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YouTube 'trap ads' lure children to violent videogames
(06/07/22)

OLIVER HAYES HEADSHOT

Oliver Hayes, Policy and campaigns lead

New research commissioned by Global Action Plan reveals that YouTube is allowing deceptive ‘trap ads’ to appear alongside trusted kids content like Peppa Pig and Barbie videos, which lure young children off YouTube and onto 3rd party sites advertising 18+ video games and other age-inappropriate content.

YouTube and kids

YouTube is the most popular website for children, despite its terms and conditions saying that you must be 13 to use its main site and app. Unusually among social media sites, you don’t need an account to use YouTube, and research from Ofcom shows that the majority of kids use YouTube without an account in order to avoid any age-restrictions. YouTube knows this – a famous 2019 legal case in America unmasked YouTube boasting to toy advertisers that it was the most popular site for 2-11 year olds.

Global Action Plan and our partners at tech justice non-profit Foxglove wanted to find out how YouTube treats these young kids when they use the platform as ‘un-logged in’ users, as so many do. We commissioned researchers at Tracking Exposed to do just that, by creating simulated child accounts and monitoring activity. This loophole allows dodgy ads companies – and Google, which owns YouTube – to profit by placing ‘trap ads’ for videogame websites next to videos intended for pre-schoolers.

“Made for Kids”

The ‘trap ads’ appear next to videos labelled – either by their creators or by YouTube themselves – as “made for kids”. “Made for kids” videos do not contain many of the features of regular videos, such as the ability to leave comments or receive personalised adverts. However, by allowing ‘trap ads’ to appear on “made for kids” videos, YouTube is potentially exposing millions of young children to inappropriate and harmful content.

Google does not allow the ‘trap ads’ loophole on its YouTube Kids sub-platform aimed at children, where ads are not clickable and do not take children to third party sites. But, despite YouTube’s main site remaining the most popular site for children, YouTube has taken no action to similarly protect children from this risk on its website.

No company should be making cash via the peddling of violent video games to pre-schoolers – let alone Google, one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world. Google must immediately close the ‘trap ads’ loophole and ban third-party links from adverts on “made for kids” content. That would at least be consistent with its approach on YouTube Kids. But Google should go further – it should ensure young children never receive these trap ads, regardless of what they’re watching. And whenever YouTube identifies a user as under 13, it should point that child to the YouTube Kids platform instead.

Disturbing content

It wasn’t just dodgy ads that we found. Our simulated kids profiles would quickly be recommended weird and disturbing variations on mainstream, legitimate videos. ‘Squid game Peppa Pig’ would pop up after normal Peppa Pig, for instance, exposing young kids to completely age-inappropriate content. This is a problem that has been known about for years, and our researchers were genuinely surprised to see that it is still so prevalent on YouTube.

It is particularly worrying for parents, who would expect that allowing their child to watch something as benign as Peppa Pig would not trigger an algorithm to serve them up something likely to give them nightmares.

Dodgy data

In addition to the ‘trap ads’ revelation, the research also raised serious questions about how YouTube is or isn’t complying with data protection rules.

We found that unlogged-in kids watching YouTube for just 5 minutes started to see the YouTube homepage personalised for their viewing habits. This suggests that their viewing data – and potentially other data – is being collected and profiled. It is not clear how this is consistent with data protection rules that place very tight restrictions on how a child’s data can be processed.

Hyper-consumerism

This research is part of Global Action Plan’s ongoing work to end surveillance advertising to kids. We believe that the business model of the tech giants is destructive to young people’s wellbeing, and to the planet, because almost all the features of these ‘platforms’ are in service of generating more ad revenue. That has two major consequences:

1) It means that for Google, Meta and others, the ‘ends’ of more ads and more ads revenue justify the means of generating eyeballs in front of them. All too often that ‘engagement’ is best provided by extreme content or addictive content tailored specifically to each of our wants and desires. These companies and the powerful algorithms they unleash know what those desires are because they are allowed to gather unimaginable amounts of data on each of us.

2) It hypercharges consumerism. Advertising works, which means when there’s exponentially more of it, as there is with the ‘surveillance advertising’ we are bombarded with every day on our devices, the result is necessarily exponentially more stuff being produced, consumed and thrown away. The planet simply cannot sustain that.

 

As this research shows, YouTube appears happy to direct its extractive surveillance-for-profit business model at young kids, just as it is with the rest of us. Until regulators take this seriously and act meaningfully to restrict YouTube and others, the societal and planetary impacts will only worsen.

 

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