More than two and a half years ago I tried setting up an Apple account for my then 9-year-old daughter for her new iPod Touch. Apple wouldn’t allow any iTunes downloads for an account with that age, even apps targeted at her age group and younger. To avoid COPPA restrictions, Apple simply restricted accounts for users 13 and under requiring parents to own the account. At the time, I wished Apple would have child-friendly accounts, with restricted access to content and apps. As of December 2014, it seems as if they do, with their Family Sharing feature. This is good.
It’s superfluous to say that kids today know their way around a tablet or smartphone. Yet as smart as they are about reaching content that interests them, most are not mature enough to realize that there are things that should be off limits. With many of today’s bigger companies (Google and Facebook included) taking a hands-off approach by requiring account owners to state that they are 13 and over, they are placing responsibility for children’s online behavior squarely on their parents and only on their parents. Now, as a parent, I totally accept responsibility for my children yet, as a parent, I do need some help. Right now my options are limited to either banning the device or watching their every move. Doable, but challenging.
Which is why I am really happy that Google finally launched a YouTube app for kids which focuses on child-appropriate content in four categories: Shows, Music, Learning and Exploration. A few thoughts:
- Ads. Google’s blog post announcing the product didn’t mention ads, but their help did, promising to “only show ads that are classified as family-friendly.” For the sake of argument, is a PG-13 movie preview safe for toddlers? Is a fast food or sugary cereal ad really family-friendly? Evidence suggests that until 8 years of age most children are cognitively incapable of appreciating the commercial purpose of television advertising and are particularly vulnerable to its persuasive technique, so is it really family-friendly to even include ads? How about offering a paid subscription option?
- Content limits: I thought that the content would be white-listed by pre-screened providers but it seems that this is not the case. Search allows kids to find more content and though that is screened, as Google says, it is possible that some inappropriate content will appear. This is why parents have the options to turn off search.
Parental control. Right now the parental controls are behind a password, but not the kind of password that parents pick out. Instead, the app asks parents to enter the digits they read such as six, three, eight,six (see screenshot, right.) I wonder if they realize that kids read at a very young age, now. I think the search setting is more important than the time limit one and should be better protected. I like the “watch history” feature as well as it allows parents to at least have a conversation about watched videos that may have been inappropriate.
- Targeted age group. The app is good for very young kids and I’m sure toddlers and preschoolers (and their parents) will have a blast using it. But kids online are defined as “under 13” and this app doesn’t offer much for the older kids. Think of tweens, still not mature enough to be granted free access to all YouTube but certainly too old for much of this content. That said, Google does mention that the app will recommend videos and may be adaptable enough for older kids to enjoy it as well. Maybe Google should offer a YouTube for Teens for older groups (tweens would love it if it were called Teen even though it will have content appropriate for 9-12 year olds!)
- Comments. YouTube comments can be toxic. Thankfully these are not visible nor can kids comment in the app.
Finally, all complaints aside, this is an app whose goal is to provide a safe video-viewing app for young children. It’s a great first step in realizing that kids need their own, limited spaces and that parents need help enforcing that space. I hope Google and other app developers see kids as more than a group that needs to lie about their age to be granted access and develop apps that benefit both. May the next generation of kid-friendly app include email, photo sharing, social media, and even messaging. A great first step, Google!