What your child think is a Peppa Pig or Elsa video could be a knock-off cartoon depicting their favourite character in dangerous, upsetting or sexual situations.
Several years ago, when my first-born was a toddler, we got an iPad. I’d subscribe to a few cute and educational YouTube channels – nursery rhymes, Barney, Sesame Street – and let her watch a few short videos while I’d sit next to her, working.
One day, after coming back from the kitchen, I realised she wasn’t watching the content I’d lined up, and I went back into the app’s history. I found a Dragon Ball Z copycat video in which a boy and girl pulled down their pants and showed each other "theirs". In the Up Next feed, there was string of unofficial Barney videos, one showing Barney being blown up gruesomely, children crying.
I was dumbstruck. My browser history was clean, restricted mode on. But the thumbnails and titles of the videos were innocuous enough to slip through.
Also read: Making YouTube safer for your kids
I dismissed it as the work of a few lone stoners in their grandma’s basement, and vowed to keep an even closer eye on what she watched.
A few years later, I read about a mom who’d found unsuitable videos that had slipped through the then new YouTube Kids app’s filters. Those trolls again, I thought. But still I didn’t realise the sheer extend of it all.
What is ElsaGate?
So I was stunned to read about #ElsaGate this holiday. In a well-researched story for The Verge, Russell Brandom unpacks the slew of creepy videos that are increasingly mimicking kids’ content on YouTube.
What sparked the story and further investigations was a subreddit, posted 6 months ago by TheLocalGamer, called #ElsaGate. “I think it’s time more people knew about Elsagate,” he started his first post.
TheLocalGamer – and other redditors subsequently – flagged tons of “fun” channels aimed at 2- to 5-year-olds, depicting popular cartoon characters in scenes involving sex, violence, death, cheating parents, injections, drugging, kidnapping, killing, cannibalism, eating excrement or urinating on someone else.
Delving deeper, I found other disturbing kinds of kiddies content on YouTube.
There are a slew of "educational channels" – with titles such as "ABC songs for children" or "Educational counting nursery rhyme songs for children" – that repeat endless variations of the same nursery rhyme or theme. These videos aren't violent or sexual but are likely the fruit of bots, programmed to auto-create thousands of versions using stock images, clever graphics tools and royalty-free tunes, and then add a string of kiddies keywords to the titles and descriptions.
You also get the adults who cosplay dressed as Elsa and Spider-Man in scenes that soon turn into a fetish fantasy.
Another genre of channels appear suitable for kids, but show baby dolls playing with scissors, real toddlers being hurt until they cry, and even child rape – though I’ve never seen these. Whooah.
And the creepy channels showing “educational nursery rhymes” and such, with poor animation, poor sound quality designed to sound "freaky", and visuals ranging from “off” to downright disturbing.
I mean, I’m freaked out by this:
Here’s the weirdest bit – you'll see a video uploaded just two days ago having already racked up over 2 million views. It's because these videos are even being viewed and commented on by bots. There are big bucks in YouTube views, because for every view, an ad is displayed and the profit is shared by YouTube and the channel's creator.
What makes this extra sinister is that these videos are clearly masked and marketed at children. And they aren’t being filtered out by the YouTube Kids app. The specific scenes are so common among all the hundreds of thousands of videos that they seem to originate from the same place, and they often are. It's not the work of a lone loser, but organised to a high degree.
Reporting these channels
These channels can and should be reported to YouTube. TheLocalGamer’s concern was that the issue had been brought to the attention of YouTube, who hadn’t by then made any comment about it.
"Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level."
Kids love bright things, they love pleasant songs and sounds, they love sitting and watching those compilations on YouTube that could go on for more than an hour.
But little ones can’t yet distinguish between official brand accounts and channels pirating their favourite characters. If we allow our children to consume content on YouTube, we absolutely have to have a chat with them about fake news and bots.
But there’s also the human element: the real adults and real children in these videos.
And the tropes, like the Bad Baby one, featuring real crying babies or children, who are sometimes clearly hurt or in pain amounting to nothing else but abuse.
James Bridle points out the dumbfounding proliferation of Finger Family songs and surprise eggs for kids – we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of videos with billions of views.
In December 2017, however, YouTube did step up and started purging tons of these channels, employing 10 000 moderators and investing in sophisticated algorithms, said CEO Susan Wojcicki. “Our goal is to stay one step ahead of bad actors, making it harder for policy-violating content to surface or remain on YouTube… We are planning to apply stricter criteria, conduct more manual curation, while also significantly ramping up our team of ad reviewers to ensure ads are only running where they should."
And when my laptop’s YouTube setting of Restricted Mode is on, I’m pleased to say that these specific videos and channels mentioned by the other authors are blocked.
Also see: YouTube Parent resources
But for every channel deleted, another hundred seem to spring up. There are even whispers that certain YouTube videos and especially the comments sections could harbour portals to child paedophilia sites, others suspect organisations of communicating through codes and colours in the titles, subtitles and comments of some strange but seemingly harmless children's videos.
I must admit to not having seen anything this dark on YouTube, which my girls have been watching on a big TV screen in the middle of the house for all to see.
Even so, after learning about exactly how prevalent, insidious and organised this infiltration is, I’ve banned YouTube for the time being.
Have you seen any supposedly child-friendly videos on YouTube that absolutely shouldn't be seen by kids? Tell us and we can share it and warn other parents.