In 1969, children’s entertainer Fred Rogers appeared before the U.S. Senate and voiced “concern about what our children are seeing” on television. He emphasized the transformative potential of television and insisted that the creation of appropriate and thoughtful children’s entertainment required a “meaningful expression of care.”
The world of children’s media has come a long way since then. But it feels like we’ve strayed pretty far from the path that Mr. Rogers laid out for us. YouTube is in the news again, this time after being hit with a record $170 million fine in a settlement with the FTC for violating children’s privacy regulations. For months, we’ve seen dozens of stories about YouTube, each detailing disturbing and potentially harmful content being served up to children. But now the conversation has changed.
Most agree that YouTube isn’t a safe place for children to roam free. The question isn’t whether or not it’s safe for kids, but if it can ever be safe. There has been lots of speculation about where YouTube should go from here, but no one seems to agree on the best course of action. To quote CNN’s Brian Stelter on the matter, “Every suggested solution leads to more questions…”
But YouTube is simply the most recent and highly visible symptom of a much larger, underlying problem: The internet wasn’t built for kids.
Today's generation of connected kids has the entire unfiltered internet at their fingertips. Every month, tens of millions of kids consume billions of hours of content online, largely unsupervised, often swiping and tapping before they can walk or talk.
Talk about scary and harmful.
While the transformative potential of the internet is exponential when compared to television, especially television in the 1960s, I can only imagine what our beloved Mister Rogers would have to say about the content being served up to children today.
Yet, as bleak as this sounds, I remain optimistic.
I believe we are on the brink of the next phase of major internet growth.
When it comes to serving kids online, we’ve been presented with the perfect combination of necessity meets opportunity. Kids make up more than a quarter of the world’s population, and as they spend more time on the internet, parents are growing increasingly concerned.
Parents desperately want something better for their kids. Now is the time for internet and media companies, large and small, to finally put kids first by creating a new world of media designed just for them. An environment that offers all the benefits of the internet at large, without any of the risks. Something unexpected and innovative that will capture the imagination, inspire young minds and help raise the next generation of creative, curious and empathetic humans.
So far, much of what we’ve been doing is wrong. We can’t just retrofit products and services that were designed for adults in order to market them to kids. We’ve seen what happens when the well-being of children is an afterthought. It’s crucial to create experiences for kids from the ground up, with the unique needs of children in mind every step of the way.
So, how do we do this?
First, people are better than technology at understanding what is appropriate for children. Algorithms are extremely powerful and useful tools for certain tasks. But an algorithm will never really know your child, provide the insight of a thoughtful teacher or replace a parent’s sensitivity and intuition. Services made for children should offer only the best, most beneficial and appropriate content, where every piece is thoroughly and carefully reviewed by real people before it is made available to young eyes.
Second, when it comes to children and families, trusted brands matter. Take Sesame Street, for example. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Sesame Street is one of the most beloved, trusted children’s brands in history. For 50 years it has consistently and responsibly served and delighted children and families worldwide. Every character, song and storyline has delivered on the promise of caring and thoughtful children’s entertainment.
Most parents feel good (and even nostalgic) when their little ones engage with Sesame Street and its cast of colorful, familiar and inclusive characters. A brand that consistently provides only the best for children is something families are willing to pay for. A responsible approach to children’s media is not only the right thing to do, it’s good for business.
Third, to provide the safest, best quality content to kids, the roles of parents and media companies need to be clearly defined: Parents need to be savvy and discerning, but media companies should also be transparent about risks. Even the most diligent parent can’t monitor the media and technology their children interact with 24 hours a day — and they need to feel more secure leaving their kids alone with connected devices.
Kid-first platforms should be fun to use with adults but also safe and easy to use for kids alone. If a service isn’t safe for kids to use on their own, that fact should be clearly communicated so caregivers can ensure that kids only use it under the supervision of an adult until they learn more about their own digital citizenship.
It’s time to do better. We are building the foundation of our future. Let’s try to be more like Fred Rogers and show our children a “meaningful expression of care” as we build the internet for kids.
Kevin Donahue is co-founder of Epic!, the world’s leading digital reading platform for children. Previously, he was a producer for ABC/Disney, worked at Google in Strategic Partnerships, and was an original team member at YouTube, serving as Vice President of Content.