Is YouTube safe for kids?

Mom and son with computer
Parents can't always watch over a child's shoulder when they're online, but some Web sites are helping parents filter content. See more parenting pictures.

Kids are spending more time online than ever. The Nielsen Company reports that in May 2009, children ages 2 to 11 made up 9.5 percent of the online population, growing faster than all other user groups combined [source: The Nielsen Company]. But what are they doing online, and do their parents know?

Nielsen also reports continued increases in watching videos online. Short form video like YouTube clips made up 83 percent of that viewing in May 2009 [source: The Nielsen Company]. YouTube far outnumbers other Web sites in unique video views online [source: The Nielsen Company]. With more kids using the Internet, it's only natural to conclude that kids are part of the growth in online video viewing, and YouTube is a large target for parents hoping to control what their kids can watch online.


Thankfully for parents, YouTube is willing to help them make using the site less worrisome. This article describes how YouTube is monitoring its community contributions, how its new Safety Mode feature works to filter out the "bad stuff" and how some Web sites are streaming a hand-selected list of "good" YouTube content in a kid-friendly user interface.




YouTube Monitoring and Censorship

When you register for an account at YouTube, you're asked to agree to the YouTube Terms of Service. The Terms of Service lists several things you agree to avoid when uploading videos or making comments on YouTube. They also state that you agree not to hold YouTube responsible when its users don't follow these terms.

Most of the Terms of Service cover content with copyrights and trademarks, which have clear legal guidelines in the United States. For other content, the Terms of Service point to the YouTube Community Guidelines that has details on what not to post. These guidelines ask you to follow some "common-sense rules that will help you steer clear of trouble."


The following list summarizes controversial material that the guidelines say could get your video removed or, worse, invite a lawsuit against you:

  • Respect that YouTube isn't for pornography or sexually explicit content
  • Don't post videos showing "bad stuff" (illegal activity) or gratuitous violence
  • Avoid shock content like gross-out videos and dead bodies
  • Steer clear from hate speech
  • Don't reveal other people's personal information or pretend to be someone else

Does YouTube enforce this? Yes. YouTube asks its users to flag videos with potentially objectionable content. YouTube staff then reviews these flagged items and removes them if they are in violation of the Community Guidelines. They might also add an age restriction on a video if it's following the guidelines, but may not be appropriate for every viewer [source: YouTube]. Repeat offenders could have their accounts disabled [source: YouTube].

YouTube admits it isn't going to be able to protect every user from every possibly offensive video or comment. The site asks users to provide their age when they sign up (you must be 13 or older), and to take an active role in shaping the community by rating videos and comments, adding comments and flagging videos that seem objectionable. YouTube also encourages you to exercise your right to choose what you watch, and to use its "hide objectionable words" feature to hide offensive words in the Text Comments stream.

You have a choice of what not to watch on YouTube. But can you make that same choice for your kids, too? Go on to the next page to read about Safety Mode, a YouTube feature that helps you do just that.


YouTube Safety Precautions

Turning on YouTube Safety Mode
Turning on YouTube Safety Mode while signed in
Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford

When you sign up for an account at YouTube, you have to provide a date of birth. YouTube requires users to be 13 or older. The site uses your age to help filter out videos that it has given age restrictions to, usually as a response to other users flagging the content. Age restrictions do not prevent kids from lying about their age, though, leaving parents to monitor whether their kids are following the rules.

In February 2010, YouTube added a way to give parents control over their kids' YouTube experience: Safety Mode. This feature allows you to filter out potentially offensive YouTube content. Safety Mode will apply to anyone else using YouTube in that Web browser on that computer, whether or not they're signed in to an account.


When Safety Mode is on, YouTube cleans up its act as follows:

  • The site doesn't display videos marked as having mature content or that have an age restriction, including linking directly to the video or seeing it as a suggested video.
  • The site replaces certain words with asterisks, like when you use the "Hide objectionable words" feature in the Text Comments section.
  • The site boosts the filter on its search results using Google's search algorithms, and it prevents searching entirely with some words.

