Speaking as a parent, YouTube's censorship system is deeply flawed
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m very dedicated to being a “good mom.” For me, this means being emotionally and physically available for my kids, giving them everything they need and some of what they want, and taking an active interest in what appeals to them.
When they were toddlers, that last requirement was pretty easy. I introduced them to Sesame Street and Disney — entertainment that was part of my own childhood and accompanied them well into their school years. However, that didn’t last forever and eventually they found their own media to obsess over on YouTube, the platform I so often turned to for entertainment myself.
Every week, it seemed like there was a new YouTube channel that my kids were crazy for. Whether it was YouTubers unboxing toys, doing video game walkthroughs, or creating their own original content, my kids ate it up and I tuned in so I could stay in-the-know when it came to their interests.
Secure in the knowledge that I’d set up parental controls to keep them away from the weird parts of YouTube, I allowed my kids to enjoy the site everyday before dinner while I relaxed with my husband after work.
However, the trust I put in the content site to keep inappropriate media away from my kids was misplaced.
I was unloading my dishwasher when I heard annoying baby talk — which morphed into shrieks and cries — coming from the other room where my kids were watching TV. I didn’t think much of it at first, but felt uncomfortable that it didn’t sound like anything from their favorite YouTube channels. I walked over to take a peek at what the kids were watching and was immediately confused and disturbed.
The video featured two young girls pretending to be babies — complete with baby talk and infant-like clothing. Soon, the girls were joined by a man behaving similarly as them. Once the man entered the scene, my intuition kicked in and told me that these videos were bad news. Not wanting to worry my kids over what could have been nothing, I changed the video and looked up the channel — Greg Chism’s Toy Freaks — on my phone to investigate the other videos.
What I found was shocking and upsetting.
Some videos mimicked the one I’d already seen, but others were much worse. In some, the girls were wearing swimsuits in a bathtub while the same man from before— their father— scared them with frogs and lizards until they cried. Other videos showed them dressed as babies, and involved acts of force-feeding, intentional spitting up, and going to the bathroom in diapers. I was livid that these girls were being filmed and exploited, and after coverage on BuzzFeed News, the account was shut down, the father is being investigated, and hundreds of thousands of other disturbing YouTube videos starring children have been deleted.
I worried what this meant for my own family. My kids had already found their way to problematic videos despite “parental controls,” so what else were they seeing?
That was my first thought when I read about vlogger Logan Paul and his insensitive recording of a suicide victim in Japan’s Aokigahara, or Suicide Forest. Paul, who boasts over 15 million subscribers, posted the disrespectful video of himself and friends visiting the infamous Suicide Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji, and the heartless video included a recently deceased person that the group found while exploring the forest. The video was eventually taken down by Paul himself — not YouTube — and had already been seen by enough viewers to land the #10 spot on YouTube’s trending video list. After its deletion, a copy of the video reached #2.
Following backlash, Paul posted an apology — a monetized one at that — but the damage has been done. By posting that horrifically offensive video, Paul used his platform to share highly questionable content with young and impressionable viewers, just as George Chism’s Toy Freaks channel did.
Like many parents, I had to ask my kids if they had seen the video and explain why that specific content was not okay.
Paul’s tasteless stunt brought up an important question about censorship. Why does this content get to sneak past parental controls, while so many important social issues get flagged as inappropriate?
Last year, YouTube moved to demonetize videos that it deemed controversial or extremist. That included videos promoting terrorism or antisemitism — but those weren’t the only videos getting flagged. Videos featuring LBGTQ+ content, and videos that shared the stories of women surviving everything from eating disorders to sex trafficking, were lumped into the same category as racist and terrorist channels.
Not only that, but these socially progressive videos were deemed “not advertiser friendly,” and their creators lost their source of income (ad revenue). Meanwhile, content by Paul, Chism, and other popular channels promoting self-harm, eating disorders, and racism continue to be rewarded.
To put it simply, YouTube’s censorship system, which only allows certain content to reap benefits from ad revenue, is deeply flawed — and it’s time for the site to do something about it.
My kids are still allowed to watch YouTube, but the trust I’d placed in their parental blocks has completely vanished. I’ll be paying more attention to which videos the site “suggests” from now on. In fact, considering YouTube’s exposed history of promoting disgraceful content, perhaps we all should — parent or not.