As someone who grew up on the internet, I credit it as one of the most important influences on who I am today. I had a computer with internet access in my bedroom from the age of 13. It gave me access to a lot of things which were totally inappropriate for a young teenager, but it was OK. The culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships which I consider to be central to my identity were shaped by the internet, in ways that I have always considered to be beneficial to me personally. I have always been a critical proponent of the internet and everything it has brought, and broadly considered it to be emancipatory and beneficial. I state this at the outset because thinking through the implications of the problem I am going to describe troubles my own assumptions and prejudices in significant ways.
One of the thus-far hypothetical questions I ask myself frequently is how I would feel about my own children having the same kind of access to the internet today. And I find the question increasingly difficult to answer. I understand that this is a natural evolution of attitudes which happens with age, and at some point this question might be a lot less hypothetical. I don’t want to be a hypocrite about it. I would want my kids to have the same opportunities to explore and grow and express themselves as I did. I would like them to have that choice. And this belief broadens into attitudes about the role of the internet in public life as whole.
I’ve also been aware for some time of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between younger children and YouTube. I see kids engrossed in screens all the time, in pushchairs and in restaurants, and there’s always a bit of a Luddite twinge there, but I am not a parent, and I’m not making parental judgments for or on anyone else. I’ve seen family members and friend’s children plugged into Peppa Pig and nursery rhyme videos, and it makes them happy and gives everyone a break, so OK.
But I don’t even have kids and right now I just want to burn the whole thing down.
Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level. Much of what I am going to describe next has been covered elsewhere, although none of the mainstream coverage I’ve seen has really grasped the implications of what seems to be occurring.
To begin: Kid’s YouTube is definitely and markedly weird. I’ve been aware of its weirdness for some time. Last year, there were a number of articles posted about the Surprise Egg craze. Surprise Eggs videos depict, often at excruciating length, the process of unwrapping Kinder and other egg toys. That’s it, but kids are captivated by them. There are thousands and thousands of these videos and thousands and thousands, if not millions, of children watching them.
From the article linked above:
The maker of my particular favorite videos is “Blu Toys Surprise Brinquedos & Juegos,” and since 2010 he seems to have accrued 3.7 million subscribers and just under 6 billion views for a kid-friendly channel entirely devoted to opening surprise eggs and unboxing toys. The video titles are a continuous pattern of obscure branded lines and tie-ins: “Surprise Play Doh Eggs Peppa Pig Stamper Cars Pocoyo Minecraft Smurfs Kinder Play Doh Sparkle Brilho,” “Cars Screamin’ Banshee Eats Lightning McQueen Disney Pixar,” “Disney Baby Pop Up Pals Easter Eggs SURPRISE.”
As I write this he has done a total of 4,426 videos and counting. With so many views — for comparison, Justin Bieber’s official channel has more than 10 billion views, while full-time YouTube celebrity PewDiePie has nearly 12 billion — it’s likely this man makes a living as a pair of gently murmuring hands that unwrap Kinder eggs. (Surprise-egg videos are all accompanied by pre-roll, and sometimes mid-video and ads.)
That should give you some idea of just how odd the world of kids online video is, and that list of video titles hints at the extraordinary range and complexity of this situation. We’ll get into the latter in a minute; for the moment know that it’s already very strange, if apparently pretty harmless, out there.
Another huge trope, especially the youngest children, is nursery rhyme videos.
Little Baby Bum, which made the above video, is the 7th most popular channel on YouTube. With just 515 videos, they have accrued 11.5 million subscribers and 13 billion views. Again, there are questions as to the accuracy of these numbers, which I’ll get into shortly, but the key point is that this is a huge, huge network and industry.
On-demand video is catnip to both parents and to children, and thus to content creators and advertisers. Small children are mesmerised by these videos, whether it’s familiar characters and songs, or simply bright colours and soothing sounds. The length of many of these videos — one common video tactic is to assemble many nursery rhyme or cartoon episodes into hour+ compilations —and the way that length is marketed as part of the video’s appeal, points to the amount of time some kids are spending with them.
