Lawmakers call YouTube Kids a 'wasteland of vapid' content

FILE - This April 25, 2018 file photo, the YouTube app and YouTube Kids app are displayed on an iPhone in New York.  A House subcommittee is investigating YouTube Kids.  In a letter sent Tuesday, April 6, 2021,  to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on economic and consumer policy says YouTube isn't doing enough to protect kids from material that could harm them.  (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)
FILE - This April 25, 2018 file photo, the YouTube app and YouTube Kids app are displayed on an iPhone in New York. A House subcommittee is investigating YouTube Kids. In a letter sent Tuesday, April 6, 2021, to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on economic and consumer policy says YouTube isn't doing enough to protect kids from material that could harm them. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

A House subcommittee is investigating YouTube Kids, saying the Google-owned video service feeds children inappropriate material in “a wasteland of vapid, consumerist content" so it can serve them ads.

The inquiry comes despite Google agreeing to pay $170 million in 2019 to settle allegations that YouTube collected personal data on children without their parents’ consent.

In a letter sent Tuesday to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, the U.S. House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on economic and consumer policy said YouTube does not do enough to protect kids from material that could harm them. Instead it relies on artificial intelligence and creators' self-regulation to decide what videos make it on to the platform, according to the letter from the committee's chairman, Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi.

And despite changes in the wake of the 2019 settlement, the letter notes, YouTube Kids still shows ads to children. But instead of basing it on kids' online activity, it now targets it based on the videos they are watching.

YouTube said it has sought to provide kids and families with protections and controls enabling them to view age-appropriate content. It also emphasized that the 2019 settlement was over the regular YouTube platform, not the kids version.

“We’ve made significant investments in the YouTube Kids app to make it safer and to serve more educational and enriching content for kids, based on principles developed with experts and parents," the company said.

The congressional investigation comes a year into the pandemic that has shuttered schools and left parents who are working from home increasingly reliant on services such as YouTube to keep kids occupied. This has led to a rethinking of “screen time" rules and guilt over the amount of time kids spend in front of screens, with some experts recommending that parents focus on quality, not quantity.

But lawmakers say YouTube Kids is anything but quality.