Keeping kids away from inappropriate YouTube content can feel overwhelming. There are several billion YouTube videos (500+ hours of video are uploaded every minute), and 2 billion users log into YouTube every month — so how do we filter out all of the violent, sexual, manipulative, hateful, and otherwise unsuitable content that our kids find on YouTube (frequently on accident)?
YouTube has a couple of solutions — including “Restricted Mode” on conventional YouTube and also the curated YouTube Kids app, both of which are meant to filter out adult content. But dozens of reports have been published showing the staggering amount of vulgar, violent, and disturbing content that YouTube’s automated filters fail to catch.
What’s even more worrying is that a lot of these videos are actually targeted at young children, using popular characters, misleading titles, and search-engine-optimized language to maximize views from young children who don’t know any better.
That’s why relying on YouTube’s filters isn’t good enough. But there are some pretty simple techniques that you can use to ensure your kids don’t stumble across the millions of hours of inappropriate content on YouTube in 2021.
YouTube’s Child Restrictions Aren’t Very Secure
YouTube gives two primary options to keep kids safe from inappropriate content — Restricted Mode and YouTube Kids. Restricted Mode is better suited for pre-teens and teens, whereas YouTube Kids is tailored for pre-school and early elementary age kids.
Both of these restrictions can help, but oftentimes, they don’t do enough to truly keep kids safe when using YouTube.
How Does YouTube’s Restricted Mode Work?
YouTube’s Restricted Mode is designed to filter out a wide variety of inappropriate content, using automated filtering that looks at a video’s metadata and title, as well as language used in the video. Videos that other YouTube users have flagged as inappropriate also won’t show up when using Restricted Mode.
Here are the types of content that are blocked in YouTube’s Restricted Mode:
- Drug and alcohol use and discussion.
- Explicit sexual content (including discussion or actual depictions of sex).
- Graphic violence, including natural disasters, war, disturbing news reports, and crime.
- Discussion of/depictions of terrorism, war, crime, and violent political conflicts.
- Profane and mature language, including racial slurs, swear words, and other adult language.
- Inflammatory or demeaning content directed toward a user or group.
While this seems like a pretty comprehensive list, there are a couple of issues with YouTube’s Restricted Mode.
First, YouTube’s automatic filters just don’t work very well. I was able to easily discover videos featuring every single one of the supposedly blocked categories after just a few minutes of browsing YouTube with Restricted Mode turned on.
But that doesn’t mean that Restricted Mode isn’t completely worthless!
When I compared my search results with Restricted Mode turned off to my search results with Restricted Mode turned on, I could see that Restricted Mode was filtering out a ton of content — but it’s a little bit like trying to filter the Mississippi River with a colander. Restricted Mode may block billions of videos, but the problem is that disturbing content is uploaded to YouTube every minute.
The second problem with Restricted Mode is that it’s not customizable. Many parents don’t want their children exposed to religious content, political content, toy unboxing videos, manipulative ads, violent video games, and/or a wide range of other types of content that can have a harmful effect on young people, especially little kids.
These problems caused a lot of dissatisfaction among parents regarding YouTube’s Restricted Mode, so YouTube decided to make YouTube Kids.
How Does YouTube Kids Work?
YouTube Kids is a separate YouTube app/platform, which filters content from YouTube and brings it to children. Parents can choose between YouTube Kids for under-4 year-olds, 4-8 year-olds, and 8-12 year-olds. YouTube is frustratingly vague about what its standards are for filtering this content, stating only that:
“Our automated systems select content from the broader universe of videos on YouTube. We work hard to exclude content that’s not suitable for kids, but we can’t manually review all videos and no automated system is perfect.”
The videos that make it past YouTube Kids’s content filters can be very unpleasant, depicting suicide, Disney princess erotica, alt-right political rants recorded over video of popular video games, and harsh “prank” videos that clearly show kids being physically and emotionally harmed.
However, YouTube Kids includes some additional controls for extra safety. For example, YouTube employs hundreds of human moderators who actually watch videos to ensure that they’re ok for kids. YouTube Kids provides curated playlists of these moderator-approved videos, as well as specific channels from well-known educational and kid-friendly companies like PBS and National Geographic.
So, while YouTube Kids has similar issues as Restricted Mode, YouTube Kids also provides a variety of additional tools that parents can use to protect their kids from accessing disturbing content on YouTube.
What Are the Best Ways to Keep YouTube Safe for Kids?
In order to understand why it’s so hard to keep kids safe on YouTube, you have to understand how big YouTube really is. Ongoing research indicates that over 30,000 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every hour, and over 2 billion viewers log into the site each month.
It’s almost impossible to comprehend this massive scale, but one thing is certain — every type of video is represented on YouTube, with content producers desperate to earn enough views so that their videos can start to generate ad revenue. If people are clicking on videos of Elsa from Frozen having sex with Spider-Man, then creators will pump out thousands of similar videos, and some of those videos are bound to sneak past YouTube’s algorithm.
