James Bridle: What Do Kids' Videos on YouTube Reveal About the Internet's Dark Side? Children's YouTube is full of addicting content for kids, which can lead users to disturbing and inappropriate videos. James Bridle explains how the Internet's profit structure drives this phenomenon.
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James Bridle: What Do Kids' Videos on YouTube Reveal About the Internet's Dark Side?

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James Bridle: What Do Kids' Videos on YouTube Reveal About the Internet's Dark Side?

James Bridle: What Do Kids' Videos on YouTube Reveal About the Internet's Dark Side?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So have you ever seen these surprise egg videos on YouTube?

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Look. We've got all kinds of surprise egg for Doc McStuffins open.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: More than 100 surprise eggs.

RAZ: They're these videos for kids that show someone opening a plastic or chocolate egg, usually with some kind of cartoon character or superhero theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What Kinder Egg is that one?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It's a "Frozen" one.

RAZ: And then finding a small toy inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Let's see what we have here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We open egg in a car.

RAZ: These videos don't just have a few thousand views. Some of them have hundreds of millions of views. And there are tons of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: What's inside?

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JAMES BRIDLE: Yeah, I mean, there's something that's evolved there that's just - that kids love.

RAZ: This is James Bridle. He's a writer and artist.

BRIDLE: And it's just this - these videos that can go on for hours at a time of just a pair of hands on the screen...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: And let's see what this is.

BRIDLE: ...Softly and gently opening up product after product, kind of reveal what's inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: A cookie.

BRIDLE: And they're these incredibly sort of gentle, quiet, but - and seemingly endless. You know, once you watch one, then there's another one. There's another one. There's another one. And there's just vast amounts of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Why don't we get another egg and open it?

BRIDLE: And it does something to kids brains, essentially.

RAZ: What do you mean?

BRIDLE: Well, I've been trying to understand it a little bit, and I'm really not a child psychologist or a kind of specialist in this area, which, also - I mean, more adults might be more familiar with unboxing videos, which have been around for a while, which is this kind of like fetishistic opening up of consumer goods. But if you look at the history of children's TV, for example, "Sesame Street" kind of pioneered this. And then I think there was a program in the U.S. that was called "Blue's Clues" or something like this?

RAZ: Sure, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUE'S CLUES")

STEVE BURNS: (As Steve) Hi, out there. It's me, Steve. Have you seen Blue, my puppy?

BRIDLE: And the first innovation that "Blue's Clues" did was that they showed the same episode over and over again. Like, they showed the same episode for a week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUE'S CLUES")

BURNS: (As Steve) Hi, out there. It's me, Steve. Have you seen Blue, my puppy?

BRIDLE: And they discovered - well, they knew in advance, but - what was shown, that the kids absolutely loved this. They loved the repetition of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUE'S CLUES")

BURNS: (As Steve) Hi, out there. It's me, Steve.

BRIDLE: And building a kind of a world that is predictable, in this way, seems to be like catnip for kids. And you can throw in these kind of little surprises which get you a little dopamine hit. And so when that's built into the kind of educational programs of something like "Sesame Street," you can see it kind of being used for good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIDLE: And that's not for me to say that these egg videos are necessarily being used for evil, but they've just picked out just that mechanism.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Assistant needs to hand me another egg. Which one do you think she's going to pick this time?

BRIDLE: They're not trying to do anything else with it. They're not going to try and get it for kids to, like, hook them with that mechanism, and then teach them arithmetic. They're just using the hook.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Let's open them. Let's go.

BRIDLE: And so that makes kids susceptible to it in super-obvious ways. It also makes adults super susceptible to it in less obvious and more complex, but I think also, like, you know, really quite dangerous and damaging ways, as well.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Yeah, I'm going to open my first one. Here we go.

RAZ: James Bridle picks up this idea from the TED stage.

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BRIDLE: So this is 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, right? I hope that's what they're doing it for. Because there's easier ways of making ad revenue on YouTube, right? You can just make stuff up or steal stuff.

