YouTube has announced it will ban comments on almost all videos featuring minors, in a radical move designed to appease parents and advertisers concerned about pedophiles using the platform to communicate.
The decision, announced Thursday, comes after several major advertisers — including Disney, Nestlé, McDonald’s, AT&T, and Epic Games — pulled or temporarily paused their ad buys on the platform after a vlogger highlighted how pedophiles are seeping into the comments sections of videos. YouTube had already removed 400 channels and erased tens of millions of comments on videos that could be subject to predatory behavior, but now it’s going one step further.
Most people have welcomed YouTube’s increased efforts to boost child safety, but experts claim that the company is simply reacting to public outcry and that the “quick fix” decision has more to do with protecting its bottom line than protecting children. Vloggers on the platform, especially ones who post family content, could also be penalized by the platform’s algorithm without the ability to engage with viewers in a comments section.
“The biggest issue with this change is how it will affect the family vloggers of the platform, many of which include young children in their content."
“It has taken a concerted public and media campaign to get YouTube to act, as these actions should have come much earlier,” Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at London School of Economics, told VICE News. “It too often seems that it isn’t until YouTube’s revenues are affected that they really respond, despite the evident public concern in recent months.”
What is YouTube doing?
The company on Thursday announced a trio of initiatives to protect children on its platform.
The first and most impactful is the removal of the comments section on videos featuring minors under 13 and on videos featuring minors up to 18 if the content risks attracting predatory behavior.
“Over the next few months, we will be broadening this action to suspend comments on videos featuring young minors and videos featuring older minors that could be at risk of attracting predatory behavior,” the company said in a blog post on Thursday.
The company said a small number of trusted content creators will be able to keep comments enabled on these types of videos, but only if they show they can moderate them adequately.
For some creators, however, the comments section is where they engage most closely with their fans.
YouTube is also going to crack down harder on its content creators and take a tougher stance on any account that breaches its policies in the future.
“No form of content that endangers minors is acceptable on YouTube, which is why we have terminated certain channels that attempt to endanger children in any way,” the company said.
Finally, YouTube said it will accelerate the rollout of a new automated tool that the company claims will be able to identify the types of predatory comments identified in Watson’s video in half the time.
What has the reaction been?
YouTubers, especially those with large followings who monetize their content, are concerned that YouTube’s crackdown will have a serious negative impact on their ability to make money.
“The biggest issue with this change is how it will affect the family vloggers of the platform, many of which include young children in their content,” Thomas Roden, a social media consultant and a former YouTuber, told VICE News.
Key to successful monetization of content is knowing how YouTube’s algorithm works. It typically favors engagement, both in terms of viewing session duration and comments on the video. That means videos with more comments are promoted more.
“While they won’t suffer a direct demonetization, this may mean that family vloggers find their videos don’t get as much traction as before, reducing the amount they earn from their channel,” Roden said.
The rapid pace of change could also cause some unforeseen problems, such as content creators leaving for other platforms or angering the community by blocking creators from communicating with each other.
“In ‘solving’ the original problem, YouTube may create several more, all for the sake of what feels like a short-sighted quick fix driven by advertiser pressure,” David Clare, partner and head of content and digital at Tyto PR, told VICE News.
But some YouTubers believe the move is necessary, and over time, the wider community will simply accept it.
“Ultimately, this won’t even affect the vast majority of YouTubers,” said Will Paterson, a YouTuber with 330,000 subscribers. “The company has also assured trusted content creators who do upload videos that feature children, that their videos won’t be demonetized as long as they properly monitor their own comments.”
Why is YouTube doing this now?
Almost two weeks ago, blogger Matt Watson posted a 20-minute video showing how pedophiles are using the comment sections of videos featuring children engaged in seeming harmless activities, to communicate and share links to child abuse content.
But YouTube didn’t take action until the issue was highlighted in the media last week, and advertisers this week pulled their money from the platform.
The growing threat from regulators will also be top of mind for YouTube, particularly given recent actions taken by the FTC against other tech companies. YouTube announced its new crackdown just hours after the FTC charged video-sharing app TikTok a record $5.7 million for collecting the data of kids under 13. Facebook is also reportedly facing a multibillion-dollar fine from the same agency.
The quick turnaround from YouTube is not unusual from tech companies facing public criticism.
“YouTube’s decision to turn off commenting on its video content aimed at children is quite symptomatic of the way social networks are dealing with these issues generally; a quick fix that will likely do damage in the long term as it will ultimately affect creators that rely on good engagement figures to interest advertisers,” Jo Bromilow, digital strategist at PR agency Publicasity, told VICE News.
For its part, YouTube said it’s taking these actions to make the platform safer for all users.
“Nothing is more important to us than ensuring the safety of young people on the platform,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki tweeted Thursday.
Cover image: In this Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, file photo, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaks during the introduction of YouTube TV at YouTube Space LA in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)