You simply can’t rely on YouTube’s automated filters to block unsafe content any more than you could rely on a single net to catch all of the fish in the world’s oceans. But there are ways to keep your children’s YouTube experience in 2021 as safe as possible.
Monitor your children’s YouTube usage
Watching YouTube with your kids is the best way to ensure that they’re avoiding unsafe content.
If you’re a busy parent, asking your kids to keep the volume of the video loud enough so that you can hear what they’re watching is a decent compromise.
You can also use the Watch It Again tool in YouTube Kids (or the History in regular YouTube) to see what your kids have been watching.
Use YouTube Kids
YouTube Kids can be downloaded as an app or used online. To make a profile, you’ll need to sign in with your YouTube/Google account, or you can just use the YouTube Kids website to log in without a profile. Making a profile for your kids will make it a lot easier to block certain channels, make curated playlists, and just generally track your child’s YouTube activity.
Your kids won’t like this one, but it’s an especially helpful tool for younger kids. With Search disabled on YouTube Kids, your child will only be able to access content that has been approved by YouTube’s human moderators, which significantly cuts down the amount of harmful content they can access.
The huge downside to disabling Search is that it makes it extremely difficult for kids to find what they want to see (they can’t search for it!), and it cuts out a lot of the content that they may be looking for as well (my daughter’s favorite Animal Crossing channel hasn’t been seen by YouTube’s moderators, so she can’t search for it on YouTube Kids when Search is disabled).
Use a third-party parental control app
As mentioned before, automated YouTube filters can’t possibly block all of the harmful content that can be found on YouTube, but downloading a parental control app can provide another level of protection for your kids, especially if they’re just browsing YouTube with Restricted Mode on. Kaspersky’s parental controls can filter and track YouTube usage both on the site and on the Android app.
This is a time-consuming task, but it can be pretty rewarding, as it’s the most effective way to ensure that your kids aren’t accessing inappropriate content. However, there’s no way to guarantee that your kids aren’t navigating away from the playlists that you make.
Another fun way to do this is to make playlists with your kids. That way they have a sense of ownership, and you can also be sure that there are videos in your playlists that your kids really want to watch.
Block offensive channels and videos
By tapping the 3 dots in the top right corner of any video, you can choose to block specific videos, or even whole channels. YouTube will then avoid recommending similar videos and channels in the future.
Teach your kids to flag and report videos
Most kids don’t want to find disturbing and harmful content online. Teaching your kids how to flag and report videos on YouTube will empower them to protect their own online experience.
For older kids, try Restricted Mode
Restricted Mode is not as well-regulated as YouTube Kids. I was able to find speeches by famous white nationalists, coverage of the Siege of Aleppo, and other disturbing videos in Restricted Mode. However, much of that content was less severe than the content that I found when I searched for the same topics without Restricted Mode on.
Encourage conversations about internet usage
A lot of kids don’t understand why their parents are concerned about YouTube content. Child psychologists and advertising watchdogs agree that it’s really important to have conversations with kids about YouTube content. In the example of unboxing videos, letting your kids know that most families don’t open toys every day (and that the kids who are doing that are actually getting paid to do so) can help your children have a context for the content they’re viewing.
It’s important that we keep our lines of communication open with our kids so that they can come to us with their feelings about what they’re seeing online. Children often keep their disturbing experiences secret from their parents because they’re worried they’ll get into trouble.
Create a content contract
Once you’ve explained to your kids why you need to keep them safe online, it can be really helpful to write out a “contract” together (full disclosure: I stole this idea from Norton 360, which offers a template for an internet safety contract in its parental control app).
Some guidelines to consider could be: “I’ll discuss anything confusing or disturbing with my parents,” or “I will limit my usage to this many hours a week,” or “My parents can look at the content I’m viewing and block channels if they deem them unsafe or harmful.”
What Are the Best Ways to Fully Protect Your Kids Online? (Hint: It’s More Than Just Limiting Screen Time)
While YouTube plays a massive role in young people’s online experience, it’s not the only online platform where kids spend their time. Social media and video games are probably the most common online activities for young people, and fortunately they’re pretty safe. However, hackers and predators have been known to use ads and spoofed accounts to convince kids to leave safe sites in order to steal financial information, deliver malware payloads, or engage in predatory sexual behavior.
Here are a few important tips to keep your kids safe online (and also to help them adopt healthy online habits):
Educate your kids about internet safety
Age-appropriate discussions about the nature of the internet are essential for keeping kids safe online. Kids should understand that advertisements are frequently false or exaggerated, that a lot of content that seems benign is actually marketing, that predators can fake online identities, that downloading files can result in malware infections, and that hackers spoof real websites in order to phish user information. Kids can also benefit from honest conversations about the harmful effects of screen time, which can give them a sense of caution regarding their devices.
