Parents: If there was a cute, colorful, friendly robot that would babysit your kids for free, would you use it?
What if the robot was programmable by people around the world, so that anyone could teach it new games to play with your kids?
What if a company like Google offered this amazing robot, promising that an algorithm would make sure the user-submitted games were “family friendly?”
Then, what if you heard that some user-submitted games were sneaking through their filters, teaching the robot to play games that would scare your kids, encourage sexual practices or self-harm, or even put their lives at risk?
Well, if you’d still like use such a robot, you don’t need to wait. YouTube Kids is on your phone, ready to babysit your kids with Google-powered algorithms designed to protect your kids.
Don’t worry. Only a small fraction of kids might see their PAW Patrol friends become hypnotized by a demon-possessed doll and commit suicide by walking off a roof. Or see Mickey Mouse laying in a pool of blood after being hit by a car. Or Spider-Man peeing on Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. Or Nickelodeon characters visiting a strip club. Or a live-action “family playing roughly with a young girl, including a scene in which her forehead is shaved, causing her to wail and appear to bleed.”
Those are just a few of the videos that have slipped through Google’s algorithmic babysitter documented in a recent New York Times article.
Google’s response? Their algorithms are getting better and better, “less than .005 percent of the millions of videos viewed in the app were removed for being inappropriate.” And very recently, they’ve added optional human review.
Google advertises YouTube Kids as an app where “parents are in the driver’s seat.” You set the age level, time limits, and you have Google’s promise to strive to make their algorithms safer. When you read Google’s disclaimers and how hard they’re working to protect your kids against millions of user-submitted videos, it makes it sound like they’re the hero, working hard to protect your kids against an evil army. Poor Google, right?
Wrong. They’ve made a conscious business decision. They built this platform with the specific goal of hosting as much content as possible so people will keep watching for as long as possible. This feeds their ad platform to your kids, and makes them gazillions of dollars at our kids’ expense. The unfortunate kids who see something harmful are collateral damage, a business risk they’re willing to take.
And even if every video were curated to be “family friendly,” this app is still bad for our kids. Like all other social media apps, it is intentionally designed to be addictive. It uses proven algorithms—like those used in casinos to keep people putting money in slot machines—to provide rewards with just the right timing to trigger a dopamine-powered feedback loop in the brain. Yes, the same dopamine loops that hook people to drugs or alcohol are keeping kids hooked to a never-ending stream of videos, powered by a cloudy force that always spies on them to learn what keeps them watching.
In a book I highly recommend for all parents, Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber, veteran teachers Joe Clement and Matt Miles show how the technology that has been sold as a miracle to make our kids smarter and empower them to build a tech-fueled future is really having the opposite effect. All of those hours watching YouTube Kids or whatever other social media or game or app is doing serious damage. And, the younger the child, the more impact on brain development, with risk of permanent damage.
“Actual evidence presented by real social scientists overwhelmingly favors the conclusion that digital technologies are bad for kids in almost every conceivable way.” And “It’s no exaggeration to say that kids today are being controlled by smartphones, and becoming enslaved by them.” Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, Professor at the Institute of Development, Aging, and Cancer at Tohoku University, quoted in Screen Schooled.
Melanie Hempe of Families Managing Media agrees, agrees, saying in a recent article “7 Reasons Kids Don’t Need a Smartphone” that “Early addictions are the worst.”
Google knows this too. They didn’t make this app for your kids’ benefit. Your kids are their product, mined for data and sold to their real customers, the advertisers. And, they are being groomed by addictive techniques to graduate to “adult” YouTube, or whatever streaming platform, video game, social media, or virtual reality that comes next. Through YouTube Kids, they are teaching our kids how to be entertained—what they should desire. They are wiring their tiny brains with pathways that will make it difficult to impossible to have original, creative, and deep thoughts. Their ability to concentrate and focus will be hijacked.
We have higher goals for our kids, don’t we? We want them to think their own thoughts, avoid addictions, and be free to learn and focus and grow so they can become the best version of themselves. Apps like YouTube Kids are the enemy of the high goals we have for our kids.
Wise parents won’t give away their kids’ attention to any app, even if it gives them a couple hours of peace and quiet. This free babysitter isn’t worth the collateral damage.
* PS: Yes, Google recently announced that parents will be able to limit YouTube Kids’ content to only those videos reviewed by a human. Unfortunately, that won’t really help the kids, it’ll just help the parents feel better about their kids being on the app. Many people won’t use that feature. Even if they do, kids are still being groomed by the app and becoming addicted. Again, Google didn’t make this for your kids. Your kids are the product they are selling to their advertisers, leveraging intentionally addictive strategies against them to do it. Don’t sacrifice your kids’ attention and future.