After multiple reports of inappropriate content on YouTube over the past year, “Good Morning America” wanted to take a closer look at the site. How often do kids end up seeing inappropriate content on the video platform? We talked with a group of Philadelphia-area tweens and their parents, who say their children often watch YouTube.
Here's what parents said when asked if they've ever tried to take YouTube away from their kids.
“It’s like the end of the world," said Eve Ehrich, a mother of three kids.
“You’re ending their life for a day," another parent, Jaime Meltzer, said.
Almost all the parents said they use some form of parental controls on their computers and mobile devices to try to limit their children's exposure to inappropriate content.
The kids we talked to were all ages 10 to 13 and said they know who's “kid-friendly“ on YouTube.
Sam, 11, said SuperMarioLogan is “one of my favorite channels. It was a suggested video. And I watched it and it kept reeling me in to watch more videos.”
The other two boys in the group said they know “Jeffy,” a puppet on the popular SuperMarioLogan YouTube channel.
“It attracts kids because you wouldn’t think of him as inappropriate because of the way he looks," said 13-year-old David.
Family watchdog group Common Sense Media called SuperMarioLogan “Your basic online nightmare for parents of young kids." The group, who started rating YouTubers this year due to overwhelming requests from parents, noted SuperMarioLogan is intended for ages 17 and older.
“YouTube is the biggest pain point for parents,” Jill Murphy, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, told "Good Morning America." “Part of it is parents feeling like they are in the dark and have no idea of what their kids are up to online.”
Even the kids "GMA" spoke with agreed that YouTube doesn’t do enough to block inappropriate content and that it’s not a matter of trust.
“I think that sometimes kids get drawn in. It’s not their fault“ said 13-year-old Aubrey. “It looks kid-friendly. But then you watch it, and you don’t really know that it’s not.”
"GMA" showed some of the kids’ interviews to Murphy.
“Developmentally kids aren’t even primed at that age to have the wherewithal to shut off YouTube, the autoplay. They don’t even have the self-control to manage that,” Murphy said.
The creator of SuperMarioLogan told "GMA" he has lost revenue since YouTube started age-restricting and demonetizing his videos.
"Common Sense Media only viewed our old content, and their review was accurate solely regarding those old videos," he said in a statement. "We invite Common Sense Media to conduct a review of our newer videos, which are much cleaner in content. It’s important to note when we began creating these videos back in 2008, we were kids ourselves. We were just a few teenagers goofing around. Given we were just kids, we did not understand many things about YouTube or the audience we would subsequently attract. Today is much different. We have adjusted our content to appeal to a wider audience."
"While it's in everyone’s interest to ensure children are not exposed to inappropriate content online, it's ultimately the responsibility of the parents, guardians, and/or supervising adults. These are the only people that have control over what their children have access to.”
YouTube in a statement to "GMA" noted that the site offers YouTube Kids, which it dubs as the safe alternative for kids and families.
“Our main YouTube site is for those age 13+... Protecting families is our priority and we created the YouTube Kids app to offer parents a safer alternative for their children," according to the statement. "Beyond that, we’ve ramped up our efforts to age-gate flagged videos on the main app that are better suited for older audiences and increased resources to remove content that doesn’t adhere to our policies. We know there’s more work to be done so we’ve enlisted third-party experts to help us assess this evolving landscape, and we’re launching new tools in YouTube Kids for parents to choose a personalized experience for their child.”
YouTube does state in its terms of service that it is not intended for children under age 13.
However, the parents who spoke with "GMA" were not aware of that aspect of the terms of service.
Additionally, YouTube has tools it says can help parents filter out inappropriate content.
How well do YouTube's age restrictions work?
"GMA" examined two tools that parents can use to filter content for kids on YouTube’s main site.
We created an account for a 14-year-old so age-restricted content would be screened out, and we turned on "restricted mode," which is supposed to filter out potentially mature content.
Even with these restrictions, we found sexual content interlaced with videos of people playing customized versions of popular children’s games Minecraft and Roblox.
"The algorithm is zeroing in on you and saying, 'You want to see more and more and more of these things,' and just putting this in front of kids, again, who are in restricted mode," said the Campaign For a Commercial Free Childhood's Josh Golin, who observed the YouTube content with "GMA."
Most of the videos were taken down or placed behind filters after "GMA" told YouTube about the findings. Several of the Minecraft and Roblox videos involving sexual activity were left up without age restrictions.
"Roblox is committed to providing a safe community, and we have zero tolerance for content that violates our Rules of Conduct," Roblox said in a statement to "GMA." "The videos highlighted date as far back as 2011 and show features that are not possible on today's platform. We use a combination of technology and a robust team of moderators to identify and remove any questionable content or behavior that violates our rules of conduct. In addition we are also proactive in identifying and requesting that sites across the web, such as YouTube, remove any content that does not depict the true nature or functionality of the Roblox platform.”
YouTube told "GMA" in a statement that "protecting families is our priority."
"Protecting families is our priority and we created the YouTube Kids app to offer parents a safer alternative for their children," the statement read. "Beyond that, we’ve ramped up our efforts to age-gate flagged videos on the main app that are better suited for older audiences and increased resources to remove content that doesn’t adhere to our policies.
"We know there’s more work to be done so we’ve enlisted third party experts to help us assess this evolving landscape and we’re launching new tools in YouTube Kids for parents to choose a personalized experience for their child," the company said.
YouTube also told "GMA" it has since created more parental controls on YouTube Kids so only videos screened by human moderators can be used.
Parents have to turn the controls on themselves, and we found they do appear to work. By turning search off, parents can limit kids to videos that have been verified by the YouTube Kids Team.
Parents can also choose collections of channels recommended by YouTube Kids and their partners. A feature in which parents can handpick videos is supposed to become available later this year.
Child advocates say there are also steps parents can take on their own, from spot checking their child's browser history to co-viewing YouTube with their child and talking to their child about what they're viewing online.