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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.