So if you search for, like, really popular kids' cartoons, like "Peppa Pig" or "Paw Patrol," you'll find that 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 kind of random accounts, and it's impossible to know who's posting them or what their motives might be.

All right. Does that sound kind of familiar? Because really, 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, all right, and we're training them from birth to click on the very first link that comes along, regardless of what the source is. That doesn't seem like a terribly good idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: A lot of the technology we invent can be amusing and educational. It can also be amazing and life changing. Because the human impulse to chase technological advancement is a fact. We can't stop that train. But how often do we pause and just think about the dark side of innovation?

Well, today on the show, we're going to explore some of those unintended consequences and whether we have the capacity to manage them. Because, even if we can do something in bigger and faster and flashier ways, does that always mean we should? Well, when it comes to videos on YouTube or anywhere online, James Bridle says there could be big unintended them - and not just from getting kids addicted to them, but something even more unsettling.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BRIDLE: 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" or 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 - right? - that doesn't make sense to humans at all. Because, of course, it's only like really tiny kids who are watching your video, and what the hell do they know? Like, 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.

And also, on the other side of the screen, there still are these little kids watching this stuff - right? - their full attention grabbed by these weird mechanisms. And so there's autoplay, where it just keeps playing these videos over and over and over on 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, like, 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, this desperate generation of content, all comes together into a single place. This is where all those deeply weird keywords come home to roost. 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, all right? 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You know, I - I was talking to the child of a friend of mine who's in high school. You probably know this, but when a high school student wants to learn how to do something, they will find a video on YouTube. There's a video on YouTube for almost anything. You know, how to fix your car or how to boil an egg in an Instant Pot, which I just watched because I wanted to know how to boil an egg in an Instant Pot. And I, as a 43-year-old man, am just kind of discovering this world, right?

There are amazing things about access to YouTube and, obviously, the Internet and technology - right? - which have been transformational. But at the same time, I have to wonder whether we are all, especially people who were born into that digital world, are all part of this giant uncontrolled experiment. And we just don't really know what the results of that experiment will be, how it will change us as a species. Am I sounding like a crazy person or is there something to that?

BRIDLE: No, I think you're totally right. I think describing it as a kind of grand experiment is spot on. We have kind of released these - but, I mean, the release of any new technology or any one of these advances is always an experiment.

RAZ: Yeah, sure.

BRIDLE: Like, it's impossible to test these things at scale. The thing that I find fascinating, really, is the fact that we're not really paying attention to the results of that experiment. Because the point of an experiment is you test something, and then you make decisions or changes based on the results of that experiment.

RAZ: Yeah.

BRIDLE: And it's fairly clear that the experiment, which we've been participating in for some time now, of completely unregulated, particularly advert-driven content online is not one that's working out very well. And you can see the results of that at kind of multiple levels. You can see it in the kind of the weird kid stuff that we're talking about, but you can also see it at the larger scale of this kind of, like, dilution of knowledge or this kind of fundamentalization of knowledge, by which I mean that, you know, one of the other things that YouTube optimizes for is sensation.

And this has become really clear that, particularly as YouTube has become this kind of repository of knowledge that people are going to look for, you know, certain systems of knowledge are designed that when you discover something and you want to discover more, it takes you deeper and deeper into that subject. YouTube is designed to show you the thing about that subject that is the most sensational, right? Which is why, I mean, just the other day I was watching a speech from Walter Cronkite, from the early '80s, about climate change, right? And it's really interesting to watch from back then just, like, how obvious and subtle this debate was. But the YouTube's autoplay's next recommendation was a three-hour speech from a climate change denier - right? - from a year ago.

And that's not because YouTube holds some inherent belief about climate change. It's because that content is sensational. And what YouTube wants to do is show you things that will cause you strong reactions because that's what gets you watching. So we've decided to optimize for reactions and sensation over other forms of kind of verifying knowledge. But we've decided to do that, and we could decide to do otherwise if we pay attention to the results of this experiment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: James Bridle. He's a writer, artist and author of the book "New Dark Age: Technology And The End Of The future." You can see his full talk at ted.com.

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