BrightCanary

Kids Watching Gamer Videos on YouTube Also Shown Videos of Real-Life Violence, New Study Finds

By Sarah Warn
May 26, 2023

The BrightCanary Breakdown series distills research about kids, the internet, and social media into essential takeaways.

A new study by the nonprofit Tech Transparency Project (TTP) indicates that kids who watch gaming videos on YouTube might be seeing a lot of real-life violence — even videos that violate YouTube's own policies.

How was the study conducted?

Researchers at TTP created YouTube accounts pretending to be two nine-year-old boys and two 14-year-old boys who all love video games. These accounts watched a bunch of gaming videos:  games like “Roblox” and “Lego Star Wars” for the nine-year-olds, and games like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Halo” for the 14-year-olds. The researchers kept track of what other videos YouTube suggested for them to watch over a month.

How does YouTube suggest videos?

YouTube uses an algorithm to decide what videos to suggest to its users. The algorithm looks at things like what videos you click on, how long you watch, and which videos you like and share. Then, it displays the recommended videos after or alongside a video you’ve chosen to watch. 

Recommended videos drive a “significant amount of the overall viewership on YouTube, even more than channel subscriptions or search,” according to YouTube. The platform does this to keep people watching its videos and ads. You can't turn off these suggestions, but you can remove certain videos from the list if you don't want to see them.

What did the researchers find?

The study found that YouTube was suggesting videos about real-world guns and shootings, and the accounts that clicked on the suggested videos got even more of this type of content.

  • Some of these videos showed how to modify guns to make them even more dangerous or they showed fictionalized school shootings.

YouTube’s algorithm pushed a video titled “Mag-Fed 20MM Rifle with Suppressor” to the 14-year-old who watched recommended content. The description on the 24-second video, which was uploaded 16 years ago and has 4.8 million views, names the rifle and suppressor and links to a website selling them.

  • If the kids watched the videos that YouTube suggested, they were recommended even more videos about guns and shootings.

Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30, YouTube pushed 382 real firearms videos to the nine-year-old engagement account—an average of more than 12 per day. The videos included graphic demonstrations of what high-powered weapons can do to a human torso or human head. YouTube served far fewer weapons videos — 34 — to the gamer of the same age who did not watch the recommendations.”

  • A lot of the suggested videos violated YouTube's own rules about what's okay to show, especially for kids. But it doesn't look like YouTube is doing anything to make sure kids can't see them.
  • The study also found that YouTube suggested a movie about serial killer  Jeffrey Dahmer to the accounts pretending to be kids.

Why does this matter?

@bright_canary

Even if your kid only uses YouTube to watch video game content, there's a chance the algorithm can show them inappropriate videos. That's why it's essential to talk to your kid about safe internet use and what to do if they encounter something that makes them uncomfortable — and also use tools like BrightCanary to supervise what your kid's online activity. #onlinesafety #parentalcontrols #parenting

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YouTube is the most popular social media platform for kids, tweens, and teens. It’s used by 95% of teenagers 13-17 based on a 2022 Pew Research survey. Some parents limit young children to using YouTube Kids, a version of the platform that has content that is only appropriate for children, but parents of older children often let their kids use regular YouTube with some or no parental controls enabled. 

This study highlights the dangers of giving kids unfettered access to YouTube — the platform’s algorithm can recommend inappropriate content, even videos that violate YouTube’s terms of service.

Our take

Watching gamer videos can be fun and entertaining for kids, and to date, there’s been little evidence that playing or watching video games — even violent ones — have a negative impact on children.

But if your child is using YouTube to watch their favorite gamers, they might see content that’s much worse. It's important to use YouTube’s parental controls, to limit your kids’ screen time, and to use apps like BrightCanary to get visibility into what your kids are watching so you can talk to them about it.