
The other FTC commissioner who voted against the deal said YouTube should be required to police the platform for kid-directed content rather than asking its creators to comply with the rules by marking their videos as “made for kids.” By placing the blame on creators if they fail to label their videos, YouTube shields itself from further penalties and threatens FTC fines for creators who never knowingly did anything wrong.
Why, at the very least, is there no “mixed audience” option that creators could use to classify their videos? YouTube would not comment directly on the matter, but Millar (who does not represent YouTube) guesses it’s because doing so would require a huge change to the platform in order to allow for age verification. “You’re talking about a fundamental shift in how the platform is designed,” she says. “That [would have] a lot of implications from a business standpoint for everybody concerned: for all of the users, for YouTube, for all the content creators.”
Underlying all of this is the fact that kids’ content has been quite lucrative for YouTube, even as the site claims it’s intended for teens and adults. YouTube keeps 45 percent of its videos’ advertising dollars, with the other 55 percent going to video creators. One research firm estimated YouTube’s revenue from children’s media could be between $500 million and $750 million per year — a giant sum of money, but still a drop in the bucket of YouTube’s total earnings. Meanwhile, YouTube has maintained that children should only be using YouTube Kids, a separate app that does not use targeted ads, even as children’s content makes up many of the regular site’s most popular channels. Animated nursery-rhyme content factories like Cocomelon, ChuChu TV, and Little Baby Bum — whose videos seemingly no one but very young children would ever want to watch — each have total channel views between 19 and 45 billion.
YouTube has encouraged its creators to submit comments to the FTC. In an email obtained by Bloomberg News, a YouTube representative wrote that it was important for the FTC to “hear from creators and small businesses that could be deeply impacted by potential changes.” The FTC, which is currently conducting a review of the COPPA rule in light of “rapid changes in technology,” sought comments from the public from July until December 11. In total, more than 175,000 comments were submitted, many of which came from creators. YouTube itself submitted a comment, which consumer groups have characterized as an attempt to weaken data privacy laws regarding children in hopes of protecting its profit margins.
“It could be life-ruining amounts of money that they’re going to go after independent creators for,” says Jones of Bounce Patrol. She worries about the impact on YouTube’s culture, too. “In the one sense, people are being led to create family-friendly content in order to stay on the right side of advertisers,” she says, referring to YouTube’s advertiser-friendly content guidelines. If a video contains swearing, violence, or any other adult-related themes, it will have have either limited or no ads. “But on the other hand, they don’t want to be too ad-friendly, because if they’re too family-friendly, then the FTC will say a kid might reasonably want to watch that and then you get no advertising dollars,” she added.
Jones predicts that in response, YouTube will skew older. “You can’t be too edgy and you can’t be too family-friendly, which means all of the content is going to end up in this middle, bland area,” she says. “Kids will still be watching YouTube, but if the financial incentive to make something that’s wholesome and nutritious for kids is gone, what’s on the platform will be more mature content. So I think, ultimately, it will have a bad result for the audiences.”
Tahlia Morgan was tired of seeing so much junk on YouTube. She also happened to be uniquely suited to provide an antidote: As an actress in LA who wasn’t getting any roles she was interested interest in pursuing, she and her producer husband, Dallas Morgan, started making their own videos for toddlers starring Tahlia as a bubbly, quasi-fairy-godmother in a purple wig. The result was Tea Time with Tayla, using a spelling of “Tahlia” that made it easier for kids to read the way her name is actually pronounced.
What started in 2011 as a two-person production in the couple’s apartment turned into a YouTube channel with 136,000 subscribers and more than 173 million views. In the beginning, content was filmed using a white sheet as a green screen and was mostly educational — teaching numbers, letters, and colors. After the Morgans published their first nursery-rhyme video, the channel took off. That was also when they started realizing they could mold their content to fit the YouTube algorithm.
By 2013, they were earning enough money for Dallas to quit his job at a production house and work on Tea Time with Tayla on a full-time basis. At the end of that year, the operation was at its financial peak: The Morgans were making up to $8,000 a month from their weekly videos, which racked up between 4 and 6½ million views a month.
Of course, $8,000 a month isn’t necessarily a ticket to a fabulous lifestyle, but it was enough to live on for the two educational-content creators. Other video makers I spoke with declined to share details about their earnings, but for nursery-rhyme animation channels with views in the dozens of billions — like Cocomelon — monthly revenue could be anywhere between $588,000 and $9.4 million, according to Social Blade (it’s impossible to calculate exact ad revenues without more information about each individual video).
In November 2018, ChuChu TV, the India-based animation studio responsible for the “Johny Johny Yes Papa” video, told the Atlantic it employed a staff of “about 200” people. YouTube, meanwhile, has made superstars out of kids’ entertainers like Blippi, who has a line of toys and clothes available at Target and Amazon — and who is now so famous that he’s able to hire a doppelgänger for live appearances in lieu of performing himself (much to the annoyance of parents).
Then the adpocalypse came. In 2017, YouTube implemented a mass video demonetization process that its AI deemed risky to advertisers, and the Morgans’ YouTube revenue dropped by about one-third. Like many YouTubers at that point, they knew they needed to diversify, and not just because of the decrease in ad dollars.
“Parents were getting really sketchy about YouTube, and as I became a parent I understood why,” says Dallas. “There were a lot of inappropriate things that came around that weren’t happening on some of the other platforms.”
