Why we need to do more to protect our children

Not long ago, four or five years past, television advertisements on channels for kids used to drive me crazy. It would bother me how targeted they felt, flashing every 15 minutes the same toys, the baby food, diapers, pacifiers and so forth. Are we nothing but what we can buy?

Today I don’t care about TV advertisements anymore. My son spends all the hours he is allowed watching online videos. And that is a wild, wild west compared to the content of a safe, curated, old style TV channel for kids. There is no longer someone watching a video to make sure it is safe before exposing it to children. There is no guarantee that inappropriate content won’t reach us online. I miss the good old days of targeted TV advertisements.

Online videos are awesome. They are indispensable. I mean, on that time your baby is restless, agitated, won’t stop crying, your headache is pumping like a rave is going on in there, how can you resist opening up You Tube on that colorful video with baby songs? It is the seventy-eighth time your baby sees it, and it works every time. How did we live without this before?

And then you need just a couple of minutes to put something together for lunch, to send that e-mail, to get the laundry. Baby videos on, your toddler will stay there, safely entertained, and you have a few golden minutes of tranquility to do what you have to do.

At some point, watching videos becomes second nature for your children. It is like they were born doing it. Except they didn’t. You taught them. But is too late now. There is no going back.

But even then I am happy with online videos. There is wonderful content online. My kid likes drawing tutorials, where he learns to draw things his mother and I can’t do. He learns to play the themes of his video games on the piano, and it sounds like the real thing. His piano teacher can’t explain it. And we laugh together for hours on at the way lizards run on slow motion. All available at our fingertips.

At some point, watching videos becomes second nature for your children. It is like they were born doing it.

And so he watches online videos. Children are not supposed to watch You Tube. You Tube is not for kids. Their terms of service specifically says that the service is not intended for children under 13. And they have algorithms to filter content, to identify improper videos, to flag, remove, punish publishers, a whole AI-powered, computational circus devoted to tame the uncontrollable infinite flux of online videos.

And yet, again and again there are cases of ill purposed videos targeting children, some of them seemly for no reason but the most nefarious purposes. These are the most serious cases, truly criminal matter, and need to be handled as such by tech companies and organizations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in the UK.

But that is not all. Some content is not inherently harmful, it is just in bad taste. There are countless amateur videos on kids’ contents that are really not adding anything good to the education of our youth. Cursing (in all levels), too much yelling, pranks, shaming… The list is endless. It is impossible to filter this automatically. This particular type of video is made for kids, it talks about a content they search for, like a popular cartoon character or a video game, but it is just not a good video. And I would like to prevent my son from watching it.

It is not the child’s fault. My son doesn’t look for bad content. He is seven and at this age he follows my lead. When I tell him that video, or game, or whatever is not good for him, he stays away from it because I said so. But this doesn’t make him immune to harm. He searches for Sonic, the Hedgehog. And what shows up makes my jaw drop. Apparently there is a version of Sonic that is evil, with red eyes, sharp teeth and has blood dripping from his mouth. And it is super popular. So, if you search for the cartoon character, mixed in the results you get a list of black evil Gremlins-like creatures covered in blood, as they had come right out of an horror movie. I mean, seriously? Where is this world going to end?

Some content is not inherently harmful, it is just in bad taste.

Big companies like Google and Facebook do attempt to develop new ways to filter media, and that is a good thing. I just don’t think that it is enough. Ultimately, it is the parents’ responsibility to protect their children. It is our obligation to do whatever it takes to avoid bad content to ever being within our children’s reach.

The right way for a child to watch online videos is under the supervision of an adult. There are small things that can help, like resisting the urge to handle earphones to the little ones, so that you can at least hear what they are watching. But in the end no one can realistically expect to censor every single thing spend their children watch online.

So, in my view, on top of all the investment into highly complex artificial intelligence algorithms with preemptive capability, the legal battle and invested support provided by devoted associations, I wanted to have more control over what my son was watching. So the approach I took was to create something that would catalog his usage, summarize and flag suspicious activity. Something that could make my job of supervisor a little easier. And that was the incentive behind Tube n’ kids.

It is not a silver bullet. It does not stop bad content from showing up. It does not make it OK to handle and iPad to the kids and let them watch videos alone all day. It does not remove from the parents the responsibility of supervising their kids. It helps them do it.

I wanted to have more control over what my son was watching. (…) Something that could make my job of supervisor a little easier.

And, of course, everything is for naught if the child is actively looking for the content you forbade. There is nothing in TnK to stop the user from opening a browser and looking for any content they want, and that will not be registered on my reports of watched videos. But my experience is that this kind of problem happens doesn’t happen at early ages. If your kid does that, then you have another type of problem in your hands, one that requires different solutions. My kid is seven, and if I tell him this video, this game, this movie or whatever is not meant for him, he stays away from it. And it works because at his age, he is not interested in forbidden content. He wants to watch his cartoons. So, because Tnk helps him find the content he wants, he is happy to use it.

And that was another thing I put in Tube n’ kids. I can search for channels that I know he likes, and I can add them to his list of suggestions. I can browse his history and find the subject he is interested in - like Minecraft and Beyblade, recently - and try to find good channels about those. There were times this strategy didn’t work, like with a few amazing zoo channels I found and he dismissed without giving them a second look. Still, it is another way to put inspiring content in front of him.

At some point he may find something that is not appropriated to him. Probably he won’t even understand it, and close it right away. This is where Tnk comes in handy by allowing me to block the video, or the entire channel for that matter, which means that it will not appear for my son, even if he looks for it.

The world has changed. Content comes into our homes through new ways, and it opens way to all sorts of threats. We need to adapt. As technology changed the way we watch content, it also has to provide new means to control it. We need new tools to keep up.

Check out Tube n’ kids

April 06, 2019.