The nightmare videos of childrens’ YouTube — and what’s wrong with the internet today | James Bridle

The nightmare videos of childrens’ YouTube — and what’s wrong with the internet today | James Bridle

I’m James. I’m a writer and artist, and I make work about technology. I do things like draw life-size outlines
of military drones in city streets around the world, so that people can start to think
and get their heads around these really quite hard-to-see
and hard-to-think-about technologies. I make things like neural networks
that predict the results of elections based on weather reports, because I’m intrigued about what the actual possibilities
of these weird new technologies are. Last year, I built
my own self-driving car. But because I don’t
really trust technology, I also designed a trap for it. (Laughter) And I do these things mostly because
I find them completely fascinating, but also because I think
when we talk about technology, we’re largely talking about ourselves and the way that we understand the world. So here’s a story about technology. This is a “surprise egg” video. It’s basically a video of someone
opening up loads of chocolate eggs and showing the toys inside to the viewer. That’s it. That’s all it does
for seven long minutes. And I want you to notice
two things about this. First of all, this video
has 30 million views. (Laughter) And the other thing is, it comes from a channel
that has 6.3 million subscribers, that has a total of eight billion views, and it’s all just more videos like this — 30 million people watching a guy
opening up these eggs. It sounds pretty weird, but if you search
for “surprise eggs” on YouTube, it’ll tell you there’s
10 million of these videos, and I think that’s an undercount. I think there’s way, way more of these. If you keep searching, they’re endless. There’s millions and millions
of these videos in increasingly baroque combinations
of brands and materials, and there’s more and more of them
being uploaded every single day. Like, this is a strange world. Right? But the thing is, it’s not adults
who are watching these videos. It’s kids, small children. These videos are
like crack for little kids. There’s something about the repetition, the constant little
dopamine hit of the reveal, that completely hooks them in. And little kids watch these videos
over and over and over again, and they do it for hours
and hours and hours. And if you try and take
the screen away from them, they’ll scream and scream and scream. If you don’t believe me — and I’ve already seen people
in the audience nodding — if you don’t believe me, find someone
with small children and ask them, and they’ll know about
the surprise egg videos. So this is where we start. It’s 2018, and someone, or lots of people, are using the same mechanism that, like,
Facebook and Instagram are using to get you to keep checking that app, and they’re using it on YouTube
to hack the brains of very small children in return for advertising revenue. At least, I hope
that’s what they’re doing. I hope that’s what they’re doing it for, because there’s easier ways
of making ad revenue on YouTube. You can just make stuff up or steal stuff. So if you search for really
popular kids’ cartoons like “Peppa Pig” or “Paw Patrol,” you’ll find there’s millions and millions
of these online as well. Of course, most of them aren’t posted
by the original content creators. They come from loads and loads
of different random accounts, and it’s impossible to know
who’s posting them or what their motives might be. Does that sound kind of familiar? Because it’s exactly the same mechanism that’s happening across most
of our digital services, where it’s impossible to know
where this information is coming from. It’s basically fake news for kids, and we’re training them from birth to click on the very first link
that comes along, regardless of what the source is. That’s doesn’t seem like
a terribly good idea. Here’s another thing
that’s really big on kids’ YouTube. This is called the “Finger Family Song.” I just heard someone groan
in the audience. This is the “Finger Family Song.” This is the very first one I could find. It’s from 2007, and it only has
200,000 views, which is, like, nothing in this game. But it has this insanely earwormy tune, which I’m not going to play to you, because it will sear itself
into your brain in the same way that
it seared itself into mine, and I’m not going to do that to you. But like the surprise eggs, it’s got inside kids’ heads and addicted them to it. So within a few years,
these finger family videos start appearing everywhere, and you get versions
in different languages with popular kids’ cartoons using food or, frankly, using whatever kind
of animation elements you seem to have lying around. And once again, there are millions
and millions and millions of these videos available online in all of these
kind of insane combinations. And the more time
you start to spend with them, the crazier and crazier
you start to feel that you might be. And that’s where I
kind of launched into this, that feeling of deep strangeness
and deep lack of understanding of how this thing was constructed
that seems to be presented around me. Because it’s impossible to know
where these things are coming from. Like, who is making them? Some of them appear to be made
of teams of professional animators. Some of them are just randomly
assembled by software. Some of them are quite wholesome-looking
young kids’ entertainers. And some of them are from people who really clearly
shouldn’t be around children at all. (Laughter) And once again, this impossibility
of figuring out who’s making this stuff — like, this is a bot? Is this a person? Is this a troll? What does it mean