To start using Safety Mode in YouTube, scroll to the bottom of any YouTube page and click the "Safety Mode: Off" link. A small dialog box appears in your browser window. Click "Save" to enable Safety Mode. To lock YouTube in Safety Mode, log in as a registered user, and click "Save and lock" instead of "Save." With the lock, Safety Mode will apply to anyone using the same browser, even after you've signed out.

The expected way to unlock Safety Mode is to sign in with the same account you used to lock it, click the linked Safety Mode status at the top or bottom of the page, click the unlock button, and enter your YouTube password. This is a sufficient deterrent for kids if they don't know much about Web browsers. If they're Internet-savvy, though, they can learn quickly that there are three easy ways around Safety Mode:

  • Install a different Web browser, and use that to access YouTube instead
  • Delete the cookies in your Web browser: One of the YouTube cookies is what's keeping the browser locked in Safety Mode
  • Use the anonymous browsing feature in the most recent versions of most Web browsers

If it's so easy to get around Safety Mode, is it still worth the effort? If your kid isn't very curious or tech-savvy, it's probably worth it. On the other hand, if you have a persistent 10-year-old on whom you count for tech support, it's probably no more than a statement asserting whether or not you approve. YouTube says it will continue to improve Safety Mode over time to help, and there are several posts in the blogosphere about how to use other technology on your network to keep the Safety Mode cookie alive.


YouTube Front-end Web Sites Just for Kids

ZuiTube's "Funniest Videos" page
ZuiTube's "Funniest Videos" page
Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford

With the growing number of kids online comes a growing amount of software targeted at filtering the bad stuff and easing parents' fears about what their kids will find. One category of targeted software is front-end Web sites. These Web sites have their own features to appeal to kids under 13 while showing pre-screened content from community Web sites like YouTube.

ZuiTube is one of these front-end Web sites. ZuiTube is a project from KidZui, the company behind the free KidZui Web browser designed to be safe and fun for kids. KidZui Founder and CEO Cliff Boro says ZuiTube gives kids "their own version of YouTube" to satisfy their curiosity. "The goal is to be both educational and entertaining" and to create a positive Internet experience for kids without anxious parents watching over their shoulders [source: Sutter].


ZuiTube uses active selection of "good" content instead of filtering out what's "bad" like YouTube's Safety Mode. ZuiTube uses a team of parents and educators across 25 states that select videos that they feel ZuiTube should allow. This group also actively selects the Web content that's allowed in the KidZui browser. KidZui says it has filtered millions of pieces of content, and has mapped out thousands of channels featuring things kids are interested in [source: Sutter].

Totlol, a Canadian front-end video Web site, takes a different approach. Totlol requires a paid membership of $3 per month, $18 per year or $54 "till the kids grow up" [source: Totlol]. Totlol focuses on video content and social networking with graduated features that change the experience based on a kid's age group.

While ZuiTube has other parents and educators actively finding content, Totlol gives you the control to select the videos. Totlol asks parents to help screen comments posted at the site. In addition, Totlol lets you authorize the site to access private videos in your YouTube account, giving your kids protected access to your home videos of them playing soccer or performing in a school play.

Fast forward to the next page for lots more information about having a kid-friendly YouTube experience.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Buckleitner, Warren. "YouTube, the G-Rated Edition." The New York Times. Feb. 11, 2010. (Feb. 25, 2010)
  • Del Conte, Natali. "Video: YouTube's safety mode." CNET. Feb. 10, 2010. (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • KidZui. "About Us." (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • The Nielsen Company. "Growing Up, and Growing Fast: Kids 2-11 Spending More Time Online." July 6, 2009. (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • The Nielsen Company "Three Screen Report: Media Consumption and Multi-tasking Continue to Increase Across TV, Internet, and Mobile." Sept. 2, 2009. (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • The Nielsen Company. "Total Viewers Of Online Video Increased 5% Year-Over-Year." Feb. 11, 2010. (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • Sutter, John D. "Designing an Internet for kids." CNN. Aug. 17, 2009. (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • Totlol. "About." (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • YouTube. "Frequently Asked Questions." (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • YouTube. "Getting Started: Safety Mode." (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • YouTube. "Terms of Service." (Feb. 26, 2010)
  • YouTube. "YouTube Community Guidelines." (Feb. 26, 2010)