When YouTube launched its standalone YouTube Kids app last year, the company said the idea was to make life easier for parents: hand your kid a tablet or smartphone and don’t worry about them seeing anything kid-inappropriate. But critics said at least one kind of objectionable content was still making its way through the filter: ads. Advocacy groups argue that kids often lack the sophistication to distinguish between ads and regular videos. Now, YouTube is offering parents concerned about ads a way to get around them: they can pay.
Today, the Google-owned company said it’s incorporating YouTube Kids into YouTube Red, the company’s paid subscription service that strips videos of ads for $10 a month. Red subscribers can also watch content offline and stream music.
“We’ve been trying to keenly listen to the community and make sure parents are in the driver’s seat,” says Malik Ducard, head of content for YouTube Kids. “The core driving factor really is choice. Ducard says YouTube plans to roll out more parental controls for the YouTube Kids app, including that ability to include or exclude specific videos and channels.
The company would seem to have good reason to cater to parents. A year-and-a-half and millions of downloads later, YouTube Kids has topped more than 10 billion video views annually. It ranks among the top five kids apps in the iOS and Android app stores.
Still, YouTube Kids can’t seem to shake its critics. Twice last year, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the app. In April, the groups said YouTube Kids mixes product placement-style ads into YouTube videos that don’t disclose the creator is hawking for money. In November, they said they’d found hundreds of commercials and promotional videos advertising junk food.
YouTube says its policy team must approve all ads in the Kids app to ensure they meet company guidelines. But that hasn’t assuaged everyone’s concerns. Nor does the new paid version, which some critics say discriminates against lower-income users. “Google recognizes that YouTube has become very important in the lives of children who turn to YouTube for entertainment and information,” says Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy. “And it’s out there to monetize it.”
‘Google recognizes YouTube has become very important to children—and it’s out there to monetize it.’ Jeff Chester, Center for Digital Democracy
For its part, YouTube says its Kids app doesn’t track users’ viewing habits to target them with ads, as is common practice across the Internet. And others argue that there’s nothing particularly discriminatory about offering premium features for a monthly fee, a standard tech business model. Either way, as YouTube Kids gets ever-more popular, YouTube increasingly gets to call the shots about how online videos for kids will work. And that’s a world away from television, where established rules and standards safeguard kids from inappropriate content. “All this calls out for is safeguards for young people that address all platforms, regardless of the device and regardless of application,” says Chester. In the meantime, parents whose kids watch YouTube now have two choices: let their kids see ads. Or pay to make them go away.