YouTube broadcasters have thus developed a huge number of tactics to draw parents’ and childrens’ attention to their videos, and the advertising revenues that accompany them. The first of these tactics is simply to copy and pirate other content. A simple search for “Peppa Pig” on YouTube in my case yielded “About 10,400,000 results” and the front page is almost entirely from the verified “Peppa Pig Official Channel”, while one is from an unverified channel called Play Go Toys, which you really wouldn’t notice unless you were looking out for it:
Play Go Toys’ channel consists of (I guess?) pirated Peppa Pig and other cartoons, videos of toy unboxings (another kid magnet), and videos of, one supposes, the channel owner’s own children. I am not alleging anything bad about Play Go Toys; I am simply illustrating how the structure of YouTube facilitates the delamination of content and author, and how this impacts on our awareness and trust of its source.
As another blogger notes, one of the traditional roles of branded content is that it is a trusted source. Whether it’s Peppa Pig on children’s TV or a Disney movie, whatever one’s feelings about the industrial model of entertainment production, they are carefully produced and monitored so that kids are essentially safe watching them, and can be trusted as such. This no longer applies when brand and content are disassociated by the platform, and so known and trusted content provides a seamless gateway to unverified and potentially harmful content.
(Yes, this is the exact same process as the delamination of trusted news media on Facebook feeds and in Google results that is currently wreaking such havoc on our cognitive and political systems and I am not going to explicitly explore that relationship further here, but it is obviously deeply significant.)
A second way of increasing hits on videos is through keyword/hashtag association, which is a whole dark art unto itself. When some trend, such as Surprise Egg videos, reaches critical mass, content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration. This is the origin of all the weird names in the list above: branded content and nursery rhyme titles and “surprise egg” all stuffed into the same word salad to capture search results, sidebar placement, and “up next” autoplay rankings.
A striking example of the weirdness is the Finger Family videos (harmless example embedded above). I have no idea where they came from or the origin of the children’s rhyme at the core of the trope, but there are at least 17 million versions of this currently on YouTube, and again they cover every possible genre, with billions and billions of aggregated views.
Once again, the view numbers of these videos must be taken under serious advisement. A huge number of these videos are essentially created by bots and viewed by bots, and even commented on by bots. That is a whole strange world in and of itself. But it shouldn’t obscure that there are also many actual children, plugged into iphones and tablets, watching these over and over again — in part accounting for the inflated view numbers — learning to type basic search terms into the browser, or simply mashing the sidebar to bring up another video.
What I find somewhat disturbing about the proliferation of even (relatively) normal kids videos is the impossibility of determining the degree of automation which is at work here; how to parse out the gap between human and machine. The example above, from a channel called Bounce Patrol Kids, with almost two million subscribers, show this effect in action. It posts professionally produced videos, with dedicated human actors, at the rate of about one per week. Once again, I am not alleging anything untoward about Bounce Patrol, which clearly follows in the footsteps of pre-digital kid sensations like their fellow Australians The Wiggles.
And yet, there is something weird about a group of people endlessly acting out the implications of a combination of algorithmically generated keywords: “Halloween Finger Family & more Halloween Songs for Children | Kids Halloween Songs Collection”, “Australian Animals Finger Family Song | Finger Family Nursery Rhymes”, “Farm Animals Finger Family and more Animals Songs | Finger Family Collection - Learn Animals Sounds”, “Safari Animals Finger Family Song | Elephant, Lion, Giraffe, Zebra & Hippo! Wild Animals for kids”, “Superheroes Finger Family and more Finger Family Songs! Superhero Finger Family Collection”, “Batman Finger Family Song — Superheroes and Villains! Batman, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman” and on and on and on. This is content production in the age of algorithmic discovery — even if you’re a human, you have to end up impersonating the machine.
Other channels do away with the human actors to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos. The above channel, Videogyan 3D Rhymes — Nursery Rhymes & Baby Songs, posts several videos a week, in increasingly byzantine combinations of keywords. They have almost five million subscribers — more than double Bounce Patrol — although once again it’s impossible to know who or what is actually racking up these millions and millions of views.
I’m trying not to turn this essay into an endless list of examples, but it’s important to grasp how vast this system is, and how indeterminate its actions, process, and audience. It’s also international: there are variations of Finger Family and Learn Colours videos for Tamil epics and Malaysian cartoons which are unlikely to pop up in any Anglophone search results. This very indeterminacy and reach is key to its existence, and its implications. Its dimensionality makes it diffic
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