Set online boundaries
Kids will usually be willing to accept online boundaries when they understand the dangers that are lurking on the web. Norton 360 offers a built-in template for having a conversation about online safety and making an internet access contract with kids. You can consider these requirements for internet access:
- Screen-time limits (not at school, not at dinner, not after 10pm, etc.).
- Request permission for all downloads and purchases (parental control apps are very helpful for this).
- Keep all personally identifying information off the internet.
- Allowing parents to “friend” or “follow” children’s social media accounts (you can agree that you won’t respond or engage with their content because, “dude, embarrassing!”)
- Parents reserve the right to uninstall/block apps and games.
Use your device’s built-in tools
Windows 10 users can make a child account for their kids. Parents can get weekly activity reports, set limits on app and device usage, block specific apps and sites, and set purchasing permissions for kids on shared Windows devices.
Mac and iOS users can use Apple’s Family Sharing, which allows you to monitor screen time, set time limits for specific devices and apps, filter content (somewhat), schedule device usage, and share subscriptions and iCloud storage with family members.
Android users can set up Family Link, which notifies parents about all downloads and purchases (including the option to deny them), and it also provides location tracking, screen time limiting and monitoring, and the ability to block or limit specific apps. Family Link is only offered for users 13 and under.
Use internet security tools
All of the aforementioned first-party parental control tools are great, but they all have significant gaps in their protections. None of them offer fine-tuned content filtering, and they all depend on the operating system’s built-in web protections and antivirus scanning to keep kids safe.
I recommend everybody use antivirus software, especially parents. Hackers specifically target kids for phishing attacks and malware attacks, which can result in your whole network being compromised, your finances getting hacked, and malware spreading from your children’s devices across your entire system.
Limit and monitor specific apps
Unfortunately, there’s no tool that can track your child’s incoming and outgoing messages and content on social media apps like Facebook, TikTok, WhatsApp, Snapchat, or Instagram.
Agreeing to follow, but not comment or engage with, your children’s social media can be a good way to keep an eye on their activity — but a lot of kids aren’t going to agree to this. Depending on their age, though, it can be a necessity.
You can also limit app permissions — make sure you’re blocking apps from accessing location, contact lists, SMS, etc. if they aren’t essential to the app’s function.
FAQ — Keeping Kids Safe on YouTube
What are YouTube’s built-in parental controls?
YouTube’s Restricted Mode is supposed to filter out a huge range of “adult” content, but it’s surprisingly ineffective. In about 5 minutes with Restricted Mode turned on, I was able to find speeches by famous white nationalists, footage of war-torn Aleppo, a cannabis cooking show, women in lingerie, and a brutal street fight in Colombia. However, YouTube does offer another option for parents — YouTube Kids.
YouTube Kids is a separate app and website that offers different levels of filtering for younger kids. It blocks the vast majority of inappropriate content, but there are still all kinds of creepy, violent, sexual, and inappropriate videos on YouTube Kids. However, you can turn off the Search function in YouTube Kids, so kids can only watch videos that have been approved by human moderators.
Is there inappropriate content on YouTube Kids?
Unfortunately, yes. While YouTube Kids blocks a ton of content, with 500+ hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute, there’s no way for YouTube’s algorithms to block all of the inappropriate stuff.
There are really, really strange and disturbing videos targeting kids on YouTube. Noteworthy examples include Peppa Pig committing suicide, Spider-Man drowning Elsa, Minecraft characters shooting and killling each other, kids getting pranked, hurt and traumatized, and pedophiles using toy unboxing videos to groom and target kids.
If you’re as horrified as I was when I started researching for this article, take a look at my tips on how to keep your kids safe (hopefully) from the bizarre and offensive content that occasionally makes its way onto YouTube Kids.
How can parents keep kids safe on YouTube?
Depending on the age of your kids, there are a lot of different ways to keep kids safe on YouTube, such as:
- Use Restricted Mode (best for older kids).
- Use YouTube Kids (better for younger kids).
- Turn off Search in YouTube Kids.
- Get an antivirus with content filtering (Norton 360 is my favorite).
- Teach your kids to block and flag certain videos and channels.
- Create curated video playlists for your kids.
Is YouTube Kids free?
Yes, YouTube Kids is free. You can access it online even if you don’t have a YouTube account. But if you do make an account, you’ll be able to customize YouTube Kids and allow your kids to use the Watch It Again feature (which is also helpful for parents that want to track their children’s YouTube history) and also get content suggestions based on their previously watched videos.
YouTube Premium subscribers that sign into YouTube Kids can pass on their premium benefits to their kids, including ad-free viewing, free video downloads, and the ability for YouTube to play in the background even when you leave the app (which is great for kids that use YouTube as a music player).