YouTube Proves to be Another Big Problem for the Online Safety of Kids

Recent news coverage has not been kind to social media networks. The founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, spent two days explaining to U.S. Senators and Representatives how and why the personal data of millions of Facebook users ended up in the hands of third-party companies and foreign governments.

One day before Mr. Zuckerberg went to Washington, a group of 20 child advocacy, consumer and privacy groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate and sanction video social network YouTube for violation of federal children’s privacy laws. Specifically, the groups say that YouTube is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires that websites directed at children under the age of 13 get parental consent before they’re allowed to collect children’s data. YouTube doesn’t do this, the complaint says.

Technology newsletter TechCrunch noted that "Technically, YouTube’s site is aimed at those users 13 and older, based on its terms of use. That’s how it gets around having to abide by child privacy laws. But the complaint points to several examples of how the site is clearly targeting younger children, including its hosting of cartoon videos, nursery rhymes and toy ads. Some of the most popular channels on YouTube are also those aimed at young kids, like "Chu Chu TV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs," which has 15.9 million subscribers and over 10 billion channel views, and "Little Baby Bum," which has 14.6 million subscribers and over 14 billion channel views."

The complaint adds that advertisers can target kids’ programming through the “Parenting and Family” lineup in the "Google Preferred" ads platform.

In 2017, YouTube experienced another scandal where thousands of videos that featured popular children’s cartoons such as “Peppa Pig” had storylines and subject-matter that were parodies of these cartoons and were extremely disturbing to children. After the outcry, these “adult” cartoons were removed from the channel. All of this is troubling to the parents of younger children and the pediatricians who try to keep them physically and mentally healthy.

Media Guidelines and Planning Tool from AAP

Two years before the current clamor for online child safety, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recognized the potential danger and value of all forms of media. In 2016, the largest pediatric organization in the country issued its recommendations and resources to help families maintain a "healthy media diet."

The AAP recommended that parents and caregivers develop a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child as well as the entire family.  To that end, the organization developed an innovative, interactive and personalized tool called the "Family Media Use Plan." That planning tool is available for download here or from the Bright Futures guidelines found on the PCC electronic health records (EHR) platform.

In issuing these media guidelines, the AAP noted that "problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning. Too much screen time can also harm the amount and quality of sleep. Organizations like "Common Sense Media" (one of the consumer groups filing the complaint against YouTube with the FTC) can help parents evaluate media content and make decisions about what is appropriate for their family."

Among the AAP recommendations:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.  
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

“Last Answer Memory" Allows Pediatricians to Counsel Parents on Media

Because it is focused exclusively on pediatric medicine, the PCC platform is an excellent resource for doctors and parents who are concerned about media consumption among kids. PCC's software includes the Bright Futures guidelines and also provides "last answer memory" functionality.

Chip Hart, the Director of PCC's Pediatric Solutions consulting group said,

"Pediatric visits are often about the running narrative with families, and the PCC EHR makes it really easy to follow the status of your patients. For example, PCC EHR will remember what mom told you last time when you asked, “How much screen time per day does the child spend?” or “Is there a TV set or Internet connection in the child’s bedroom?” You can spot a potential or growing issue right away.”

Kids and Media: From a Pediatrician and Mom

While it can and should be managed closely, the online media consumption of children is never going back to the days before social media became so popular. As the AAP has correctly noted, media, of all kinds, is "ubiquitous" in the lives of children and families. The challenge becomes finding appropriate online sources for educational, entertaining and (hopefully) enriching content.

As a mother, a pediatrician known for her media savvy, and the author of a recently published book, Baby and Toddler Basics, Dr. Tanya Altmann offered some suggestions for media that are fun and safe for children.

“I believe we should teach kids to use media responsibly,” Dr. Altmann said. “It shouldn’t displace time talking to people and having dinner conversations.

“In my house, we don’t do ‘screen time’ on school days, unless it is for school. We keep all electronics out of kids' rooms and in central locations of our home. For the middle school students, their door stays open while they are on laptop and we check their browser history and discuss anything that is inappropriate.

“For the older kids on weekends, we allow about 2 hours a day of video games and quality TV shows that we watch as a family and then discuss. Our 3-year old gets occasional use of educational apps or shows on weekends, but the iPad isn’t lying around so he doesn’t ask for it all the time! As you can see, our house does not revolve around screens.

“As for Facebook or any other social media, I don’t think any kids should be on it until they are in second year in middle school (at least 13 years old). The first year of middle school is a time for becoming responsible and proving that they can appropriately use online media and not bully or leave hurtful comments. We do this by regularly watching how they interact with their friends. We want them to learn personal communication before using online communication.”

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Tags: patient advocacy, AAP Bright Futures, social media, pediatric ehr