YOUTUBE PROMISED TO HALT COMMENTS ON VIDEOS WITH YOUNG KIDS. IT HASN’T

A pedophilia scandal compelled YouTube to vow to suspend comments on videos with kids age 13 and younger. Six months later, comments are still easy to find.

SEPTEMBER 9, 2019 5:00 AM

A young boy's face is illuminated by a phone screen
YouTube announced plans to tighten its policies for kids-oriented videos Wednesday. Getty Images

YouTube is about to reposition how its massive online video service treats clips for children. Following a record $170 million penalty, announced Wednesday, for violating kids’ data privacy, Google’s YouTube pledged to disable comments, notifications and personalized ads on all videos directed at children. And its machine learning will police YouTube’s sprawling catalog to keep kids videos in line, the company said. 

One problem: YouTube’s machine learning was supposed to be suspending comments on videos featuring young minors already. It hasn’t.

Comment-enabled videos prominently depicting young kids are still easy to find on YouTube. A single YouTube search for one kids-focused subject — “pretend play” — returned more than 100 videos with comments enabled, all prominently featuring infants, preschoolers and other children young enough to still have their baby teeth. 

After CNET contacted YouTube with a list of these videos, comments were disabled on nearly half of them. 

“We invest significantly in the teams and technologies that allow us to provide minors and families the best protection possible,” YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi said. “We’ve suspended comments on hundreds of millions of videos featuring minors in risky situations and implemented a classifier that helps us remove two times the number of violative comments. We continue to disable comments on hundreds of thousands of videos a day and improve our classifiers.”

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YouTube is the world’s biggest online video source, with 2 billion monthly users — so big, in fact, it’s the world’s top source for kids videos too. Kids content is one of its most-watched categories, but YouTube has come under fire for a range of scandals involving children. That $170 million penalty addressed the data YouTube collects on kids without parents’ consent. But YouTube has also faced scandals involving videos of child abuse and exploitation and nightmarish content in its YouTube Kids app, pitched as a kid-safe zone. 

YouTube’s difficulty managing children’s content is only one problem in a parade that the Google-owned site has faced in the last few years, including claims it proliferates hate speech, spreads conspiracy theories and discriminates against some creators. Google’s one of the big tech companies facing increasing questions about the power it wields, with the Justice Department kicking off an antitrust investigation into big tech.

In February, YouTube said it would disable comments on videos with young kids following an outcry over a ring of softcore pedophilia. Some videos featuring young children included comments with predatory links. Clicking on the links would transport viewers to other moments in YouTube videos with a minor in a sexually suggestive position. And once you fall in that rabbit hole, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm appeared to feed you more of the same.  

So YouTube said it would suspend comments on videos featuring minors who were 13 and younger, as well as on videos featuring older minors who could be at risk of attracting predatory behavior. The changes would take place “over the next few months,” YouTube said then. YouTube would make an exception for “a small number of channels that actively moderate their comments and take additional steps to protect children,” the company said at the time.

What we found

Six months later, CNET’s single search found more than 100 videos posted in the last month by more than 100 different channels. They all featured young children — babies, toddlers and kids clearly no older than elementary school students. All had comments enabled. 

The videos ranged from clips with almost no views on channels with zero subscribers to videos that have been viewed nearly 23 million times. One video had 1,750 comments. Several videos showed children in limited clothing, like a young girl in a bathing suit or a baby in a diaper. 

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