When YouTube released an app specifically for kids a couple months back, many parents rejoiced. If the app worked as promised, they’d have to worry less about their kids stumbling onto grown-up content on the video network, much less on cable’s carnival of depravity. But a more insidious threat may be afoot in this supposedly innocent walled-off world.
At least, that’s the claim of 10 consumer watchdog groups who filed a joint complaint today with the Federal Trade Commission over the YouTube Kids app, claiming it misleads parents and violates rules on “unfair and deceptive marketing” for kids.
YouTube launched their kid-targeted app in February in the hopes of offering “a safer and easier” way for tots to find shows like Reading Rainbow and Thomas the Tank Engine online. The app promised to limit content to family-friendly videos, channels, and educational clips—a concept pretty much lauded by parents. But child advocacy groups say YouTube is deceiving kids by mixing ads and content without clear delineations.
That may or may not be the case. But in raising the issue at all, the complaint casts light on a wider concern. When it comes to advertising to kids, the rules for the internet are fuzzier than the tightly regulated world of television, in large part because internet advertising itself is always changing. In the meantime, kids could be left vulnerable.
Blurring the Boundaries
The YouTube Kids app intermingles ad clips in areas where shows are listed, features popular hosts selling products, and offers shows that look like ads without any indication that they are commercials, according to the complaint. In other words, YouTube is getting away with all the things kid-friendly cable channels such as Nickelodeon can’t, says Angela Campbell, counsel for the Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, who helped file the complaint. “They can’t have hosts selling products, they can’t have programs write commercials, and they have a limit on the amount of advertising they have per hour,” she says.
These restrictions come courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission, which has had strict rules about how network and cable channels can advertise to kids since the 1970s. By the agency’s rationale, children haven’t developed the cognitive skills to distinguish between ads and content (or even read!). As a result, the FCC has set time limits on the number of ads allowed per hour during children’s programming. It’s also banned TV characters from selling products and prohibits product placement on kid channels and shows.
But while TV ads are strictly regulated, rules for ads on the Internet and apps are in flux. The FCC has jurisdiction over TV, but advocacy groups are instead appealing to the FTC’s broader powers to monitor these allegedly deceptive ad tactics online. Several YouTube Kids series, such as the LEGO Friends Channel, which shows popular LEGO characters and toys, are essentially ads, the complaint claims. YouTube Kids’ user-generated videos, meanwhile, show kids unwrapping toys or candy but fail to indicate when the videos have been paid for by the makers of those products. “It’s sort of hard even for an adult to determine what’s an ad and what’s content,” Campbell says.
Worst of all? YouTube fails parents too, the complaint says, because it promises its ads are all pre-approved, yet certain channels and shows seem to violate its own ad policy. YouTube’s policy, for example, states that no food or beverage ads will be shown to kids (a concern related to the dangers of childhood obesity), but McDonald’s has its own channel promoting Happy Meal toys. The complaint even suggests Google may be tracking kids’ viewing habits in order to make recommendations for what videos kids should watch next—a strict violation of online privacy laws for the young.
It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World
While these alleged violations would creep viewers out if practiced on TV, they don’t sound very far off from everyday practice in the adult online world. We are constantly bombarded with stories that appear to be content but turn out to be ads. We adults see sponsored stories right next to news (even here at WIRED). On YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest we follow people who tout clothes or play with gadgets they’ve been given by sponsors. For adults, the failure to clean up the mix between ads and content doesn’t seem so pressing. But what about for kids?
YouTube says it disagrees with the complaint. “We worked with numerous partners and child advocacy groups when developing YouTube Kids,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement to WIRED. “While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable. We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”
The FTC says it will review the complaint. In the meantime, until the rules around internet advertising to kids are clarified, parents will have to decide how comfortable they are putting their offspring into the position of having to distinguish entertainment from sales pitch, fact from ad copy. As with so much else online, the rules for old media don’t port easily to the rapidly evolving world of entertainment on the internet. But the need to update them is urgent: the internet is quickly becoming the only place where kids watch. They shouldn’t be left entirely to their own devices.