Parenting is hard work. Luckily, today there are scores of technological distractions you can lazily park your toddler in front of to free up all of that important smartphone time that should be spent actually, you know, interacting with your kid. For better or worse (definitely worse), today’s tots enjoy a whole smörgåsbord of digital media to keep them endlessly and mindlessly entertained, and more and more modern parents are opting to give their young children their own digital devices to keep them out of grown ups’ hair. As I’m left to ask in many of these stories, what could possibly go wrong?
Geez, I don’t even know where to begin answering that one. Let’s start with one of the most popular kids apps, YouTube Kids, designed to feed your child an endless stream of family-friendly, wholesome video content supposedly safely segmented away from the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the general internet at large. Except there’s a catch. See, YouTube Kids has become full of nightmarish AI-generated content and conspiracy theory videos pushing bizarre and sometimes disturbing content at children. Even worse, the identities of many of the creators of these videos remain unknown, and some are beginning to fear that YouTube kids is home to some sort of shadowy psychological operation aimed at shaping young people’s minds. Is YouTube Kids an attempt at brainwashing? Is it working? Maybe we should be asking how well.
Tech sites began noticing the bizarre, computer-generated content appearing in YouTube Kids playlists and search results late last year. The New York Times reported in 2017 how many of these so-called kids videos contained disturbing content such as popular animated characters or superheroes committing suicide or engaging in other violent acts. Some of them even feature slightly sexual content, just carnal enough to slip into the Freudian subconscious but not raise too much suspicion from distracted parents.
After the NYT story broke, The AV Club went down its own rabbit hole of what it called an “automated hellscape,” noting that most of these YouTube Kids videos often “take the form of long, surreal batshit that’s been cobbled together from stock character models, animations, and sounds. The results are indescribably strange.” Stranger still, most of these videos appear to be algorithmically-generated, that is, produced by not-so sophisticated artificial intelligence rather than by humans. The thumbnails and titles for these videos are benign enough, but they quickly turn into a bad acid trip once they start playing. Sound awful? Visit some of those articles and watch a few videos. It’s worse than you think.
Worst of all, James Bridle described in a 2017 Medium article how many of the live action videos on YouTube kids place Disney characters and other child favorites in situations with “horror and violence on display,” noting that “some of the times it’s troll-y gross-out stuff; most of the time it seems deeper, and more unconscious than that.” Bridle argues that these YouTube Kids and the fact that they are ranked highly by YouTube’s search and “up next” features are a product of the machine learning algorithms baked right into the popular video app:
What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives [and] YouTube and Google are complicit in that system. The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale.
Inevitably, though, things got a lot worse this week when Business Insider’s James Cook reported that YouTube kids had begun suggesting videos which feature conspiracy theories – the really weird ones. Cook writes that YouTube kids has been promoting videos containing David Icke reptilian overlord theories, moon landing hoax claims, and even chemtrail allegations. Can we give up the chemtrail thing already? There are much more effective and secretive means of administering nefarious substances to unknowing populaces. Ever been to Arby’s? That ain’t beef.
The conspiracy theory trend is a particular problem given that YouTube Kids will begin recommending videos to users after each video or on the home screen based on what they watch. That means if your kid accidentally watches just one David Icke video on accident, she’s likely to become inundated with similar content whether she likes it or not. Given how young and impressionable many YouTube Kids users are, it’s easy to see how this could snowball into a huge problem if not corrected. YouTube has already removed many of the videos mentioned in Cook’s article, but they only represent the tip of the disturbing YouTube Kids iceberg.
This story highlights two things: one, pay attention to your child’s technology use, or better yet, don’t let them use it at all; and two, we can no longer assume that the machine learning algorithms at the core of many of the most popular internet products have our best interests at heart. These tools, which have now become part of the very fabric of the internet itself, are actively shaping the thoughts and behaviors of unknowing and unwilling citizens worldwide. Can we really assume to know what their creators had in mind, or even who their creators were? It’s time we pay more attention to The Man behind the curtain. Chances are, it’s worse than David Icke imagines.