that we can’t tell the difference between these things anymore? And again, doesn’t that uncertainty
feel kind of familiar right now? So the main way people get views
on their videos — and remember, views mean money — is that they stuff the titles
of these videos with these popular terms. So you take, like, “surprise eggs” and then you add
“Paw Patrol,” “Easter egg,” or whatever these things are, all of these words from other
popular videos into your title, until you end up with this kind of
meaningless mash of language that doesn’t make sense to humans at all. Because of course it’s only really
tiny kids who are watching your video, and what the hell do they know? Your real audience
for this stuff is software. It’s the algorithms. It’s the software that YouTube uses to select which videos
are like other videos, to make them popular,
to make them recommended. And that’s why you end up with this
kind of completely meaningless mash, both of title and of content. But the thing is, you have to remember, there really are still people within
this algorithmically optimized system, people who are kind
of increasingly forced to act out these increasingly bizarre
combinations of words, like a desperate improvisation artist
responding to the combined screams of a million toddlers at once. There are real people
trapped within these systems, and that’s the other deeply strange thing
about this algorithmically driven culture, because even if you’re human, you have to end up behaving like a machine just to survive. And also, on the other side of the screen, there still are these little kids
watching this stuff, stuck, their full attention grabbed
by these weird mechanisms. And most of these kids are too small
to even use a website. They’re just kind of hammering
on the screen with their little hands. And so there’s autoplay, where it just keeps playing these videos
over and over and over in a loop, endlessly for hours and hours at a time. And there’s so much weirdness
in the system now that autoplay takes you
to some pretty strange places. This is how, within a dozen steps, you can go from a cute video
of a counting train to masturbating Mickey Mouse. Yeah. I’m sorry about that. This does get worse. This is what happens when all of these different keywords, all these different pieces of attention, this desperate generation of content, all comes together into a single place. This is where all those deeply weird
keywords come home to roost. You cross-breed the finger family video with some live-action superhero stuff, you add in some weird,
trollish in-jokes or something, and suddenly, you come
to a very weird place indeed. The stuff that tends to upset parents is the stuff that has kind of violent
or sexual content, right? Children’s cartoons getting assaulted, getting killed, weird pranks that actually
genuinely terrify children. What you have is software pulling in
all of these different influences to automatically generate
kids’ worst nightmares. And this stuff really, really
does affect small children. Parents report their children
being traumatized, becoming afraid of the dark, becoming afraid of their favorite
cartoon characters. If you take one thing away from this,
it’s that if you have small children, keep them the hell away from YouTube. (Applause) But the other thing, the thing
that really gets to me about this, is that I’m not sure we even really
understand how we got to this point. We’ve taken all of this influence,
all of these things, and munged them together in a way
that no one really intended. And yet, this is also the way
that we’re building the entire world. We’re taking all of this data, a lot of it bad data, a lot of historical data
full of prejudice, full of all of our worst
impulses of history, and we’re building that
into huge data sets and then we’re automating it. And we’re munging it together
into things like credit reports, into insurance premiums, into things like predictive
policing systems, into sentencing guidelines. This is the way we’re actually
constructing the world today out of this data. And I don’t know what’s worse, that we built a system
that seems to be entirely optimized for the absolute worst aspects
of human behavior, or that we seem
to have done it by accident, without even realizing
that we were doing it, because we didn’t really understand
the systems that we were building, and we didn’t really understand
how to do anything differently with it. There’s a couple of things I think
that really seem to be driving this most fully on YouTube, and the first of those is advertising, which is the monetization of attention without any real other variables at work, any care for the people who are
actually developing this content, the centralization of the power,
the separation of those things. And I think however you feel
about the use of advertising to kind of support stuff, the sight of grown men in diapers
rolling around in the sand in the hope that an algorithm
that they don’t really understand will give them money for it suggests that this
probably isn’t the thing that we should be basing
our society and culture upon, and the way in which
we should be funding it. And the other thing that’s kind of
the major driver of this is automation, which is the deployment
of all of this technology as soon as it arrives,
without any kind of oversight, and then once it’s out there, kind of throwing up our hands and going,
“Hey, it’s not us, it’s the technology.” Like, “We’re not involved in it.” That’s not really good enough, because this stuff isn’t
just algorithmically governed, it’s also algorithmically policed. When YouTube first started