Today, there are plenty of alternatives to short-form children’s content available online and in TV apps. Tea Time with Tayla is now available to stream on kids-only platforms like Ameba, Happykids.tv, Kidoodle.TV, and Amazon Prime, which Dallas says pay more for views and watch times than YouTube did. The Morgans rarely post new content on YouTube and currently make only a few hundred dollars a month on the platform.
Ironically, since the couple had kids, they’ve mostly kept them from watching YouTube. “My daughter was on it, and the next thing you know, she’s watching a video about kids not wanting to eat their vegetables,” Tahlia says. “As silly as that sounds, she’s walking around the house singing the song, saying, ‘I don’t like carrots! I don’t like broccoli!’ No parent wants their 2-year-old walking around saying they don’t want to eat vegetables. Anyone could upload something to YouTube, so there’s not really a great filter.”
The Morgans feel much better working with — and letting their children watch — more curated, kid-centric apps. All of the children’s content creators I spoke with mentioned that they make certain videos based off what’s trending on YouTube — “Finger Family” videos, endless nursery-rhyme songs — knowing they’ll be less interesting or educational than the rest of their work but hoping it’ll get kids to visit their pages and watch some of the “more nutritious” content.
Maybe, though, the problem isn’t that the YouTube algorithm serves up stupid or bad videos to kids, but that an algorithm is in charge of what kids are watching at all. Toddlers are always going to click on the video with the brightest, most bonkers thumbnail with words they might recognize. Moving kids’ content to separate streaming apps — made specifically for children, with fewer commercials, more gatekeepers in charge of quality control, and fair, clear payment structures — seems like a change for good.
Of course, the problem is that someone has to pay for it. Not every home can afford a subscription to Ameba or Kidoodle.TV or HBO or Amazon Prime or Disney+, or any of the 12,000 other streaming services available. Cable is expensive, and there are fewer taxpayer dollars going to creating kids’ shows that serve a public good. YouTube has a moral obligation to remain a safe place for kids to watch videos due to the sheer amount of parents who rely on it as a primary source of entertainment for their children. By virtue of being a for-profit company, however, no one is there to make sure it actually does so.
YouTube also has a moral and legal obligation to not track kids’ personal data. Parents I’ve spoken with often have complicated and, at times, conflicting thoughts on their child’s YouTube habits. Andrew Hawkins, a reporter at the Verge, is someone who is paid to think about technology’s impact on society — and also someone who has two toddlers at home who watch about an hour of YouTube a night. What, I asked him, is his biggest concern about his kids’ data privacy?
“On the one hand, you don’t want your child to be monetized in a creepy way,” Hawkins says. “But I also understand that this is the world that we live in now, and so either you have to be kind of weirdly okay with it or you just have to completely abstain from all of that kind of stuff, which is unrealistic for almost everyone. Unless you want to be some Luddite parent that raises your kids in the woods, that’s not going to happen.”
From YouTube’s position, the best way to watch kids’ videos on the platform is on YouTube Kids, a separate app that until recently was only available on the App Store and Google Play. The app offers more parental controls, does not use targeted ads, and restricts what kind of ads can show up there. But Hawkins says that many of the same problems plaguing regular YouTube also applied to YouTube Kids, and that videos are queued on the app using an automated system. His daughter was being served strange, if not outright disturbing, videos on the platform, so now she uses his account.
“There definitely should be some sort of form you fill out to say, ‘This is what I’m okay with, this is not what I’m okay with,’” Hawkins added. “It would be nice if there was a menu of options, rather than just a gigantic terms of service for you to agree to. But I’m not optimistic that that’s what’s going to actually happen. I know that that’s not the way the corporations actually work.”
It’s certainly not how YouTube works. YouTube, though it now pledges to invest $100 million over three years to create thoughtful children’s content, has proven its algorithm to be, in general, a pretty bad way for kids to watch videos. Though kids’ YouTubers worry that the changes coming on January 1 will amount to a second adpocalypse, it could be far less disastrous than creators fear.
After all, kids’ creators I spoke with have said they plan to pivot to other means of distributing content in the new year. Though Tahlia and Dallas have moved most of the Tea Time with Tayla streaming to competing video platforms, Bounce Patrol says it will focus more on live shows around Australia. The Mik Maks, another Australian children’s music group made up of two brothers, plan to upload content to other platforms as well as pivot back to performing live shows. The group’s YouTube following has gained them more than 800,000 fans worldwide: “It opened more distribution opportunities for us,” the brothers explain. “We’ll still be Al and Joel from the Mik Maks who grew up on a farm and have lots of cool stories to tell.”
These all seem like better ways to participate in the kids’ entertainment industry than blindly following the bizarre peculiarities of the YouTube algorithm. For one, it’s difficult to imagine the “Finger Family” song performing well onstage. With less incentive to chase toddler clicks, perhaps the YouTube children’s space will feature fewer videos with titles like “Minions LOL Surprise Egg Unboxing for 45 Minutes Straight!!!!” or the billionth remake of “Baby Shark.”
Will the new YouTube, a version that finally acknowledges that kids are watching, be better for families? Maybe. Or perhaps the poison of children’s YouTube has already seeped into every tiny mind in the world, and entertainment will suffer for decades to come. “We tried to put on Mister Rogers the other day and my kids were like, ‘This is boring,’” Hawkins sighs. “The puppet stuff and the land-of-make-believe stuff, it’s very dated. But that kind of stabbed me in the heart a little bit.”
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Author: Rebecca Jennings