Father of two, Jack Bedell-Pearce, shares a recent experience with YouTube that left him, MD of 4D Data Centres, at a loss. Here he discusses how his eight-year old suddenly accessed unsuitable content online and what steps can be taken to try and prevent such an event happening to you and your family:

YouTube safe for kids

As a director of a technology firm the job of policing internet content in our house falls firmly at my feet. At first glance this was supposed to be relatively easy:

  1. Create ‘family member child accounts’ for the kids on the Windows PC (https://support.microsoft.com/en-gb/help/17199/windows-10-set-up-your-family)
  2. Install and setup Parental Controls with preferred anti-virus provider
  3. Turn on Google ‘Safe Search’
  4. Turn on YouTube ‘Restricted Mode’
  5. Bask in smug glory of being a well-informed tech savvy father
  6. Get in trouble when they watch something inappropriate on YouTube.

Wait… what? Step six wasn’t supposed to happen.

I followed all the advice but YouTube still betrayed me by serving up cartoons containing new words which my eight-year-old promptly taught his younger brother.

So what went wrong?

Well, my parental controls software was part of a Unified Threat Management (UTM) system, which did a great job of filtering any dodgy websites, photos and malware. Unfortunately, because YouTube was included on its Whitelist of websites my son could access, content from that site wasn’t filtered.

Unfortunately, while the ‘Restricted Mode’ within YouTube is pretty good at spotting the worst videos on that site, it doesn’t have any sense of nuance for anyone under the age of 18.

My son is a big fan of Minecraft and as such enjoys watching channels such as ‘Stampy’, a lively ‘cartoon cat’ who records tutorials and videos of him playing the game. But at the end of each video and down the right-hand side of the webpage, YouTube offers ‘Recommendations’ to other videos.

Having tested this myself, I was able to navigate to videos of people playing 18-Rated horror games and cartoons featuring adult themes and language. And to reiterate, this was possible without actively searching anything specific – just clicking on image thumbnails of recommended videos.

So what to do?

Unfortunately, from my research to date, there isn’t a viable Parental Control system that can distinguish the difference between the child-friendly ‘Stampy’ YouTube videos and the less savoury versions.

The easiest option would be to restrict YouTube completely, but this would be a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” approach. There’s a lot of very good, entertaining and educational content on YouTube and in reality, my kids don’t actively search for the bad stuff – they’d much rather watch the kind of stuff they’re used to on CBBC and Nickelodeon.

There is an app called ‘YouTube Kids’ which is available for iOS and Android devices, which is pretty good at filtering content for kids up to 10 years old but it’s not fool proof (it filters based on algorithms) and it isn’t available for PCs or Macs - only mobile devices.

So instead we’ve opted for the following strategy:

  • YouTube can only be accessed if there is an adult supervising at all times
  • We teach our kids about ‘good content’ versus ‘bad content’ and encourage them to turn off anything they recognise as the latter immediately
  • We set them up with a dedicated Google / YouTube account and subscribe them to channels that we know are safe – this means you end up with YouTube recommending more of the age appropriate / safe content
  • On play dates we ask other parents to follow the first rule or, if that’s not possible, then restrict internet access on any device their child has access to (PCs, mobiles and tablets).

YouTube, and other platforms such as Facebook, have huge amounts of child-friendly content but as adults it is possible to be lulled into a false sense of security. Children are naturally curious, and these platforms are designed to push users onto the next piece of content, regardless of their age.

So, until they or a third party software developer can come up with a viable filter for their content, the only solution is education for the children and vigilance from the parents.