to pay attention to this, the first thing they said
they’d do about it was that they’d deploy
better machine learning algorithms to moderate the content. Well, machine learning,
as any expert in it will tell you, is basically what we’ve started to call software that we don’t really
understand how it works. And I think we have
enough of that already. We shouldn’t be leaving
this stuff up to AI to decide what’s appropriate or not, because we know what happens. It’ll start censoring other things. It’ll start censoring queer content. It’ll start censoring
legitimate public speech. What’s allowed in these discourses, it shouldn’t be something
that’s left up to unaccountable systems. It’s part of a discussion
all of us should be having. But I’d leave a reminder that the alternative isn’t
very pleasant, either. YouTube also announced recently that they’re going to release
a version of their kids’ app that would be entirely
moderated by humans. Facebook — Zuckerberg said
much the same thing at Congress, when pressed about how they
were going to moderate their stuff. He said they’d have humans doing it. And what that really means is, instead of having toddlers being
the first person to see this stuff, you’re going to have underpaid,
precarious contract workers without proper mental health support being damaged by it as well. (Laughter) And I think we can all do
quite a lot better than that. (Applause) The thought, I think, that brings those
two things together, really, for me, is agency. It’s like, how much do we really
understand — by agency, I mean: how we know how to act
in our own best interests. Which — it’s almost impossible to do in these systems that we don’t
really fully understand. Inequality of power
always leads to violence. And we can see inside these systems that inequality of understanding
does the same thing. If there’s one thing that we can do
to start to improve these systems, it’s to make them more legible
to the people who use them, so that all of us have
a common understanding of what’s actually going on here. The thing, though, I think
most about these systems is that this isn’t, as I hope
I’ve explained, really about YouTube. It’s about everything. These issues of accountability and agency, of opacity and complexity, of the violence and exploitation
that inherently results from the concentration
of power in a few hands — these are much, much larger issues. And they’re issues not just of YouTube
and not just of technology in general, and they’re not even new. They’ve been with us for ages. But we finally built this system,
this global system, the internet, that’s actually showing them to us
in this extraordinary way, making them undeniable. Technology has this extraordinary capacity to both instantiate and continue all of our most extraordinary,
often hidden desires and biases and encoding them into the world, but it also writes them down
so that we can see them, so that we can’t pretend
they don’t exist anymore. We need to stop thinking about technology
as a solution to all of our problems, but think of it as a guide
to what those problems actually are, so we can start thinking
about them properly and start to address them. Thank you very much. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) Helen Walters: James, thank you
for coming and giving us that talk. So it’s interesting: when you think about the films where
the robotic overlords take over, it’s all a bit more glamorous
than what you’re describing. But I wonder — in those films,
you have the resistance mounting. Is there a resistance mounting
towards this stuff? Do you see any positive signs,
green shoots of resistance? James Bridle: I don’t know
about direct resistance, because I think this stuff
is super long-term. I think it’s baked into culture
in really deep ways. A friend of mine,
Eleanor Saitta, always says that any technological problems
of sufficient scale and scope are political problems first of all. So all of these things we’re working
to address within this are not going to be addressed
just by building the technology better, but actually by changing the society
that’s producing these technologies. So no, right now, I think we’ve got
a hell of a long way to go. But as I said, I think by unpacking them, by explaining them, by talking
about them super honestly, we can actually start
to at least begin that process. HW: And so when you talk about
legibility and digital literacy, I find it difficult to imagine that we need to place the burden
of digital literacy on users themselves. But whose responsibility
is education in this new world? JB: Again, I think this responsibility
is kind of up to all of us, that everything we do,
everything we build, everything we make, needs to be made
in a consensual discussion with everyone who’s avoiding it; that we’re not building systems
intended to trick and surprise people into doing the right thing, but that they’re actually involved
in every step in educating them, because each of these systems
is educational. That’s what I’m hopeful about,
about even this really grim stuff, that if you can take it
and look at it properly, it’s actually in itself
a piece of education that allows you to start seeing
how complex systems come together and work and maybe be able to apply
that knowledge elsewhere in the world. HW: James, it’s such
an important discussion, and I know many people here
are really open and prepared to have it, so thanks for starting off our morning. JB: Thanks very much. Cheers. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “The nightmare videos of childrens’ YouTube — and what’s wrong with the internet today | James Bridle

