The danger of YouTube Kids


NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: stuff children shouldn’t see.

There’s an old joke that broadcasters would try to keep their audiences before a commercial break by saying something like, “Up next: Something in your own home could kill you! Find out about the deadly danger perched perilously in proximity to your patio … in a moment.”

Now, we’d never resort to such tactics!

MARY REICHARD, HOST: No, absolutely not! Thank goodness.

EICHER: That said, we are hearing more about the dangers of kids and YouTube.

REICHARD: Yeah, and specifically YouTube Kids. That’s a platform that is supposed to be free of much of the problematic content available on the main YouTube site.  

WORLD correspondent Katie Gaultney is here to talk about the latest effort to protect children from harmful influences online.

Good morning, Katie!

KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: Good morning, Mary!

REICHARD: Well, first, I should note that you’re very qualified to talk about this. You have four little ones at your house, so what dangers are you hearing about? Are we talking inappropriate ads, children stumbling across adult content, or what?

GAULTNEY: I mean of course, every now and then, an ad intended for more mature viewers might make its way onto YouTube Kids. But this is actually more insidious.

REICHARD: How so?

GAULTNEY: Last July, a mom in Florida had turned on a children’s cartoon on YouTube Kids for her son. Now normally, she might have put on the video and walked away while she had a free minute to complete a household task or make a phone call—but this time, her son had a nosebleed, so she sat there with him to help with the bleeding while he watched the video.

What she saw almost five minutes into the video shocked her. Spliced into the middle of an innocent cartoon, a man wearing sunglasses quickly walked onto the screen, held his arm out, and taught the children watching this video how to kill themselves by slitting their wrists. Then back to the cartoon.

REICHARD: That is positively shocking! What did she do?

GAULTNEY: This woman alerted YouTube right away, and it took the company nearly a week to take the video down. The mom shared what she had seen on a popular blog, which prompted the blog admin to do some more research on YouTube Kids. The admin is a pediatrician named Free Hess. And just a couple of weeks ago, she shared what she found. I’m quoting now:

“My research has led me into a horrifying world where people create cartoons glorifying dangerous topics and scenarios such as self-harm, suicide, sexual exploitation, trafficking, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and gun violence, which includes a simulated school shooting. All of these videos were found on YouTube Kids, a platform that advertises itself to be a safe place for children 8 years old and under.”

REICHARD: Wow! That is so alarming.

GAULTNEY: Yeah, no kidding!

REICHARD: Is this a new issue, or is it just now coming into public view?

GAULTNEY: I think in part, this has become a hot topic because of something called the “Momo challenge.” This is where a bizarre, creepily cartoonish woman engages with kids online through multiplayer games, like Fortnite—or even spliced into the middle of kids’ YouTube video, like we talked about. And she tries to get them to complete increasingly dangerous tasks. Turning on the gas and then lighting matches, drinking dish detergent, that kind of thing.

But while there are plenty of scary anecdotes about Momo on social media, so far none of them have been verified, so this may be just a disturbing hoax. It takes kernels of truth about the real dangers of the internet for young children—this idea that there is something in your own home that’s harming your kids, and you may have no idea—and makes it a viral topic.

REICHARD: What steps can parents take to protect their children?

GAULTNEY: Burn all your devices?

REICHARD: [laugh] You’ve convinced me!

GAULTNEY: Seriously, though, the simplest safeguard, of course, is not to allow your kids to have any involvement with YouTube or apps. But many parents still want their kids to have the chance to watch videos online now and then.

YouTube Kids does have an option that allows kids to watch only videos that the child’s parents have watched and approved. Of course, this takes some commitment on the part of the parent, but it’s worth it. There’s also an option under settings to prevent kids from searching for videos. This will keep kids from having the ability to search for content that may have unwanted surprises.

REICHARD: It’s interesting that children that young would seek out stuff like this. What’s the draw?

GAULTNEY: There are YouTube videos for kids that are geared toward sheer entertainment, like cartoons. Then there’s this crazy trend called “unboxing videos,” where kids take a new toy out of the package and talk about it. That stuff doesn’t have a ton of educational or informational value, but many kids love it.

There are actually YouTube channels with millions of subscribers, just watching a kid remove the packaging from a toy! I don’t get it, but hey, the numbers don’t lie.

In our house, we’ve used YouTube to learn lyrics of kids’ praise music we heard at church, dance moves to go along with songs from vacation Bible school, nursery rhymes with accompanying visuals. Lots of stuff.

In our homeschool classroom, we’ve used YouTube for reinforcing phonics, following along with science experiments, and doing kids’ art lessons.

REICHARD: So Katie, I hope you don’t mind me getting personal, but you mentioned your little ones at home. How do you navigate this issue of technology in the home?

GAULTNEY: Yeah, my kids are ages 1 to 7. And I think a lot about the challenges that come with shielding kids from negative influences while also appropriately shepherding them through tough conversations about the reality of the world we live in. It’s a constant balancing act!

In our home we try to develop a culture of trust and communication, where our kids come to us with something they’ve seen that’s scary or confusing. I’m by no means the expert here, but my husband and I are up to our eyeballs in this season of parenting young kids… While there are some things that no one, even adults, should see, we’ve viewed other tough cultural issues, like school shootings, as a opportunity to help our kids think through this brokenness in light of our fallen world and the hope found only in Christ.

REICHARD: Yes, good thoughts. Katie Gaultney is a WORLD Radio correspondent based in Dallas. Katie, thanks for this report.

GAULTNEY: You’re welcome, Mary!


(Photo/YouTube)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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