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What Brands Should Know About The New Era of Digital Kids’ Entertainment

From YouTube’s inappropriate (and viral) kids’ content to data-collecting smart speakers, children’s digital privacy and security has become top-of-mind for Millennial parents. We asked an expert to find out more…

As more devices and platforms take over kids’ entertainment time, Millennial parents are becoming increasingly worried about their children’s privacy and security—and increasingly confused about what they can, or should, do. Journalists and organizations have stepped in to hold companies that are pushing to maximize “time spent” accountable. YouTube has been called out again and again for letting questionable and outright inappropriate videos slip through the cracks—like “Johny Johny Yes Papa.” Advocacy groups are also shining a spotlight on smart speakers, which they say aren’t transparent about the data they’re recording and the third parties they’re sending it to. Recently, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood tested the Amazon Echo Dot kids edition to find that it records sensitive information that can only be deleted by calling customer service, reports the New York Times.

But while our New Parents on the Block trend found that 77% of Millennial parents believe limiting their children’s screen time will be an ongoing effort in their parenting, nearly half let their kids watch free videos on YouTube weekly or more often and they’re far more likely to own smart speakers than their non-parent counterparts. Considering that unplugging is unrealistic (or just unwanted) in the average Millennial household, we spoke to Josh Golin, Executive Director of the CCFC, for an expert opinion on the safety concerns that could shape their purchasing and media consumption habits—concerns that brands should keep in mind when deciding where and how to market to this high-spending demo.

Smart speakers are being called out for not protecting privacy, especially kids’. Can parents have them and maintain their child’s privacy and security?

I think it’s really hard. Given that it’s so unclear what’s happening with all the data that Amazon is collecting, it’s very hard to control what they’re doing with it. Given what we’ve learned about Amazon employees and third parties listening to the actual conversations, once you get one of these devices, it’s not clear to me that you can [protect your privacy]. By far the clearest way you have to protect your child’s privacy is by not getting one of these things or not having your child interact with it.

What do companies need to do to make these devices safer?

Recordings should by default be deleted after a very short period of time. For instance, with the Amazon Echo or the Echo Dot Kids version, the information is being instantly transcribed into text. So why is there any need to keep those voice recordings? The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act says you’re supposed to minimize data retention.

I think another step in the right direction would be to be very clear about what information is collected through these devices and who has access to it. If you look at the privacy policy for the Echo Dot Kids, it doesn’t say what types of information may be collected and it says that third parties who help with internal operations may have access to it. But what does that even mean? I think if we’re talking about a device that’s living in a child’s bedroom or home, it should be okayed by parents. They should be completely honest because if parents understood the vast data that’s being collected and what’s being done with it, they might have some real unease about it. But at the very least, they should be helping parents make informed decisions about whether to buy these things and that means being really clear about who exactly has access to this stuff and what the data is. We had lawyers who specialize in children’s privacy looking at [these privacy policies] and they couldn’t make heads or tails of what was happening with the data that was being collected from children. So the expectation that a parent could figure it out on their own is ludicrous.

Editor’s Note: After this interview took place, Adweek reports that Amazon made it easier to delete recorded data on their smart speakers. 

Do you think there are measures that parents can take if they own smart speakers to make them safer or do you think companies have to make changes first?

I think there are things that parents can do but they’re really time-consuming. If the whole advantage of a smart speaker is that it’s supposed to save us those 10 seconds that we would have taken to type something in, and if we’re now having to spend 45 minutes a week going in and deleting stuff from Amazon, it’s undermining the convenience of the device. So I really do think it’s on the companies and that we can’t have informed consumers if they’re not telling us what they’re doing.

Backlash has been building about YouTube’s lack of regulation over videos on both their main platform and their kids’ site. What changes do you think the platform would need to implement to make it a safe place for kids?

The way that YouTube Kids should be set up is that everything should be reviewed by a human. I know they do some human review to supplement the algorithm, but it’s clearly not good enough. And if the idea is that you can’t have a YouTube Kids app with human review because there’s just too many videos, kids don’t need access to millions of videos. What they need access to is content that has been curated and vetted.

Even more importantly, I think one of the things that’s flabbergasting about YouTube Kids is that if I’m a responsible media producer and I don’t want my kids’ content [aligned with] all the inappropriate recommendations that happen on YouTube, and if I don’t want illegal data collection (because YouTube is violating COPPA on a massive scale), there is no way for me as a media producer to just upload my videos to YouTube Kids. The only way to get onto YouTube Kids is to upload your videos to the main YouTube platform and hope that you get ported over to YouTube Kids. But even if you do, your videos remain on the main YouTube site.

And if you are going to keep kids’ videos on YouTube, then you need to treat those videos differently. You need to not have any of the data collection, you need to tag those videos so that they’re being treated separately, and you have to have no recommendations. If you were designing a platform for kids’ benefit, you wouldn’t have a platform that was designed to try and keep kids on as long as possible in order to collect more data and deliver more advertising to them. You would have very clear beginnings and endings and you wouldn’t go automatically to the next video. You would actually probably have a black screen that played there for a couple minutes as a reminder to parents and kids that the video is over and it’s time to go.

What do you recommend parents do to monitor their kids’ use?

I know that some parents would find this unrealistic, but I don’t think that children, particularly young children, should be allowed to watch YouTube by themselves.

How do you think growing up with YouTube is affecting the next generation?

I think that first of all, from our standpoint at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, one of the things that’s so concerning about YouTube is how commercialized it is. For kids who are growing up watching what are essentially infomercials (like unboxing videos), we have concerns that that’s going to make them more materialistic and more focused on purchasing and consumption.

I also think it’s so hard to find quality content on YouTube compared to traditional television, and so much of it is only created for clicks and not created for real entertainment or educational value. There are concerns about what that’s going to mean for children’s attention. Kids who have an expectation that the moment they’re bored they can just go to YouTube don’t have any experience of working through boredom in offline ways. Also, I am worried about when eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds are watching video game streams and being exposed to a coarsening of the culture. I am not somebody who romanticizes children’s television, but I do think there’s much more thought that goes into producing many of those programs. There’s an expectation of narrative which disappears on a lot of [YouTube videos,] particularly for young children.

Would you go so far as to say Gen Z kids are addicted to technology?

I know that some people don’t like to use [the word addiction] with kids because our models for addiction are based on adults. But I think that certainly far too many kids are relying on media for far too many things and what we hear from parents that as kids get older and bigger physically, the struggles that they have when it’s time to turn off YouTube or time to turn off the gaming system or Snapchat and the way that children react is very reminiscent of the way that addicts act when you say they can’t have access to something. So I think it’s extremely concerning and I think what’s most concerning from a cultural standpoint is what we’re learning about the fact that making [devices] harder to turn off is being done deliberately. And if your business model relies on exploiting a young child’s developmental and psychological vulnerabilities to keep them from using your product over and over again, then you don’t have a very ethical business model.

To download the PDF version of this insight article, click here.