BOSTON -- A disturbing online trend may have already affected your child without you knowing.
Inappropriate videos have infiltrated the popular YouTube Kids app using beloved children’s characters to expose young viewers to sex, drug use, and violence.
“I came in to see what I was hearing and it was Elsa delivering a baby for Ana. Totally inappropriate, she was on a table, legs spread,” said Walpole mom Jennifer McLean. “That was not what we started with, we started with a singalong from Frozen.”
The problem is being dubbed “ElsaGate” and it’s affecting families across the state. Child predators have found ways to manipulate algorithms on YouTube Kids to slip past parental controls and shock unwitting viewers.
Following a normal video featuring a child’s favorite character, a suggested next video shows disturbing content. One click and video suggestions after that grow increasingly deranged.
The videos often masquerade as kid-friendly, featuring the names of popular Nickelodeon and Disney characters, set to familiar music from cartoons or nursery rhymes. Often the videos are also tagged with keywords like ‘education’.
“She was crying, and 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,” said Norwood mom Chrissy Campilio.
Chrissy Campilio’s daughter Maddie is only 3 years old, and like a lot of parents, Chrissy sometimes hands Maddie the iPad for a quiet five minutes to get things done. She thought she was doing everything right – using an app designated for kids and setting content restrictions for preschool age only—but Maddie fell into a trap child predators meticulously crafted and law enforcement can do little about.
Detective Matthew Murphy with the Massachusetts State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force says law enforcement has known about "ElsaGate" for the last couple years.
“There are theories of a financial incentive behind it, but it’s also the shock value, the shock of children,” Murphy said. “There are theories that the videos are coming from Russia or India, but those have not been confirmed.”
Despite due concern, no law enforcement agency is investigating who is behind these videos or why they are being uploaded by the hundreds every day. Unless a child is directly enticed, what’s happening is not against the law.
“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 told Boston 25 News reporter Jacqui Heinrich.
YouTube said it is aware of the issue, but with an average 400 hours of content being uploaded every minute, it’s nearly impossible to filter out completely. YouTube Kids is not a curated app; the videos are selected by computer algorithms rather than humans, and offending videos that slip past filters can exist on the platform until they are reported and flagged for age restriction.
YouTube Kids responded to the problem by changing their algorithms and advertisement revenue scheme to discourage offending videos from being uploaded in the first place.
In the last 9 months since the change, the platform permanently terminated 50 YouTube channels for endangering children, and removed advertising revenue for 3 million videos that targeted families by using known characters in misleading situations.
A YouTube spokesperson told Boston 25 news:
YouTube Kids also points out that it has enriching content and various monthly initiatives to help kids develop a passion for learning, including #LearnALanguage and #ReadAlong month.
In addition, YouTube Kids also increased parental controls by adding features like timers, individual profiles, and the ability to turn off the search function.
Parents like Campilio and McLean tell Boston 25 News, those very features provided a false sense of security.
“If she didn’t cry or whimper I never would have known what she was watching, because it was only a short period of a 30 minute video. You can watch it with them for 28 minutes then that 29th minute can be something really bad,” Campilio said. “How do you come back from that, how do you explain that to a child?”
Child psychologist Dr. Sharon Gordetsky says this kind of material affects kids of different ages in different ways, but children risk being numbed out to violence and they can end up reenacting what they see. Children may also exhibit signs that they have encountered disturbing material by showing abnormal behavior.
“The biggest impact is going to be confusion. I’m expecting one thing, I’m used to one thing, and now it doesn’t make sense, it’s unfamiliar. Things that are unfamiliar are confusing and cause anxiety,” Dr. Gordetsky said.
Both experts and parents agree that technology savvy in toddlers works against parents trying to keep their kids safe. The only surefire way to protect children is through vigilant pre-screening or adult supervision.
“If I put something on, within minutes my kids are flipping for the next video,” McLean said.
A spokesperson from YouTube pointed out that the main YouTube site is intended only for children ages 13 and older, while the YouTube Kids platform contains enriching content geared toward children of all ages.
Although the vast majority of videos on YouTube Kids are perfectly safe for children, the ones that aren’t can expose them to dark parts of the internet where crimes do happen.
Detective Murphy says parents need to keep watch for any attempted communications with a child, such as talk of meeting up or being directed to a different website where there may be a web cam.
In a 30-day period, a spokesperson YouTube said fewer than .005 percent of videos are flagged for removal from YouTube Kids.
Still, experts say the people behind these videos have at least one clear intention: to deceive both kids and parents.
The scare was enough for these two local moms to stop using YouTube Kids, because the risk of being lured by a predator on the internet far outweighs a few minutes of peace and quiet.
“Delete it, don’t trust it, delete it,” Campilio said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says if you encounter this type of content online, you should report it to the platform and to the cyber tip line, and always have conversations with your kids about online safety.
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