The six-week-old YouTube Kids service is a "hyper-commercialized" environment that intermixes advertising and other programming in a way that deceives its target audience, a coalition of privacy and children's advocacy groups said in a complaint to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
Joining in giving YouTube Kids the big thumbs-down are the Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. They say the video app, targeted toward preschool children, blurs the lines between advertising and other programming using methods that are prohibited by federal regulations on commercial television.
In their request Tuesday for an FTC investigation, the groups say that YouTube Kids' programming amounts to an unfair business practice.
The video service, which bills itself as safe for children, is "the most hyper-commercialized media environment for children I have ever seen," said Dale Kunkel, a professor of communications at the University of Arizona.
YouTube corporate parent Google defended the service, saying it doesn't collect personal information and it includes several parental-control features. "When developing YouTube Kids we consulted with numerous partners and child advocacy and privacy groups," a Google representative said by email. "We are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app."
U.S. regulators haven't applied rules for children's television programming to the digital environment, partly because online companies have been slow to target young children with advertising, said Kunkel, a long-time children's media researcher. But YouTube Kids uses "numerous tactics that have already been ruled illegal on TV," he said by email. "It's astonishing that a major company like this would be so completely out of touch with the special protections typically afforded to children in electronic media."
Some of the practices on YouTube Kids, including program hosts pitching products to children "haven't been seen since the 1950s," Kunkel added.
YouTube Kids often plays ads immediately before or after other video content, with no separation between channel content like Sesame Street and Thomas and Friends and the advertising, the complaint said. There's no clear separation between the ads and other content, as required on TV, the complaint said, and while the ads are labeled, many YouTube Kids viewers may not be able to read those labels.
"This blending of children's programming content with advertising material on television has long been prohibited because it is unfair and deceptive to children," the groups said in the complaint. "The fact that children are viewing the videos on a tablet or smartphone screen instead of on a television does not make it any less unfair and deceptive."
In addition, YouTube Kids features branded channels for McDonald's, Barbie, Fisher-Price and other products that are "little more than program-length commercials," and are not labeled as advertising, the groups said in a news release.
The service also distributes what it calls "user-generated" segments that feature toys, candy and other products without disclosing that the producers of the videos have business relationships with the companies selling those products, the complaint said. That failure to disclose the business relationships likely violates the FTC's endorsement guidelines, which require product reviewers to disclose business relationships with companies, the groups said.
The complaint goes beyond YouTube Kids intermingling advertising with other content, said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "It's also that they are marketing their app as being a safe haven for children when, in fact, from a commercialism standpoint, it's far worse than other platforms for kids," he said by email.
YouTube Kids should be redesigned, added Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy group that has criticized other Google practices.
"They are focused on transforming kids' clicks and eyeballs into much needed profits -- so much so they lost sense of their corporate responsibility to young people and their families," he said by email. "The app needs to be redesigned to act as a age-appropriate channel for young children -- not as just another Google ad-supported product application."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is email@example.com.