Photo of a child using a computer for YouTube privacy article.

Kids love watching YouTube and, according to consumer groups, YouTube loves watching kids.

A coalition of 22 advocacy groups, including Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission arguing that the Google-owned streaming video service collects data on children in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

“Google knows children are watching content on YouTube, but it appears the company doesn’t obtain the required parental consent before collecting extremely sensitive information about them,” says Katie McInnis, policy counsel for Consumers Union.

COPPA, which went into effect in 2000 and was updated in 2013, bars companies from collecting data on kids younger than 13 without first obtaining a parent’s permission.

Families and Privacy

YouTube’s terms of service say the site is only for users 13 and up, but the advocates point to studies showing that younger children are frequent visitors to the service and that it keeps track of what they watch. YouTube has been accessed by more than 80 percent of American children between ages 4 and 13, according to a December 2017 report by eMarketer, a research company.

A Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement that while the company had not yet seen the complaint, “protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us. We will read the complaint thoroughly and evaluate if there are things we can do to improve.”

The spokesperson also said, “Because YouTube is not for children, we’ve invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children.”

What Google Knows About Kids

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit consumer protection and privacy organization based in Washington, D.C., says Google makes money by selling targeted ads using information about the children who spend time on YouTube.

“Google knows it has a COPPA problem and a privacy violation problem,” says Chester, one of the authors of the complaint.

Additional groups joining the complaint include Common Sense Media, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG, and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Other experts acknowledge that there’s a problem but don’t think Google is at fault.

“One of the fundamental challenges of COPPA is that it didn’t contemplate a world in which there were a lot of kids, and parents, lying about [the child’s] age in creating profiles,” says Adam Thierer, senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “The better approach . . . is not to create a some sort of a special rule for YouTube but to create an overarching baseline privacy regulation that applies to everybody equally . . . that’s [not] segmented by age.”

The complaint by the consumer groups doesn’t carry any legal weight. If the FTC does decide to investigate YouTube, it’s likely to keep the matter confidential until there’s a finding, according to Consumers Union’s McInnis, a process that could take several months.

Channels that appeal to families with young kids are extremely popular on YouTube. For instance, ChuChu TV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs has 15.9 million subscribers and more than 10 billion channel views, and Little Baby Bum has 14.6 million subscribers and more than 14 billion channel views.

These are among the hundreds of channels in YouTube’s Parenting & Family Lineup, most of which include child-oriented videos such as animated nursery rhymes, the complaint says.

And, consumer groups point out, advertisers have the option of tagging their ads with keywords such as “toy,” “child,” “kid,” “toddler,” and “baby.” One Barbie ad cited in the complaint, which was delivered in a video menu with only a small tag differentiating it from nonpaid content, had generated 4.1 million views as of late 2017. 

“The videos are very much aimed at children,” McInnis says. “But kids and parents don’t realize that as they’re using the site, YouTube is collecting data that allows kids to be targeted even more precisely by advertisers.”

The advocates contend that YouTube has collected data from almost 25 million children and note that under the law the FTC could fine Google as much as $41,484 per individual violation.