5 On Your Side

Is YouTube watching your kids? Advocates claim company collected data on millions of children

Posted July 16, 2018 5:03 p.m. EDT
Updated July 16, 2018 5:43 p.m. EDT

Many companies pay for statistics about online users, and Consumers Union warns parents that children who use YouTube to watch video could be tracked and targeted.

Many parents don’t even think about how data on their kids’ viewing habits could be gathered, analyzed and then used to sell ads, which violates federal law.

Like a lot of kids, 8-year-old Maisie and her little sister, Violet, love to huddle over a tablet to watch videos on YouTube.

“They have an interest in something and they’ll type it in to see if there’s a video about that. They do a lot of funny songs,” their mother, Michelle VanNess, said.

While VanNess’ kids watch YouTube, YouTube may be watching them and gathering data. Advocates say that practice violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

“It’s meant to prevent companies from collecting data about children and then using it to do things like target advertising to them without the parental consent,” said Robert Richter with Consumer Reports.

YouTube’s terms of service specify the site is for users over the age of 13. Google says its YouTube Kids app is COPPA compliant, but not all parents use it.

According to one report, 80 percent of children between the ages of six and 12 use YouTube daily, and advocates says the company knows it.

“You have to understand that these companies make their money by knowing who their viewers are. YouTube can tell the giant advertising machine behind it, these are definitely going to hit some kids, and so you can show some specific ads there,” Richter said.

Twenty-two advocacy groups came together to file an FTC complaint. They estimate Google has collected data on nearly 25 million children without their parent’s explicit consent.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said parents probably don’t even realize the data collection is happening.

“As a parent, you need to understand that your kids watching YouTube is like you watching YouTube and Google is collecting the same information,” Richter said.

If the FTC chooses to investigate and finds violations, they could fine Google about $41,000 per violation.

YouTube sent a statement to Consumer Reports, saying that protecting kids and families is a top priority. They said they are reviewing the complaint and will “evaluate if there are things we can do to improve.” The company is also encouraging parents to use the YouTube Kids app, which is specifically designed for children.