YouTube's dark side could be affecting your child's mental health

  • Mental health experts warn that fear-inducing videos affect brain development in young children.
  • YouTube is toughening its approach to policing content for children. With 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, vetting malicious content is proving difficult.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents about the importance of limiting screen time.
A Bubble Guppies character pole dances in a bar. The next scene displays boys panting while one male character’s nose bleeds.
Source: YouTube
A Bubble Guppies character pole dances in a bar. The next scene displays boys panting while one male character’s nose bleeds.

As parents increasingly question the effects technology has on their children's health and well-being, many are alarmed by the slew of reports coming out about malicious content on YouTube targeting children as young as two years old.

In recent months parents and psychotherapists have reported that perpetrators have manipulated content from well-known beloved children's franchises, such as Entertainment One's Peppa Pig, Nickelodeon's PAW Patrol and Disney's Frozen and Mickey Mouse, and inserted inappropriate and disturbing content involving popular characters.

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According to medical experts, this content has an adverse effect on the developing brain. "Children who repeatedly experience stressful and/or fearful emotions may underdevelop parts of their brain's prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe, the parts of the brain responsible for executive functions, like making conscious choices and planning ahead, said Donna Volpitta, Ed.D., founder of The Center for Resilient Leadership."

What's worse, some of this content is filtering down into YouTube Kids, an app launched by Google in 2015 that has 11 million viewers and is supposed to contain only child-friendly content. These offending videos are only a fraction of YouTube's kid-friendly universe, yet they are another example of the potential for abuse on digital platforms that rely on algorithms to police content — and the latest in a string of reports that reveal the dark side of technology on young minds.

A child gets chased around a playground by giant spiders while the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” nursery rhyme song plays.
Source: YouTube
A child gets chased around a playground by giant spiders while the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” nursery rhyme song plays.

While most of the digital perpetrators are unknown, what is certain is that their intent to do harm is deliberate, as it is quite easy for a child to stumble upon these video clips. For example, just five clicks into the popular "Dave and Ava — Nursery Rhymes and Baby Songs" in YouTube's "Up Next" autofeed suggestions pulls up a scary video featuring Nickelodeon's PAW Patrol characters. (PAW Patrol is a much-loved cartoon for children ages 2 to 5 about heroic dogs with human jobs.) The video, like most in this category, appears fairly innocuous in the first few minutes but becomes progressively darker with time.

A ghost ties up PAW Patrol’s Marshal character with her hair as he cries “help me” over and over. The next scene displays Marshal having a nightmare in bed, screaming those same words.
Source: YouTube
A ghost ties up PAW Patrol’s Marshal character with her hair as he cries “help me” over and over. The next scene displays Marshal having a nightmare in bed, screaming those same words.

In a recent statement, Disney and Nickelodeon have said they are looking into ways to prevent these videos from reaching young viewers. Google has also repeatedly apologized for these disturbing videos and admits more needs to be done. Yet with 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, vetting malicious content is proving difficult. Recognizing the challenge in December, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that the company will hire more than 10,000 people to moderate videos across its site and identify content that violates its policies.

Since YouTube was founded in 2005 by former PayPal colleagues Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim (it was snapped up by Google for $1.65 billion just a year and a half later), its popularity among children has surged. Now mental health experts warn that YouTube is a growing source of anxiety and inappropriate sexual behavior among kids under the age of 13, and parents and educators need to get involved.

Watching "fear-inducing videos cause the brain to receive a small amount of dopamine," said Dr. Volpitta. Dopamine is produced in the body to promote reinforcement — it acts as a reward and creates a desire to do something over and over.

Signs your child is experiencing emotional stress

Your child is more prone to mood swings.

Your child withdraws from activities.

Your child routinely expresses worries.

Your child is complaining, crying, or displaying fearful reactions.

Your child is clinging to a parent or teacher.

Your child is sleeping too much or too little.

Your child is eating too much or too little.

