Gone are the days when children’s TV consisted of safe, age-appropriate programming such as Playschool or The Magic Roundabout.
These days, if you see a youngster engrossed in a screen, they are most likely to be choosing clips to watch on YouTube.
The video-sharing site has overtaken terrestrial television as the main source of children’s entertainment.
YouTube is leading youngsters down some very dark alleyways, including by showing videos of schoolboys fighting
Yet it is also leading youngsters down some very dark alleyways. Chillingly, even when they click on the cartoon characters they love, toddler and primary-age children are not safe.
Over the past year, parents have grown increasingly alarmed at the number of counterfeit videos, which lure children with favourites such as Peppa Pig but descend into violence, torture, sexual themes or extreme language.
Even on YouTube Kids — an app supposed to offer only filtered, child-friendly clips — damaging material is slipping under the radar.
Despite parents repeatedly raising the alarm, Google-owned YouTube told the Mail earlier this month that over the previous 30 days, one in 200 videos meant for kids on the app have had to be removed for being ‘inappropriate’.
Considering that a recent survey by internet security experts Kaspersky Lab found the average child spends 40 minutes a day watching online videos on a mobile device — as many as 20 short clips a day — it’s not hard to work out the risks of coming across such material, or the psychological harm it could cause.
As they get older, children increasingly search YouTube for school tutorials and entertainment such as pop videos and video games tips.
Yet they are always just a few clicks away from videos, also aimed at them, offering advice on everything from how to hide self-harm cuts to how to take Class A drugs.
When asked how many human moderators the main YouTube site has globally — on top of automated monitoring — a spokesman would only say ‘thousands’.
Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and a researcher on children’s digital lives, told the Mail: ‘Parents really do need to pay attention to what their children are watching. But then I would point the finger firmly back at YouTube.
‘With the YouTube Kids app, they are selling a flawed product [because inappropriate material is still slipping through]. If this were baby food they were selling, we wouldn’t stand for this.’
So why is anyone creating spoof cartoons to traumatise children?
Professor Livingstone says there is a lucrative industry in duping them. Anyone putting a video on YouTube can make money if a viewer watches the ad that runs before it. It is estimated that it’s possible to make up to £2,500 for every million views.
There’s ‘thinspiration’ videos — pictures of jutting hip-bones, thigh gaps and stick limbs — for occasions ranging from ‘back to school’ to ‘coming up to summer’, all set to uplifting dance tracks
‘The business model is pay per click,’ says Professor Livingstone. ‘They are reaching a huge amount of people for a small amount of investment, and the returns are good.’
While she acknowledges that protecting free speech is important, Professor Livingstone says: ‘To promote the welfare of children is not Big Brother or pro-censorship. The psychological welfare of children is getting lost in this.’
Consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron works in adolescent and child mental health. She says: ‘YouTube has been viewed as harmless and educational by parents. Kids can learn how to do their maths homework watching tutorials there.
‘The people posting videos around children’s cartoon characters are abusing that trust, just like any abuser does.
‘Even though you’re not singling them out as individuals, it’s like grooming kids for abuse. It’s trying to corrupt children within their own platforms. It’s sinister and exploitative.’ So what is your child really seeing on YouTube?
PEPPA PIG, VIOLENCE AND PORNOGRAPHY
One of the most cynical trends on YouTube is fake cartoons, which start like children’s favourite programmes but quickly descend into sadistic, violent and disturbing plots.
In one fake Peppa Pig cartoon, a dentist with a huge syringe pulls out a character’s teeth while she cries in pain. In another, the character asks to see pornography on her parents’ computer and is shown drinking bleach.
Over the past year, parents have grown increasingly alarmed at the number of counterfeit videos, which lure children with favourites such as Peppa Pig but descend into violence. File photo
While some clips are parodies supposed to amuse adults, just as many are given keywords (which help videos appear in searches) designed to evade filters and entice youngsters.
One such channel, Superhero versus Superhero, has 1.6 million subscribers and features actors dressed as Spiderman and Disney princess Elsa — but the plots include Elsa dealing with a gory injury and using automatic weapons.
Another channel, Fun Kid Toon, has more than 380 videos and features sexed-up versions of Disney’s Mickey and Minnie mouse. In one episode, one of their baby twins cuts off the other’s hand with a knife.
Richard Pursey, of cyber-safety company SafeToNet, told the Mail: ‘YouTube relies on users flagging harmful content. It is too slow. By the time content has been flagged to YouTube or the authorities, it will have been shared and seen by millions of children.
‘Recently YouTube removed a counterfeit of children’s cartoon Paw Patrol that showed children sleepwalking to their deaths. This was viewed over three million times before it was removed.’
YouTube says it removes the advertising stream from any user posting material which is aimed at children but also damaging to them — and recruits ‘trusted flaggers’ to look for this kind of material.
FRESH-FACED GIRL’S SWEARY TIRADES
You might hope a video channel starring a fresh-faced 12-year-old talking about her life might be appropriate for youngsters her age. But you’d be wrong if your child is watching LtCorbis, who has more than 767,000 subscribers.
Even on YouTube Kids — an app supposed to offer only filtered, child-friendly clips — damaging material is slipping under the radar. File photo
Her videos are a stream of swear words as she complains school is a waste of time, pokes fun at teachers and gives expletive-ridden video game commentaries. This is despite the fact that users are supposed to be over 13 to get an account.
