A coalition of advocacy groups are criticizing the YouTube Kids app, seeking for an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into whether the app is exposing children to unwanted advertisements.
YouTube Kids, which was only released in February, allows children to choose among hundreds of channels for educational and entertainment programs. However, mixed into the content are branded videos from companies such as McDonald's, Hasbro and Mattel.
The coalition, which is made up of groups such as the Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, claims that the branded videos are in violation of regulations that limit how companies target children with advertisements. The rules basically provide protection to children, who may not be able to distinguish between entertainment and advertisements.
"This is the most hyper-commercialized media for kids I have ever seen," said University of Arizona professor Dale Kunkel, a children's media specialist that helped in drafting the complaint sent to the FTC.
"Children don't understand the persuasive intent of advertising," Kunkel added.
While the companies are labelling their sponsorships of videos, consumer advocacy groups and child development experts contend that children will still not be able to tell the difference between entertainment or education content and advertisements. The advertisements play immediately before certain video content or after them, with no clear separation between the video content of the channel and the advertisements.
"The fact that children are viewing the videos on a tablet or smartphone screen instead of on a television does not make it any less unfair and deceptive," wrote the coalition in its complaint.
"In today's digital era, children deserve effective safeguards that will protect them regardless of the screen they use," stressed Center for Digital Democracy executive director Jeff Chester.
According to Chester, the FTC should update its rules to also cover advertising to children contained within apps to address the issue. Chester also believes that new policies are needed to control the growing digital marketing arsenal geared towards children, which includes online video platforms, social media, mobile phones and gaming devices.
Chester wrote in an e-mail to PCWorld that YouTube Kids should be redesigned to become appropriate for the ages of children, as Google has been focusing on transforming the viewership of children into profits as opposed to carrying out the company's corporate responsibility to children and their families.
Upon being asked regarding the complaint, a spokesperson for YouTube said that during the development of YouTube Kids, the company had consultations with several partners, including groups on child advocacy and privacy. In addition, the spokesperson said that YouTube is open to all feedback regarding possible improvements to YouTube Kids.