Source: American Psychological Association

Natasha Daniels, LCSW, child psychotherapist in Chandler, Arizona, agrees. She is the founder of AnxiousToddlers.com, an educational website for parents. "YouTube is an ongoing conversation in my therapy practice, which indicates there's a problem," she said. Over the last five years, she said she has seen a rise in cases of children suffering from anxiety triggered by videos they have watched on YouTube. These children exhibit loss of appetite, sleeplessness, crying fits and fear.

Daniels said parents should heed YouTube's terms of service, which states, "The Service is not intended for children under 13." She continues, "I'm seeing this impacting kids between the ages of six to 12, but it's the younger ones that are really concerning."

Even more disturbing than the videos that cause stressful emotions are the ones containing sexually explicit content that target children.

"There have been times when a child is brought to my office between [the ages of] eight and 10 and they're found doing sexual things: oral sex, kissing and getting naked and acting out sexual poses. This usually indicates some sort of sexual abuse. In the past, whenever I did some investigating, I would find a child who has been molested himself or that an adult has been grooming the child for abuse. However, in the last five years, when I follow the trail all the way back, it's YouTube and that's where it ends," said Daniels.

Recommendations for parents to restrict children's media use

Children under 18 months should avoid screen-based media with video-chatting being an exception.

Children 18 months to 24 months should only watch with their parents, with their parents choosing high-quality content.

Children two to five should only watch high-quality video of their parent's choosing for one hour per day.

Children aged six or older should receive consistent limits on media use, with priority given to sleep and activities rather than media consumption.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

Chamath Palihapitiya, one of Facebook's original executives, has been very vocal about how he believes technology is devolving society. "[My children get] no screen time whatsoever," he said during a recent interview on CNBC's Squawk Box. Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs also famously went against their children's wishes by raising them with little to no screen time.

In place of watching YouTube or using devices, Dr. Volpitta recommends that children spend more time creating and exploring.

"When a child is outside playing, he or she is learning how to fail, persist, collaborate, strategize, and problem-solve. The brain of a child who successfully climbs their bike up a hill will be rewarded with a larger dose of dopamine and serotonin [a feel-good chemical] than one who sits in front of a screen. This helps a child learn how to prepare and work towards long-term goals," she said.

Facebook's Palihapitiya shares the same outlook, telling his kids, "You go figure it out, go outside, skin your knee, fall on the ground, play a sport, lose at something, and then come back to me and we'll talk about it."

Tech giants take an active role

To address the growing problem, YouTube has terminated more than 50 channels and removed thousands of videos from its platform. It is also using machine-learning to mine for harmful content targeting kids. According to its website, the YouTube staff "carefully reviews flagged content 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to determine whether there's a violation of our Community Guidelines." Yet the social media platform declined to comment on why the company continues to see content slip through its filters and how it's going to heighten efforts to tackle this growing problem.

Fortunately, for the first time, social media giants are getting called out and starting to take responsibility for how people are using their platforms: Google recently deleted 60 kid-themed apps from its Google Play app store after security firm Check Point found that they contained malware that could display pornographic content, trick users into installing fake "security apps" or induce them to sign up for premium SMS services. Apple was scolded for its negligence in protecting children from addictive behavior that often leads to depression, sleep deprivation and decreased mental health. And earlier this month a group of Silicon Valley technologists who were early employees at Facebook and Google announced they are banding together to create the Center for Humane Technology.

Along with the nonprofit media watchdog group Common Sense Media, it is planning an anti-tech addiction lobbying effort and an ad campaign at 55,000 public schools across the United States. The campaign, titled The Truth About Tech, will focus on educating students, parents and teachers about the dangers of technology, including the depression that can come from heavy use of social media.

"[Tech giants] are going to fix this stuff more than anybody else," said Palihapitiya. "Why is anxiety and depression amongst our teenagers higher than they've ever been? In a world that is safer, in a world that is more constructed, in a world where you should have access to everything. We just have to figure this out and talk about it."

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