Home movies have long been a staple of family life. They chronicle families growing, children playing and milestones in life. With the internet, families began uploading these moments on sites like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Keeping these innocent videos from being seen by some of the darkest minds on the web continues to be a serious problem, especially on YouTube.
A frightening report discovered family videos of children frolicking in pools or doing gymnastics are part of a YouTube algorithm that brings these images to the attention of pedophiles.
We'll break down the shocking details of the report, as well as share some of our online safety tips for kids and parents.
Researchers find 'rabbit hole effect' in YouTube that attracts child predators
YouTube has a history -- largely unsuccessful -- of trying to contain child predators. But the problem remains the same: YouTube's algorithm continues to recommend videos uploaded by parents of children playing to pedophiles.
Researchers for Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society were studying YouTube’s influence in Brazil when they noticed something alarming. The team conducted an experiment involving a server that followed YouTube recommendations on various topics thousands of times. In the process, they built something like a roadmap that shows how YouTube guides users.
Here's where it gets scary. When the experiment began tracking videos with sexual themes, the researchers noticed recommendations for other videos that were "more bizarre or extreme, and placed greater emphasis on youth," according to the Times.
As researchers studied this "rabbit hole effect," as they called it, the women in the recommended videos became younger, eventually culminating in adult women dressed as children. The video recommendations that followed next were disturbing.
Viewers were steered to actual videos of "partially clothed children," which the Times reports were mostly based in Eastern Europe and Latin America and seemed to be uploaded home videos.
The Times suggests that YouTube’s algorithm possibly learned from people who look at children in sexually exploitative ways, leading them to family videos.
The Times cited the example of a 10-year-old Brazilian girl who uploaded to YouTube a video of herself and a friend playing in a pool. The video was watched 400,000 times, alarming the girl's mother -- and with good reason.
YouTube’s automated recommendation system "had begun showing the video to users who watched other videos of prepubescent, partially clothed children," the Times reported.
When alerted about the problem by the Times, YouTube took out the videos and shut down fake accounts. The recommendation system also changed, but YouTube said that was a result of routine tweaking of the algorithm and not because of any change in policy.
YouTube's continuing pedophile problem
The video of the young Brazilian girl ended up in the recommendation system even after YouTube was alerted in February that pedophiles would share content with other pedophiles through the comments section.
In that instance, YouTube terminated more than 400 channels and disabled comments on tens of millions of videos. Even back then, a video blogger pointed out that commenters would also flag videos of kids, and YouTube's own algorithms would suggest similar content. Sound familiar?
In a blog post responding to the New York Times story, YouTube wrote, "We expanded our efforts from earlier this year around limiting recommendations of borderline content to include videos featuring minors in risky situations.
'While the content itself does not violate our policies, we recognize the minors could be at risk of online or offline exploitation. We've already applied these changes to tens of millions of videos across YouTube."
The researchers countered and said that the only way to really stop pedophiles from trolling YouTube for family videos featuring children is for the company to disable its recommendation system on all videos involving children.
Don't hold your breath for that to happen. YouTube told the Times it had no plans to implement such a change anytime soon because the recommendation system is the largest driver of traffic, and the move would harm creators.
How you can protect your children
Komando.com has long been committed to protecting your child's online safety and privacy. Recently, we created the Tech Safety Contract for parents and their children that gives specifics on how kids should behave or what to watch out for while on websites and apps.
There are several components to this contract, but the following three are particularly relevant following this latest report on YouTube:
Personal Information: I will never tell anyone through any device, app, or website that I am home alone. I won’t give out my last name, my home address and phone number, the name of my school and teachers, where my parents work and their phone numbers without my parents’ permission. I will never give out my friends’ screen names, user names, actual names, email addresses, home addresses, and phone numbers, and I will remind them to keep mine a secret.
Photos: Whenever I use devices, apps, games, and websites where people share information, photos, and videos about themselves, I will let my parents know if I see something strange or that doesn’t seem right. This includes photos that show nudity, violence, or anything illegal. I will never send or post a picture of my family or me unless I ask my parents first. I will not take or share any naked photos or videos of myself or anyone I know.
Meeting People In Real Life: I WILL NEVER, EVER MEET WITH ANYONE I KNOW ONLY THROUGH AN APP, GAME, TEXT, CHAT, OR WEBSITE WITHOUT FIRST GETTING PERMISSION FROM MY PARENTS.
There are many dark corners on the internet, which is why we know how important it is to keep children safe and offer you the tools to guide them.
New! Tech safety contract for kids (free download)
Your children grew up alongside technology, and kids are always connected. A digital life also comes with dangers, from scammers to child predators. That's why Kim created this technology contract that acts as an agreement between you and your children, so you'll always be in-the-know about their online activities to keep them safe.