With a slew of new kids’ content popping up all over TikTok, YouTube, and any site an unsupervised toddler with an iPad could get to, it’s easy to forget that at one point, the internet was largely untamed, unregulated, and definitely not a place for children. It’s almost foreign to think of an era with no TikTok, YouTube not being nearly as prevalent, and Xbox Live party chats and Skype being the internet’s primary forms of communication. While there are multiple reasons for the internet evolving in the way it has, some of those reasons can be attributed to the kids of the early internet.
Children In Gaming
Games like Minecraft, Roblox, Fortnite, and most Nintendo games are commonly associated with children nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that kids can’t be found in games that they really shouldn’t. From mature FPS games like Grand Theft Auto V to obscure indie horror like Poppy Playtime, it’s hard to find a game that hasn’t been played by someone younger than the ESRB rating on the box. While it’s now common practice to ignore games with predominantly young player bases, writing them off as “kids’ games” and leaving them alone to do their own thing, internet users’ first significant experience with an influx of children was not handled quite as deftly as that.
Call of Duty 4 marked a significant change in the series’ history, being the first game to not focus on World War II but on modern – well, modern for 2007 – warfare. The game quickly skyrocketed in popularity due to its revolutionary campaign and endlessly repayable multiplayer modes. With such immense renown came fans of all kinds, particularly fans of all ages.
I’m not sure what parent thought that getting a COD game for their child – or even leaving them alone with a credit card, for that matter – was a good idea. Still, as young and impressionable kids found their way onto multiplayer servers, they quickly began to gain notoriety as the worst kind of teammate imaginable. While it was possible to ignore their poor in-game performance, it was much harder to ignore a high-pitched and annoying child over the voice chat, screaming their heads off and yelling obscenities at the slightest inconvenience.
The issue wasn’t with the games the kids were playing; it was with the community that played them. For those unaware, the COD community has a reputation of being extremely toxic – especially back in the day – so it’s easy to see the problem with dropping impressionable kids into a lobby with server-wide voice chat with them. “Squeakers,” as they were called, quickly became despised by the community, with some players opting to leave squeaker-occupied servers entirely and search for another match to save themselves from getting a headache, while others stuck around to get a rise out of the tainted and easily excitable new players. The latter would often record these antics and post them to a – then growing – site called YouTube, garnering millions of likes and views in the process.
YouTube, Demonetization, And The Future Of Video
In its early days, YouTube wasn’t nearly as mainstream and, as such, wasn’t as highly regulated as it is now. People on the platform could often get away with posting whatever they wanted, so long as it didn’t break any rules or infringe on any copyrighted material. The idea of monetizing YouTube content – or at least be entitled to it – is a relatively modern concept. Back in the day, monetization was saved for the most prominent creators on the platform. However, as the years passed, the bar for being allowed to monetize content grew lower and lower, and eventually, some pretty offensive content was making reasonable amounts of money.
Around 2017, a lot of YouTube’s advertisers threatened to pull out of the company unless the company cleaned up its act and ensured that the content hitting the front page was clean enough to be suitable to the advertiser’s wishes. YouTube, very interested in keeping its bottom line stable, started demonizing mass amounts of content in what was referred to as the “adpocalypse.” While the terms for demonetization were extremely vague – and sometimes entirely unjustified – it led to a massive change in the image of the platform, even leading to the death of some forms of content in the name of making the platform more advertiser-friendly.
While not directly trying to make YouTube more accessible to children, the adpocalypse’s aftermath left a landscape that allowed children’s content to flourish, and for years, this was the case. Children’s content – especially the animated variety – was easy, quick to make, and entirely advertiser-friendly. Some channels began using easily recognizable characters in their videos, like Mickey Mouse, superheroes, and Disney princesses. Through this, they spread their content even further, despite the actual content of the videos often being bizarre and completely incoherent at times. Even the comments section of these videos followed this bizarre pattern, with kids seemingly mashing their hands onto the keyboard, letting autocorrect try to decipher the mess they just typed, and posting. YouTube children’s content was an absolute cash cow that many thought unstoppable; however, it would be shipped off to the proverbial slaughterhouse sooner than imagined.
Around January 2020, the FTC came after YouTube’s predatory ad policy toward children. According to COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule), running targeted ads toward children wasn’t strictly legal, or at least not how YouTube was doing it. It forced another major split in YouTube policy. Now, you have to mark whether your content is targeted toward children 12 and below or not. If you mark your videos as content for younger audiences, you aren’t allowed to run ads before your videos, and the comments section and like number are entirely turned off. Despite doing their best to shun kids’ content on their site, YouTube’s damage had already been done, and children’s media was forever changed. Examples like Cocomelon come to mind when thinking of modern kids’ content, but they aren’t the only thing that comes to mind.
TikTok’s primary goal is to keep us scrolling for as long as possible. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of losing track of time while scrolling social media and later realizing that you’ve spent an hour on mindless scrolling. It’s a pretty solid strategy for TikTok that’s executed pretty well; more time spent scrolling leads to more ads playing, which leads to more money. I’m not wholly against TikTok, but every time I use it, it reminds me of those kids’ YouTube channels with how it presents its content. It’s constantly trying to keep the attention of a demographic with a continually decreasing attention span; it just doesn’t feel like social media to me, it feels like a daycare.