Most parents with young children would do just about anything for just a little bit of peace and quiet, which is why many submit to using smartphone apps, games, and video services even though they know it’s not the best for their kids.
Parents often justify their decision to allow their children access to games and videos by arguing that the content is educational and imparts important moral lessons. In 2017, however, it was revealed that millions of children were actually being exposed to something sinister.
In 2015, YouTube, which is owned by Google, released a separate app called YouTube Kids. “We created YouTube Kids to make it safer and simpler for kids to explore the world through online video – from their favorite shows and music to learning how to build a model volcano … and everything in between,” YouTube Kids said.
The app makes sure parents are in control of their children’s browsing habits by providing parental controls. With the control settings, parents can decide how long kids are allowed to watch videos, what kind of videos they can search for, and what types of videos and channels are off limits. Since its launch, parents have flocked to app.
In addition to the parental controls, the app assures parents that the never-ending supply of content on the app is child-friendly. As a result, millions of parents have downloaded the platform and use it to entertain their children. But in reality, there’s no guarantee that all of the content is safe.
Nothing is Perfect
YouTube Kids even acknowledges this problem. “We use a mix of filters, user feedback, and human reviewers to keep the videos in YouTube Kids family friendly,” they explained. “But no system is perfect and inappropriate videos can slip through.”
An Insidious Problem
Many parents didn’t realize this issue until it was too late, unfortunately. By 2017, just two years after YouTube Kids launched, there were countless videos and channels that were creating inappropriate and mature content disguised as children programs. Many of which had been on YouTube and YouTube Kids for years, but had only just been discovered by parents.
The videos appear to be normal at first. They often feature beloved characters like Spider-Man, Peppa Pig, and Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. The videos also use typical headlines and use popular keywords for children’s videos, like “education,” “learn colors,” or “nursery rhymes.”
Evading the Algorithms
By using popular keywords, characters, and titles, the videos manage to get passed the child safety algorithms that YouTube Kids has created. If they don’t get flagged by the algorithm, the videos get posted to the app for millions of kids to see.
The Truth is Revealed
The creators of the videos are so good at concealing the true nature of the content that it’s not until a few seconds in when you realize that they’re inappropriate. What appears to be a child-friendly video suddenly gives way to violent, sexual, disturbing, and sometimes frightening content.
In many videos, the beloved characters are shown being forced to eat feces and urine, committing suicide, drowning, murdered, raped, switching heads, enduring injections, using drugs, and even engaging in cannibalism. Sometimes, real children are featured in the videos. They are shown crying, being mistreated, and getting sick.
The scandal was subsequently called “Elsagate” for the popular Disney character that was featured in many of the disturbing videos. Sadly, kids didn’t even have to look very hard for the content. Instead, they were featured in the app’s video suggestions after getting passed algorithms.
Something is Wrong …
“Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatize, and abuse children, automatically and at scale,” said James Bridle, who wrote an article titled “Something is Wrong on the Internet” in 2017.
Exposing the Truth
Bridle’s article was one of the first to expose Elsagate and highlight the hidden dangers lurking on platforms where children are the targeted demographic. Soon after the article was published online, others started to take notice of the worrying videos. Parents, specifically, were horrified.
A Disturbing Realization
As parents began to pay closer attention to what their kids were watching, they started to realize what their kids had been exposed to. For Staci Burns, a mother from Fort Wayne, Indiana, that realization happened on a typical night in while cooking dinner. “Mommy, the monster scares me,” Staci said her 3-year-old son yelled out while watching YouTube Kids.
When Staci walked over, she saw her 3-year-old child was watching the Nickelodeon show “PAW Patrol.” However, when she looked closer, she realized it wasn’t the show at all. Instead, it was a video featuring “PAW Patrol” characters.
In the clip, the characters were screaming in a car while it lost control, slammed into a light pole, and burst into flames. In another video, characters were killed and one even committed suicide by walking off a roof after being hypnotized by a demon-possessed doll.
A Natural Reaction
“My initial response was anger,” Staci said. “My poor little innocent boy, he’s the sweetest thing, and then there are these horrible, horrible, evil people out there that just get their kicks off of making stuff like this to torment children.”
The Work of Pranksters
Some believe the disturbing videos are just a result of sick online pranksters. Since the advent of the Internet, people have been hiding behind anonymity and using the Internet to post and spread shocking material in the hopes of getting people to react.
Others, however, have different theories about what Elsagate is really about. According to some, the sexual and disturbing videos are really a way for pedophiles to groom young children. For example, videos with injections are a way to normalize sedation techniques and violence to show kids what will happen to them if they don’t do what they’re told.
A Financial Incentive
Some people have even theorized that the videos are also for pedophiles to communicate with other pedophiles about where to find illegal content with coded messages. For others, however, the motivation is all about money. According to YouTube Kids statistics, the videos get tens of millions of views and many are monetized with advertisements. Since it’s extremely inexpensive to create children’s content, the profit margin is huge.
In the wake of the scandal, YouTube finally started cracking down on the adult videos targeting children by terminating over 270 accounts and removing 150,000 videos. YouTube also turned off comments on over 625,000 videos targeted by child predators. “Finally, we removed ads from nearly 2 million videos and over 50,000 channels masquerading as family-friendly content,” YouTube said. However, many videos still remain on the platform and are able to elude the algorithms, which is why it’s more important than ever for parents to know what they’re kids are doing online.