  1. I remember seeing my 4 yr old brother watching a minecraft skit on the Youtube app on the TV and one of the characters in a purple bikini was going down a stripper pole. I even told my stepmother what I saw and she literally did not even care!

  2. I always thought of how nightmarish it was to fake a Youtube Kids video into being profanity. Kids, make sure you use Youtube Kids instead.

  3. My parents never let watch YouTube, they have blocked the website on our wifi. I am not supposed to be on YouTube right now but the app still works, thats a massive loophole in their plans to protect me from internet. Its not Like I’m watching anything thats bad on here though. I understand that they don’t want me to watch stuff that might be inappropriate but all I want to do is watch documentaries and stuff. I don’t think they’ll find out because they don’t really know how the internet works anyway.

  4. Just flag the videos whenever they show up. It is one of the most effective ways to get this issue resolved, well from my perspective at least.

  5. If you’re a kid and you’re addicted to youtube that’s terrifying. Addiction always has a dark aspect to it.
    I remember when I was a kid and it was super fun to use a computer on those rare occasions to play a ducks life or papas pizzaria or even just to colour in a picture digitally.
    However I know from experience with both growing up without these technologies and also being addicted to youtube, I’m am so so so glad I wasn’t given tablets and phones and laptops to use mindlessly growing up. When you’re a kid you can fully experience and enjoy life and you really don’t need technology to distract you or entertain you. Playing offline growing up are some of my fondest memories, whereas my periods of mindless youtube binging give me a sour taste in my mouths reflect upon.
    If you’re a parent don’t just give your child a tablet to keep them distracted, just do your job properly, thanks.

  6. I have a 4 year old and he has found all of these videos on his own through the recommendation engine. He doesn't know how to type but he knows how to click and scroll. Finger family, Old mcdonald had a farm, egg surprises, farm animals, toy hauls, you name it…

  7. When i was 6yrs i started watching youtube…and i learned English from it……and then i did not see it continuously……. (actually i only watched TV the whole time lol)

    Another story:my aunt gives my cousin phone for so much time like freaking 7to8 hours. To keep him shut so she could be free and work……

  8. This is my thinking as to why this very peculiar content is circulating around Youtube.
    The said peculiar content is monetized, and ad revenue is split between the content creator and Youtube itself.
    Since the content is getting in a whole plethora of views, there is a lot of money to be made from this.
    Google gets a lot of money from this type of content, so it just keeps it because, hey, it's not gay but $20 is $20.

  9. I loved to watch cookieswirlc but she does that cause she wants not for ad revenue but for the others one that might be the case? Ever heard of Momo? On those silent opening surprise egg videos that can pop up momo is still a thing the video is silent and any scary thing can pop up on those videos and scar the kids for life I don’t get these kids videos kids enjoys it but I kinda find it weird but kids like it so can’t do anything

  10. I remember the days before YouTube when I watched sonic every Saturday morning, now kids stare at a screen literally everywhere they go, and not even a DS screen like I had. It’s like real life Black Mirror

  11. my favorite video on youtube is FUN WOW Mickey Minnie Mouse Donald Cars mcqueen Suprise eg fun car cartton toon fun smile for kids 2019 supper mario fun cool awesome yes fun smile children tv.

