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AI animation is being used to target kids on YouTube

There’s already a cottage industry promoting the use of AI to make money off of cheap children’s animations on YouTube, but new AI guidelines don’t address it.

MINNEAPOLIS — Parents looking for a kid-friendly streaming service have no shortage of options these days. Everyone from HBO to Netflix have been busy adding – and acquiring – big names in kid’s entertainment.

But so far, none of them come close to competing with the dominant force among young viewers: YouTube.

“When I first looked into this, I was honestly shocked by how much it dwarfs its competition, like it blows Netflix out of the water,” said Kate Knibbs, a senior writer for Wired. “YouTube is the dominant force in children’s entertainment far and away.” 

Knibbs looked into YouTube’s dominance among kids last summer, but what she has seen in the months since gives her pause as a mom.

“I literally don’t want to put YouTube on for my kid anymore,” she said.

In a follow-up report titled, “Your Kid May Already Be Watching AI-Generated Videos on YouTube,” Knibbs explored how AI is already being used to target kids through an explosion of what she calls animated junk food. Her report examined some of the recent channels that have been cranking out mindless stories and nonsensical songs that attract the attention of young kids.

“It’s basically like ‘Cocomelon’ with the human touch removed,” she said. “It’s horrible.”

An AI animation cottage industry

Just type in the phrase “AI children’s animation” into the YouTube search bar and you will be inundated with tutorial videos that promise to help you make quick money generating AI animations that will get clicks from kids. 

KARE 11 reporter Kent Erdahl and editor Jacob Charbonneau put some of those tutorials to the test. They used ChatGPT to create an entire script with just a single sentence, used an AI voice generator to provide the dialogue and then combined several other tools to create images and the final animation. Within just a few hours, they had a template that could be used to reproduce even more videos in a very short amount of time.

“People are using AI tools to really just churn out as much content as possible without any mind towards education value or even wholesome entertainment value,” Knibbs said. “There could be a scenario where children are watching videos that have never been watched by another human, let alone vetted by any adult.”

How much is out there? 

Though we know AI is already being used, and even promoted, as a way to cheaply attract young viewers, it remains impossible to know how prevalent it really is.

In March, YouTube began rolling out new AI guidelines for labeling, using “altered or synthetic content” as way to help people understand if the videos they are watching were made with AI. But that new policy only requires creators to disclose their content in these cases:

  • Using the likeness of a realistic person: Digitally altering content to replace the face of one individual with another’s or synthetically generating a person’s voice to narrate a video.
  • Altering footage of real events or places: Such as making it appear as if a real building caught fire, or altering a real cityscape to make it appear different than in reality.
  • Generating realistic scenes: Showing a realistic depiction of fictional major events, like a tornado moving toward a real town.

But the guidelines also specifies instances when AI does NOT need to be disclosed, such as: 

  • Clearly unrealistic content, such as animation or someone riding a unicorn through a fantastical world
  • Color adjustment or lighting filters
  • Special effects like background blur or vintage effects
  • Beauty filters or other visual enhancements

“It’s a little bit of a Wild West”

YouTube’s exemption for disclosing AI animation is what is worrying to those who try to keep tabs on child-friendly – and age-appropriate – content.

“It’s tricky and it makes things harder for parents… once again,” said Polly Conway, head of TV for Common Sense Media, which provides age ratings and independent reviews of kid’s content.

Conway says she has always preached caution to parents when it comes to any content they might encounter on YouTube.

“You know, it’s a little bit of a Wild West,” she said. “The main concern for us is: Are kids and families going to be finding crazy stuff on that sidebar of recommended shows, recommended channels?”

She says that concern is amplified by the influx of videos that seem to be driven purely by creators looking to make money targeting kids, but she says AI itself isn’t the problem.

“Some really great vetted sources are testing out AI for their shows,” she said.

That includes PBS Kids which is researching a way to use AI to make episodes of it’s children’s show “Lyla in the Loop” more interactive.

“I’m not saying that all AI generated kids content is bad,” Knibbs said. “Some of it might end up being fantastic, but I do think parents deserve to know whether the tv shows that their children are watching are AI generated or not.”

How difficult is AI detection?

Knibbs says parents trying to do their own AI detection work on YouTube face a big uphill climb.

“It took me a few weeks of digging around to finally identify a handful of AI-generated channels since nobody really discloses it,” she said. “I started by looking around at nursery rhyme videos that seemed kind of poorly made. I was looking at when the channels were created and how many videos had been put up.”

She landed on a handful of videos that were offered by channels that had produced dozens of videos in less than a year. In some cases, those creators had already attracted millions of followers.

Knibbs sent her examples to Reality Defender, a professional AI-detection company, which uses its own AI software to detect the likely sources of AI-generated text, audio and video/animation.

“Every single video that I sent had at least one AI-generated element,” Knibbs said. “The worst thing I saw was probably an AI ‘SpongeBob’ livestream that ended up being about testicle shaving, which was definitely not something you’d want a young child to see.

“I told YouTube about some of (the AI videos),” she said. “But they don’t violate YouTube’s policies right now. They don’t really have a reason to take them down, but I definitely have a reason not to really want my kid to watch them.

“I think it’s only matter of time before some truly bizarre or unsettling AI-generated content aimed at kids, gets pushed out on YouTube and I think the company should be preparing for that possibility more seriously than they are.”

What can parents do?

Without a process in place to identify sources of AI on YouTube, experts say parents could turn to other streaming apps that review and curate content.

You can also use YouTube Kids to curate, or handpick, what your child can watch. There are various settings that also allow adults to block certain channels and videos and also disable search and autoplay functions. 

“YouTube Kids does have some nice functions,” Knibbs said. “But most parents who are having their children watch YouTube are using just regular YouTube at this point.”

KARE11 reached out to YouTube and its parent company, Google, for this report. A spokesperson declined an interview in response to the AI animation concerns, instead including links to its current AI guidelines along along with the company’s strategy for responsible AI innovation.

Though the company didn’t respond specifically to the concerns about AI animation targeting kids, it does address broader questions about it’s efforts to monitor children’s content under the ‘Important info for parents’ section on YouTube Kids:

Our automated systems select content from the broader universe of videos on YouTube. We work hard to exclude content that’s not suitable for kids. But we can’t manually review all videos and no automated system is perfect. If you find something inappropriate, you can block it or report it for fast review.


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