When Google unveiled its mobile YouTube app for kids, the company said it was all about safety.
But a coalition of consumer groups thinks it’s all about commercials.
The coalition of accusers believes the app is “actually taking advantage of children with an onslaught of advertising for junk food and toys, and they want the federal government to investigate,” according to NextGov.
The complainers include The Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers Union, and others who just filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission regarding Google’s YouTube Kids app.
“The groups said the company is breaking the law by failing to clearly identify ads, including entire channels owned by McDonald’s, Barbie, Fisher-Price, Lego, and other companies,” notes NextGov. “Children deserve special protection because they are less able to distinguish advertisements from the actual videos, the groups argued.”
Dale Kunkel, a professor of communications at the University of Arizona who assisted in preparation of the complaint, is blunt.
“YouTube Kids is the most hyper-commercialized media environment for children I have ever seen,” asserted Kunkel. “Many of these advertising tactics are considered illegal on television, and it’s sad to see Google trying to get away with using them in digital media.”
In a statement, Google claims the company “consulted with numerous partners and child advocacy and privacy groups” for the creation of YouTube Kids.
“While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable,” the company spokesperson said. “We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”
While Google’s YouTube Kids (launched in February, 2015) doesn’t collect juveniles’ personal information or target ads based on their activity, detractors say “children may be easily confused as to whether those ads are part of the actual programming, and they are therefore more vulnerable to marketing.”
“There is nothing ‘child friendly’ about an app that obliterates long-standing principles designed to protect kids from commercialism,” says Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. “YouTube Kids exploits children’s developmental vulnerabilities by delivering a steady stream of advertising that masquerades as programming.”
Videos on YouTube Kids were created by companies like McDonald’s, Disney, Lego, and Barbie — and filers of the case believe they’re just ads for the companies’ products. Golin believes many of the videos violate Google’s own policies on advertising directed at kids.
“Google claims it doesn’t accept food and beverage ads, but McDonald’s actually has its own channel and the ‘content’ includes actual Happy Meal commercials,” he said.
No word yet on how the case will turn out. In the meantime, parents should be aware that even sites created for kids are often overrun by commercial videos that have one aim and one aim only: get kids to clamor for the advertised product.