YouTube’s new kids’ content system has creators scrambling

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On Tuesday afternoon, YouTube formally announced its plan to have creators label any videos of theirs that may appeal to children. Starting in January 2020, if creators mark a video as directed at kids, data collection will be blocked for all viewers, resulting in lower ad revenue, and those videos will lose some of the platform’s most popular features, including comments and end screens. It’s a major change in how YouTube works, and has left some creators clueless as to whether they’re subject to the new rules.

Reached by The Verge, Google confirmed that this new system was the result of a landmark $170 million settlement YouTube reached with the Federal Trade Commission in September for allegedly violating children’s privacy. It’s the largest fine ever collected under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which forbids collecting data from children under the age of 13 without explicit consent from their parents. In this case, the ruling means YouTube can’t employ its powerful ad-targeting system on anyone who might be under the age of 13 — a dire problem for a platform with so many young users.

The new system is already sending creators reeling over what exactly is considered kids’ content and what could happen if they unintentionally mislabel videos. Some of YouTube’s most popular categories falls into a gray area for the policy, including gaming videos, family vlogging, and toy reviews.

“Creators are being held directly responsible by the FTC,“ Dan Eardley, who reviews collectible toys on his channel Pixel Dan, told The Verge on Wednesday. “So if the FTC decides that [we] are indeed targeting children, we’ll be fined. That is frightening.”

“It’s especially scary because the verbiage of ‘kid directed’ vs ‘kid attractive’ isn’t very clear,” he continued. “It’s hard to know if we’re in violation or not.”

Children’s advocacy groups like Common Sense feel that the rules don’t go far enough, and that placing most of the burden on creators rather than YouTube itself won’t do enough to protect kids online. However, the rules are “entirely consistent with what YouTube is required to do under this settlement order,” Ariel Johnson, Common Sense’s senior counsel of policy and privacy told The Verge. “I felt that the settlement order fell short for kids and families and all the protections that they need.”

In theory, YouTube has always been subject to COPPA, but those restrictions have taken on new urgency in the wake of the recent settlement with the FTC. Under the terms of the settlement, YouTube is required to “develop, implement, and maintain a system for Channel Owners to designate whether their Content on the YouTube Service is directed to Children.” Under the system that YouTube rolled out on Tuesday, creators who strictly make children’s content can also have their entire channel designated as directed at children. Once a video is labeled as kids’ content, all personalized ads will be shut off, replaced with “contextualized” advertising based on the video itself.

Within YouTube, it’s clear that child-directed videos will have fewer advantages on the platform. The most obvious is the removal of targeted ads, but a number of other YouTube features are also impossible without personalized data. In particular, child-directed videos will no longer include a comments section, click-through info cards, end screens, notification functions, and the community tab, all powerful tools for driving viewers back to a channel.

The consequences for not labeling a video as “child-directed” could be even more severe. In its September order, the FTC made it clear that it could sue individual channel owners who abuse this new labeling system. Crucially, those lawsuits will fall entirely on channel owners, rather than on YouTube itself. Under the settlement, YouTube’s responsibility is simply to maintain the system and provide ongoing data updates.

In a video explaining the changes to creators, YouTube explicitly declined to tell channel owners when to label a video. “Ultimately, we can’t provide legal advice,” it said. “We’re unable to confirm whether or not your content is Made for Kids. That decision is up to you taking into consideration these factors.” YouTube goes on to ask creators to consult with a lawyer if they need help determining whether their content appeals to younger audiences.

If the FTC does take action against channel owners, it’s likely to be both selective and heavy-handed. The FTC is a small agency and doesn’t employ nearly enough staffers to tackle every COPPA failure that gets uploaded to YouTube. (Chairman Joe Simons has repeatedly called for more money to address the staff shortage.) With so much content uploaded to YouTube every day, the FTC is likely to focus on high-profile cases against popular channels. Under COPPA, the FTC is entitled to seek $42,000 for each mislabeled video, which means monetary damages could quickly grow to a staggering scale.