  12. I'm glad that my childhood was filled with me just playing Red Ball on my Dad's phone and watching Dora on TV and not this modern day crap :')

  13. Damn i'm glad I watched barney and friends. Dora the exploer and spongebob growing up intsead of whatever hellhole all those videos are.

  14. Youtube is going to stop monetizing content like those. It will stop people from creating such low-effort children videos, because they wouldn't get any money from such content.

  15. I’m happy I grew up watching Blues clues and going outside and playing vets games with stuffed animals, and learning my love of drawing and growing up with that. I wish others kids could learn that. It’s sad they can’t. . .

  16. thing is, children under 13 aren't even allowed to BE on YouTube. these videos are horrible and creepy and they scream sinister. the "children's" side of YouTube DEFINITELY isn't for children.

  17. When I am a child, I don't get to watch this, all I watch is (me when I am a child) DanTDM mod showcase, Call of duty 2 gameplay, and also cat compilations

  18. Was anyone a kid and watched early YouTube 2008-2011 and watched videos about Lego Star Wars stop motions? And Lego builds?

  19. I wasn't allowed to be on YouTube or have a phone until 5th grade. Before that, I lived off of puzzles and forcing my sibilings to look at them

  20. I’m so glad I got to grow up and have a taste of going outside to play with friends, riding your bike if you had one all day, no fucking cell phones …and I was born in 91! Not that long ago!

  21. if you’ve ever heard of hey kids just know how terrifying those are and how they’re hidden behind bright thumbnails and pretty profile pictures and names that intrigues kids but when they click on it and see a terrifying video those children are pretty much scared for life. the people who makes those videos are disgusting

  22. People who seek to corrupt children's Innocence deserve to either be chemically castrated or euthanized… I'm a pretty passive person but I think I'd prefer the later..

  23. 2:25
    God, I'm glad I was born before the internet went mainstream. When I was a child we just watched the same Disney VHS over and over..

  24. Just about you tube censorship, I saw a video get age restricted because of automatic subtitles mucking up and the bots flagged it. The video is about button mashing in fighting games.

  25. There’s literally no excuse for 5:15. It’s literally just Hitler in the bottom right corner. And guess what?

    Youtube will demonitize a 20 minute video over a sound effect, strike a channel for posting anything about history even RELATING to Hitler, but this video stands. Why? BECAUSE IT MAKES THEM MONEY. YouTube is becoming a babysitter, and it’s not good.

  26. ok boomer.

    the times are changing. let kids enjoy themselves. He points out how they would get mad when the tablet gets taken away but I'm sure y'all cried when your parents told you to come in from outside. I get it's hard for your brains to wrap around this concept because you're so stuck in your own generation, but just let them enjoy themselves and stop saying you had it so much better and ridiculing them, jeeze.

  27. Parents this decade are really lackluster and horrible. You all remember when the kid who was caught by harambe who was later shot and died. That’s because their parents weren’t paying attention. There are lots of cases in which parents are not setting a good example for their child that they birthed. Like if you want them to learn and be interactive, send them to daycare, and teach them the basics. I mean we are content creators not everyday baby sitters. Who ever makes these bad kid friendly videos are probably people who have no experience on working and are probably drop out students who go in their basement. (Excuse me for my probably bad grammar.)

  28. Does anyone know how to get hired to monitor the YouTube Kids app? I know it's probably minimum wage, but that's more than what I need and I think I'd know how to handle it (maybe).

  29. You’re right, I spent 3 hours hunched over a video which shows kids studying extremely hard and pass out of tension.

    Dramatically correct.

  30. Can anybody answer me this? Could the amount of endorphins released from watching these videos at a young age cause some sort of depression in the future? Like how someone who's been on coke for 20 years can't feel a natural buzz from doing something fun.

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