Look further and there are plenty of clips by other youngsters promoting similarly negative attitudes (and language), including videos giving tips on how to fake illness to skip school and cheat in exams.
TIPS ON HIDING SELF-HARM BLADES
The rise of self-harm among young people is one of the UK’s most pressing mental health issues.
Girls are most at risk, with the number under 18 cutting themselves seriously enough to need hospital care almost quadrupling between 2005 and 2015, from 600 to 2311, according to NHS figures.
Yet one young British YouTuber, using the name LollysAndCiggies, has had her own YouTube channel for more than three years, featuring clips advising others how to cover evidence that they cut themselves.
The clips cover every eventuality, from hiding cuts in summer to what to say if a member of your family spots them.
Plenty of others also offer the same tips. One clip, titled: ‘How and when to hide your self-harm blades’ has racked up 32,000 views since it was uploaded a year ago.
Many videos feature weak disclaimers, claiming they do not condone self-harm. Yet the comments thanking them for the tips show they clearly encourage and normalise it.
YouTube says it removes videos showing self-harm as well as content that encourages people to commit harmful or dangerous acts. However, videos showing how to hide it are clearly not considered unsuitable as the clips are allowed to rack up tens of thousands of views.
Psychologist Emma Citron warns: ‘If parents never get to the see the self-harm scars, these young people will never get the help they need.’
TV PRESENTERS TAKE DRUGS ON SCREEN
In a TV studio vaguely resembling a science lab, a chatty young woman happily declares that the cocaine she just snorted has given her ‘confidence’, before adding she might need a little more.
This is Drugs Lab, a series made for YouTube by a Dutch TV company, which shows its hosts taking a variety of dangerous and illegal drugs.
It takes seconds on YouTube to find images encouraging young people to starve themselves. File photo of a young girl on a smartphone
Other episodes have titles such as ‘Bastiaan smiles after taking GHB’ and ‘Rens is off his rocks after taking MDMA’.
This glossy series is only the tip of the iceberg. There is also a full library of how-to guides by other users, including: ‘Ten tips for first-time weed smokers’ and ‘How to inject heroin’.
Despite criticism from MPs and drugs charities about Drugs Lab, YouTube says: ‘Whilst YouTube has clear policies against content that encourages people to do dangerous or harmful things, we make exceptions for content with clear educational or documentary value.
‘We’re proud to be a place that people can visit to find information on a range of subjects.’
CCTV THAT GLORIFIES GANG FIGHTS
Violence between children and young people is another popular form of YouTube entertainment.
There are hundreds of videos of school fights in which opponents, still in uniform, are surrounded by onlookers, filming on phones.
Other videos take CCTV footage of gang members stabbing each other and glorify it, adding rap soundtracks.In further chilling clips, gang members film themselves rapping about violence and mimicking shooting.
Earlier this year, Britain’s top police office Cressida Dick called on YouTube to take down online material inflaming gang violence. Yet since 2015, YouTube has removed only 38 per cent of videos reported to it by the Metropolitan Police.
YouTube says it does not want to take down videos if they are examples of ‘free and creative expression’.
A spokesman said: ‘We work closely with organisations like the Metropolitan Police to understand where artistic expression escalates into real threats.’
THE SLOW-MO SUICIDE VIDEOS
YouTube has become a popular place for clips of young people killing themselves. While some are faked, many are all too real and show people jumping off buildings or lying in front of trains.
Some are shown in slow motion and greeted with comments like: ‘I want to kill myself — that’s why I am here.’ Others are presented in compilations or under the guise of ‘news’ by amateur TV presenters.
Ged Flynn of Papyrus, a charity working to prevent young suicide, called on YouTube to do more to remove these videos. He says: ‘Anyone who knowingly puts information online which displays self-inflicted death is creating grief for others and information and imagery that will lead to harm or death of other young vulnerable people.
‘For years, internet service provides have said: “We’re just the railway track carrying the goods.” Well no, you provide the railway track so people can put these goods out there. We can not sit by and watch people upload suicide material which others will simulate.’
CRUEL CHALLENGES AND PRANK VIDEOS
‘challenges’ on YouTube spread fast through schools. A ‘duct tape challenge’ encouraged children to tape each other to posts — and last year one boy in the U.S. suffered a crushed eye socket trying to break free.
This summer, doctors raised concern over the ‘deodorant challenge’. Participants uploaded clips of themselves spraying aerosol deodorant as close as possible to their skin for as long they could bear, sometimes resulting in burns.
Another dare, the ‘cinnamon challenge’, encouraged young people to film themselves eating a spoonful of cinnamon. Dry cinnamon coats the inside of the mouth, becomes difficult to swallow, and can trigger vomiting.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reported children and teenagers have been hospitalised due to respiratory complications from the challenge.
HIP-BONE SNAPS THAT NORMALISE ANOREXIA
It takes seconds on YouTube to find images encouraging young people to starve themselves.
There’s ‘thinspiration’ videos — pictures of jutting hip-bones, thigh gaps and stick limbs — for occasions ranging from ‘back to school’ to ‘coming up to summer’, all set to uplifting dance tracks.
Comments reveal the effect on viewers, with remarks such as: ‘It’s everything I want to be, but never can.’
Psychologist Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, says the ready availability of the materials represents a worrying trend. ‘It breaks my heart to see this.
‘This used to be hidden. Now no one seems to be worried about posting it, making this look normal.’