In its video yesterday, YouTube also pledged to use machine learning and flagging algorithms to locate child-directed videos that may have been mislabeled. Creators won’t be able to appeal those decisions, though a YouTube spokesperson said the company will be listening to feedback. If the algorithms aren’t effective, YouTube could stop using them entirely and face no threat from the FTC for doing so, leaving creators solely accountable and open to potentially life-altering fines from the government.

“It would certainly be more helpful for protecting children and being something that the FTC could enforce and something that families could rely upon as trustworthy if YouTube was taking a bigger role and helping to identify content” and was more transparent about the consequences and rules with creators, Johnson said.

Correction, November 13th at 8:13 pm ET: Creators won’t actually be able to appeal YouTube’s decisions about whether their videos are directed at kids, under the new policy. Added that the new system will begin rolling out in 2020.

Comments

RIP Lets Play channels.

I’d be real happy with that. YouTube was a better place before you had a bunch of really terrible people making garbage videos for kids, getting wealthy off of their infamy, and continually strutting around being a terrible example of a human being.

So just say F you to every single Let’s Play channel out there? You do realize they aren’t just talking about the crappy low-quality ones (which still isn’t fair – YT is a free market and everyone starts somewhere), but also the good ones, like Achievement Hunter, right? You’re taking an ENORMOUS group of content makers and lumping them all together with the relative few that are despicable human beings.

Um, that’s WAY farther than I think is warranted, so much so that I think you’re more angry that lets-plays exist, than you are bad actors doing those kinds of videos. There are several lets-players that I’ve watched over periods of time that have never said a thing controversial let alone racial, misogynist, etc., let alone further that they’ve garnered a following of cohorts that defends their behavior. Obviously these people CAN still rear their ugly faces, and some ARE this very moment. But lets-players in general? No. In fact, the worst thing anyone would get out of those people is a bunch of F-bombs, but that’s beyond expected at this point.

I’m a creator in the same space as Pixel Dan, we review toys. I’ve spoken to a lawyer and they’re baffled by this because they said that the onus should be on YouTube not the individual creators.

Also, Dan and I are on VERY thin ice since we’re talking about things for collectors and not kids, but the courts could easily classify collectibles as just toys in general.

You guys are in a bit of a grey area.
Reviews for retro toys is most likely targeted for collectors. However reviews for new toys that just came off the press are obviously for kids.
It’s really unfortunate that you guys would be liable for this and I believe it would be really hard to justify that even the retro reviews aren’t aimed at kids

Mithril,
There is a pretty large market of toys made explicitly for the adult collector. These toys may appeal to kids, but they’re not necessarily for kids, so this is what makes this new policy such an existential threat to those like Pixel Dan.

It way more complicated than that.

Take Transformers for instance. There are two different toy lines on shelves right now. One is call Siege and the other is call Cyberverse.

Siege is aimed at older collectors. Cyberverse is aimed at kids (and has a show currently on tv/web).

According to the lawyer I spoke with, I’m ok-ish with saying the Siege line is not meant for kids while the Cyberverse line is totally for kids. But courts might not see it that way. There’s no granularity.

Also there’s 3rd parties. Companies in China who make crazy high-end figures. They run around $100.00 to $200.00 a figure. Those are NOT for kids, but again, courts might not see it that way.

With millions of minutes of content being uploaded to YT everyday, it’s impossible for them to verify what goes on at 9:35 in a video. Algorithms can have misses. The onus is and should be on the uploader if they want to publish content for my kids.

The problem is that people could make videos that appeal to your kids, but aren’t exactly for your kids. Dan Eardley, quoted in this article is making reviews for collectibles that are marketed for adult collectors, but they are based on properties that appeal to all ages (say the 3-foot tall Deadpool figure that retails for $700 – definitely not marketed to kids). Should the onus really be on Dan if it turns out that the FTC decides that this video was meant for kids and fines him? I think that’s pretty onerous.

Unless I’m misunderstanding something the issue here isn’t about the uploaders ‘publishing content for your kids’. The issue is with uploaders publishing content, for adults, that your kids could find appealing, and now the FTC can come along and claim the video is directed at kids(even if the uploader intended it for a purely adult audience) and sue the uploader for failing to flag their own video properly…

It’s entirely too vague as well. Like, I make nature/travel documentary-type videos exploring various parks in Oregon. My content is all G-rated and focused on learning about Nature , but it isnt directed at children, but that doesn’t mean some children won’t find it appealing. So do I flag my videos as ‘directed at children’ and lose a bunch of features even though I’m making videos for adults to be on the safe side? I honestly don’t know.

