Less than two months ago, Google launched YouTube Kids, a new app for tablets and smartphones aimed at providing child-friendly video content. Unlike Netflix, the service is free. Since YouTube Kids is not an act of charity, however, it does have commercials. And this is apparently not just intolerable, but illegal.
So alleges a Federal Trade Commission complaint supported by the Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and other advocacy groups. YouTube Kids is “the most hyper-commercialized media environment for children I have ever seen,” Dale Kunkel, a professor of communications at the University of Arizona, told PCWorld. For those of us who grew up in earlier eras, the suggestion of YouTube Kids being the ne plus ultra of inappropriate commercial environs seems laughable. Indeed, ads featuring the cartoon exploits of the Hamm’s beer bear regularly punctuated afterschool Bugs Bunny viewings during The Scrapbook’s childhood.
The complaint also objects to YouTube’s use of branded content, saying many of the videos available are “little more than program-length commercials.” This isn’t so much an indictment as a description of children’s TV programming throughout history. Sesame Street licenses the likeness of its characters to air fresheners, for heaven’s sake.
Not that any reasonable counter-arguments will matter. All right-thinking people know that media and Internet companies are honor-bound to provide the exact intellectual property consumers want, royalty-free without advertisements.
Of course, there’s a bigger issue at stake than sticking it to evil corporations. The bigger problem isn’t so much that children see commercials as it is the time they spend staring at video screens, period. There is a raft of studies—not to mention good old common sense—confirming that excess screen-time contributes to terrible attention spans and otherwise impairs child development. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of parents who think of an iPad as a cross between a pacifier and a babysitter. If you’re willing to let your kids watch so much video entertainment that a few seconds of ads become a cumulative problem, whether or not Google is raising your children is the least of your worries.