Earlier this year, Google unveiled a mobile app that it said would make YouTube safe for kids. But a coalition of consumer groups says the app is actually taking advantage of children with an onslaught of advertising for junk food and toys, and they want the federal government to investigate.
The Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers Union, among others, filed a complaint on Tuesday with the Federal Trade Commission over Google's YouTube Kids app.
The groups said the company is breaking the law by failing to clearly identify ads, including entire channels owned by McDonald's, Barbie, Fisher-Price, Lego, and other companies. Children deserve special protection because they are less able to distinguish advertisements from the actual videos, the groups argued.
"YouTube Kids is the most hyper-commercialized media environment for children I have ever seen," said Dale Kunkel, a professor of communications at the University of Arizona, who helped prepare the complaint. "Many of these advertising tactics are considered illegal on television, and it's sad to see Google trying to get away with using them in digital media."
In a statement, a Google spokesperson emphasized that the company "consulted with numerous partners and child advocacy and privacy groups" when it designed YouTube Kids.
"While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable," the company spokesperson said. "We disagree and think that great content shouldn't be reserved for only those families who can afford it."
Google launched YouTube Kids in February, saying it was "built from the ground up with little ones in mind" and that it would make it "safer and easier for children to find videos on topics they want to explore." Unlike the full version, YouTube Kids does not collect personal information or target ads based on the user's activity.
The app is designed with big buttons and simple navigation, and only videos deemed appropriate for children are available. Parents can also "let the app be the bad guy" by setting a timer on how long their children can watch videos, Google explained.
But just like on the regular version of YouTube, viewers often have to watch ads before they can get to a video. Children may be easily confused as to whether those ads are part of the actual programming, and they are therefore more vulnerable to marketing, the groups warned in their complaint to the FTC.
The groups noted that federal regulations require TV networks to include some kind of break between a children's show and a commercial to help young viewers understand the difference. No similar rules exist for online videos, but the groups claimed the lack of such a break amounts to an "unfair" business practice.
"There is nothing 'child friendly' about an app that obliterates long-standing principles designed to protect kids from commercialism," Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, said in a statement. "YouTube Kids exploits children's developmental vulnerabilities by delivering a steady stream of advertising that masquerades as programming."
The consumer advocates also complained that videos created by companies like McDonald's, Disney, Lego, and Barbie are really ads for the companies' products. Golin argued that some of those videos violate Google's own policy on advertising aimed at kids.
"Google claims it doesn't accept food and beverage ads, but McDonald's actually has its own channel and the 'content' includes actual Happy Meal commercials," he said.
Angela Campbell, a professor at Georgetown Law Center representing the consumer groups, asked the FTC to investigate whether those companies are paying Google to display their videos.
David Vladeck, a former head of the FTC's Consumer Protection Bureau, said that the commission has had a tumultuous history trying to regulate children's advertising. Lawmakers accused the FTC of overreaching when it proposed guidelines for food marketing to children in 2011, he said.
"These are difficult issues," said Vladeck, who now works with Campbell at Georgetown but was not part of the complaint against Google. "On the one hand, you don't want the government usurping the role of parents, but on the other hand, are there no norms here? Are children fair game?"