YouTube Trouble

February 28, 2020
Brian S. McGrath with reporting by TFK Kid Reporter Nora Wilson-Hartgrove
A LOOK INSIDE Do you know what happens when you watch a video on YouTube? The site collects data about its users, such as what kinds of videos they like and which other websites they visit. It uses this data to target viewers with ads.
ILLUSTRATION BY MATT COLLINS FOR TIME FOR KIDS

Piper Leypoldt, 11, is from Durham, North Carolina. She watches cooking videos on YouTube. Piper knows that the site collects user data, such as her search history. She’s not worried. “Other websites I use at home and school also collect my information,” she says.

But advocates for online privacy are worried. In September, YouTube agreed to pay a $170 million penalty. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said the site collected kids’ data and used it to target them with ads. The FTC says YouTube did this without parents’ consent. That made it illegal.

Kristen Walker is a professor at California State University. She studies how kids share information online. “The Internet is so convenient,” she says. “It’s easy not to feel a need to be careful.” And you never know who will access your data, she warns: “The harm is a long-term consequence. We can’t see the danger until it’s too late.”

The Data Trail

YouTube started in 2005. A year later, Google bought it. The site is built to keep you watching. Artificial intelligence learns what videos you like and recommends similar content. The more you watch, the more ads you see. (YouTube makes money by selling ads.)

The site also uses bits of data that are stored on your device. They can be used to track your searches across the Internet.

YouTube has agreed to limit the data it collects on videos for kids. It will also require content creators to identify videos made for children. This is so YouTube can make sure to follow the law.

Advocacy groups say it’s not enough. They say YouTube should decide if a video is for kids. Otherwise, “it’s like having a school playground with no one responsible for watching the kids and making sure the equipment is safe,” wrote Susan Grant. She works for the Consumer Federation of America.

For now, kids like Piper will need to decide: Is watching videos on YouTube worth the risk?

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