ATLANTA - Does your child use YouTube Kids? If so, they might have already fallen victim to a disturbing online trend without you knowing.
Inappropriate videos have infiltrated the app, often showing popular children's characters in violent, even sexual scenarios.
“When I had put something on the screen. it was Elsa and Ana, and I came in to see what I was hearing and it was Elsa delivering a baby for Ana,” said mother Jennifer Mclean. “Just totally inappropriate, it was like she was on a table, legs spread.”
Horrified, Mclean did some digging and found more than she ever wanted to see.
Sexual content, drug use, violence.
“A lot of the videos seemed to start off as very kid-friendly and then all of a sudden turn into something very inappropriate. So it was 100 percent intentional,” Mclean said.
Another mother, Chrissy Campilio, often hands her daughter Maddie the iPad when she needs five minutes to get things done. She uses an app designated for kids and sets content restrictions for preschool age only.
“I thought, ‘what are you crying at?’ I turned around and I saw adult hands with Peppa Pig toys and they were chopping the heads off Peppa Pig. So that was it for me,” Campilio said.
Maddie fell into a trap that child predators meticulously crafted. The disturbing video in the suggested "next video" queue follows a normal, harmless video. One click, and it's down the rabbit hole – video suggestions after that growing more and more deranged.
It's being dubbed "Elsa Gate."
Detective Matthew Murphy, with the Massachusetts State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said law enforcement knows it's happening.
“There are theories of a financial incentive behind it, but it’s also the shock value, the shock of children,” Murphy said.
But no law enforcement agency is investigating who’s behind these videos, or why they’re being uploaded by the hundreds every day because unless a child is directly enticed, it’s not against the law.
“It is concerning, it is concerning, but there are a lot of concerning things that don’t rise to the level of a crime at one moment,” Murphy said.
YouTube is aware of the problem. In the last nine months, they’ve permanently terminated 50 YouTube channels for endangering children and removed advertising revenue for more than 3 million videos that target families by using known characters in misleading situations.
Child psychology expert Dr. Sharon Gordetsky said this kind of material affects kids in different ways, but children risk being numbed to violence and they can end up reenacting what they see.
“The biggest impact is going to be confusion,” Gordetsky said. “I’m expecting one thing, I’m used to one thing, and now it doesn’t make sense, it's unfamiliar. And things that are unfamiliar are confusing and cause anxiety.”
“How do you come back from that, how do you explain that to a child as a parent?” Campilio said.
Experts said the people behind these videos have at least one clear intention – to deceive both kids and parents. But the risk of being lured by a predator on the Internet is a possibility, too.
“If there’s talk of whether they want to meet, or say, ‘Go to this other website,’ where there may be a webcam, or an email pops up where there may be communication with a child,” Murphy said.
The scare was cause enough for both families to stop using YouTube Kids. They say safety far outweighs a few minutes of peace and quiet.
“Delete it, don’t trust it, delete it,” Campilio said.
YouTube said it has updated its policies and is aggressively enforcing them to protect children from harm but because videos on YouTube Kids are selected by a computer algorithm, not a human, they depend on users flagging the content for it to be age restricted or removed.
It’s a tough job with more than 400 hours of content being uploaded every minute. YouTube said it has increased parental controls as well, but the fight is ongoing.
© 2019 Cox Media Group.