Going down a YouTube rabbit hole is a dangerous game—even if you successfully avoid its cesspool of hateful and illegal content, you’re bound to stumble into another cesspool altogether. And worryingly, according to new Pew Research Center analysis, a large chunk of the most popular content revolves around children.
The study, “A Week in the Life of Popular YouTube Channels,” explored YouTube content posted by high-subscriber channels in the first week of 2019. Beyond the obscene reality of just how much content these popular channels are churning out, the analysis also discovered that children’s content, content featuring kids, and content about video games were the most viewed among the analyzed videos.
Pew defined a popular YouTube channel as one with at least 250,000 subscribers and identified a total of 43,770 of these channels that were analyzed for the study. According to Pew, it used “its own custom mapping technique” to curate these channels. The findings were robust, but a few particularly stand out to illustrate the state of the preferences of YouTube’s audience and the platform’s most popular content.
In the first week of this year, only 2 percent of videos posted by high-subscriber channels included a child or children under the age of 13, but these videos had on average three times as many views as other genres, according to Pew. For context, Pew found that videos with a young kid had an average of 297,574 views in comparison to videos without a young kid with an average of 97,081 views. And channels that posted at least one video with a kid had an average of 1.8 million subscribers compared to those without a video of a young kid, which averaged 1.2 million subscribers, according to the analysis.
What’s more, most of the videos that did include children weren’t created specifically for a young audience, the study notes, estimating that just 21 percent of those videos were exclusively created for kids. Of the videos that were made for children, 13 percent featured a kid that appeared to be younger than 13. YouTube’s terms of service state that users must be 13 years or older to use the platform, and it has rolled out a separate app specifically for kids.
Still, Pew’s study found that videos created specifically for kids and that feature one under the age of 13 “were one of the single most popular video categories captured in the analysis” and averaged four times more views than videos that didn’t feature a kid.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that a platform mired in so much controversy over its relation to kids would be so kid-centric. The Federal Trade Commission recently launched an investigation into the company over how it handles the personal information of children after children’s health and privacy groups voiced their concerns over alleged privacy issues. YouTube has also come under fire for recommending creepy videos to children and videos of children to pedophiles.
In response to the video recommendation controversies, the company said in June that it would roll out a number of changes that give users more control over what they see on their homepage and in the recommended videos section. But these new (and terribly belated) updates are further indication that YouTube is just now learning how to grapple with the wild and at times extremist nature of its algorithm and its platform, and the fact that it’s largely catering to and featuring children makes it all the more messed up that this is the case.
In an email to Gizmodo, a YouTube spokesperson asserted that the company does not explicitly position its platform as a veritable playground for kids under 13.
“We can’t speak to Pew’s methodology or results. But generally on YouTube, the most popular video categories tend to be areas like comedy, music, sports and ‘how to,’” the spokesperson said. “And we have always been clear YouTube has never been for people under 13.”
The top five videos created specifically for kids but which didn’t include a child in the footage was mostly animated, songs, or nursery rhymes, according to the study, and several of them had titles designed specifically for an algorithm rather than human eyeballs, likely to game the machine into surfacing it higher for viewers, such as “SUPERHERO BABIES MAKE A GINGERBREAD HOUSE SUPERHERO BABIES PLAY DOH CARTOONS FOR KIDS.”
Outside of child-centric content, the study also discovered more broadly that users are posting and consuming an astonishing amount of content. According to the analysis, it would take someone eight hours of YouTube videos every day for more than 16 years just to watch all of the content posted over just one week by the most popular channels.
Of course, children’s content wasn’t the only popular content among high-subscriber channels. The Pew analysis also looked at 20 keywords linked to the highest view counts on these videos. “Fortnite” was linked to the highest increase in views out of all of these terms as well as being the most common of the most-viewed keywords. Other video game terms included “PUBG,” “FIFA,” and “Roblox.” “Slime” and “rainbow” were related to children’s content, “NFL” and “NBA” to sports content, “ASMR,” “moment,” “prank,” “hack,” and “mystery” were related to video genres, and “worst,” “ultimate,” and “insane” related to thirsty attempts to lure viewers in.
As for the top five videos that did feature a child but weren’t designed exclusively for them, the study wrote that these were mainly from parenting and family channels, posting things like baby name reveals and baby announcements.
Of course, the finding that content tangential and directly related to children is the most popular on the video platform isn’t inherently insidious, and Pew didn’t reveal any findings that were outwardly evil or illegal. But the relationship between young kids and YouTube is a fraught one, at best, and this analysis signals that even though this demographic isn’t even allowed to peruse the main platform, they’re still heavily featured and sought out.
You can access an exhaustive look into the week-long analysis of popular YouTube content on Pew’s website.