It seems like all this could have been avoided if parents would just monitor their own damn kids while online instead of making content creators monitor themselves so that lazy parents can be lazy…

Content creators have always been held liable for what they create. If you’re creating content, you should know who your target audience is.

"Creators are being held directly responsible by the FTC," Dan Eardley, who reviews collectible toys on his channel Pixel Dan, told The Verge on Wednesday. "So if the FTC decides that [we] are indeed targeting children, we’ll be fined. That is frightening."

But the reset of the entertainment industry has granularity in their rating systems. Movie, TV and Games all have multi-step ratings.

That doesn’t exist for us in the YouTube space and never will since we don’t have any of the money. The Platform holders do.

So a Youtuber can decide that his/her content is NOT aimed at kids, yet the courts can decide that it is, and they can be sued for that. Yeah, no. That does not happen in most other industries.

That does not happen in most other industries.

Hah. Before cigarette ads were outlawed altogether, they often marketed directly towards kids and claimed that they didn’t.

I’ve spoken to a lawyer and they’re baffled by this because they said that the onus should be on YouTube not the individual creators.

You’re the one who decided to monetize your videos, not youtube. The onus is on you.

But we creators are not the ones collecting the data. YouTube/Google is.

The blame here should fall squarely on the FTC. Go read the ruling. It is purposefully left vague. YouTube was smart enough to pass on the buck to the creators, otherwise they would just shut down all child related vids. The question I have is how does a 12 and under child get YouTube on their phone? When does being a parent become a thing?

Is this a serious question? Kids have been evading age restrictions online for decades now at this point. Why didn’t my parents stop me from getting an AIM account when I was 11? Because even if they were capable of knowing my online activity, they and AOL couldn’t stop me from just doing it.

Exactly!!! So how do you know the person watching is a kid? So if you can’t prevent your kids from doing it, how are these companies gonna know that they are collecting data from kids. Again, blame the FTC!

How long ago was that? Lol

Parents can now pretty easily see everything their child is doing online, block them from accessing certain sites, downloading apps, etc, at least on smartphones. Unsure how much PCs have advanced there, but I’m sure you can get a similar set up. The issue is that most parents don’t seem to care and are far too naive about what their child will get up to online.

Not saying there probably aren’t ways around parental controls, but it isn’t the wild west like In the days of AIM lol

they have to care first.

It’s called restricted child settings on your PC and phone. Not saying kids can’t possibly ever get around it, but that doesn’t excuse lazy parenting.

I have some sympathy for content creators who are making a living on the platform, but the fact of the matter is that the entire ecosystem of ad-supported kids entertainment is unsettling and borderline unethical. As a father of four young kids (8 and under) I can attest that it’s an everyday struggle to teach them that there’s more to life than acquiring a new toy. And we have a total ban on unsupervised screen time in our house. What little screen time they do have seems to have a slightly negative effect on their attitudes and behavior. I can only imagine what it would be like if we let them entertain themselves for hours with auto-playing ad-supported youtube videos.

Kids are obviously more impressionable than adults and yet we’ve somehow decided as a society that selling their eyeballs to the highest bidder is a good idea. Now that ads can be microtargeted based on browsing behavior, I worry that cultural consumerism will increase at an accelerating rate.

I hope more kids content follows the Netflix model of being offered through paid subscriptions rather than ads.

My 2yo watches YouTube on our phones every now and then, or on the TV. Whenever one of the videos he’s watching breaks for an ad, it’s an ad only me or my wife would want. He’s been quick at learning how to wait for the "skip ad" button to show up and return to his video.

From what I read, under this new system the ads would now be related to the video itself (ads about toys, candy, etc) and not the account holder (ads about laptops, shaving cream and those stupid mobile RPG games). If anything, now there’s a higher chance my son would click on an ad now that it’s about something he would want.

Seems obvious YouTube would do this.

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