There is something seriously wrong with kids videos on YouTube. Yesterday, a front-page article in The New York Times shined a spotlight on the service’s inability to keep bizarre, disturbing videos aimed at children out of its YouTube Kids app, which is marketed as a more filtered version of the site containing “tons of fun and educational videos that are just right for kids.” But the videos that slip through onto that particular app, while indicative of the broader exploitation that’s going on, are just the tip of the iceberg. Today, a writer named James Bridle published a piece that goes far deeper into the hellscape of kids YouTube, trying to break down what might be fueling this flood of copyright-infringing, nightmare-inducing nonsense that YouTube’s algorithms are serving up to children.
Basically, it comes down to automation. Whether it’s pregnant Elsa videos or the rambling word salads that Bridle points to, these clips and their titles are constructed to exploit YouTube’s computerized curation. They contain words and phrases that parents might search for or would trigger YouTube’s recommended videos feature, sliding them in alongside innocuous nursery rhymes and legitimate videos from popular kids shows.
The same characters and keywords pop up over and over again—“Spider-Man,” “bad baby,” “finger family,” “education,” “tantrum,” “colors,” “superheroes,” “rhymes,” “Peppa Pig”—and they’re almost always jumbled together into some incomprehensible sentence that must look absolutely scrumptious to a YouTube algorithm. It’s all so finely tuned that it’s impossible to tell where the human element of these operations begins and ends, or if there is one at all. As Bridle writes, “This is content production in the age of algorithmic discovery — even if you’re a human, you have to end up impersonating the machine.”
And the videos themselves are just as random, confusing, and potentially disturbing. Sometimes they manifest as shoddy but relatively benign CGI pap like the videos on Videogyan 3D Rhymes, a channel that has nearly 5 million subscribers. Sometimes they’re the strange distortions of popular kids series, like this suicide-laced Paw Patrol ripoff highlighted by The Times:
And sometimes they take the form of long, surreal batshit that’s been cobbled together from stock character models, animations, and sounds. The results are indescribably strange. These are videos where you’ll see Spider-Man, Elsa, and The Hulk do battle with the Scream killer, then taking shrunken versions of themselves grocery shopping while “Wheels On The Bus” plays in the background:
Or pregnant superheroes getting magical abortion injections in their asses, then being impregnated again by The Joker’s immaculate conception wand, then giving birth to tiny versions of themselves:
It’s easy to brush these off as the creations of an animator or studio that’s just looking to abuse a broken system to make a few bucks—and of course internet trolls have gotten in on the action as well—but Bridle argues the end result isn’t just the abuse YouTube’s humanless monetization schemes; these messed up videos are abusing the very young kids at whom they’re aimed, another terrible reality of our algorithm age.