The nightmare videos of childrens’ YouTube — and what’s wrong with the internet today | James Bridle

The nightmare videos of childrens’ YouTube — and what’s wrong with the internet today | James Bridle

I’m James. I’m a writer and artist, and I make work about technology. I do things like draw life-size outlines
of military drones in city streets around the world, so that people can start to think
and get their heads around these really quite hard-to-see
and hard-to-think-about technologies. I make things like neural networks
that predict the results of elections based on weather reports, because I’m intrigued about what the actual possibilities
of these weird new technologies are. Last year, I built
my own self-driving car. But because I don’t
really trust technology, I also designed a trap for it. (Laughter) And I do these things mostly because
I find them completely fascinating, but also because I think
when we talk about technology, we’re largely talking about ourselves and the way that we understand the world. So here’s a story about technology. This is a “surprise egg” video. It’s basically a video of someone
opening up loads of chocolate eggs and showing the toys inside to the viewer. That’s it. That’s all it does
for seven long minutes. And I want you to notice
two things about this. First of all, this video
has 30 million views. (Laughter) And the other thing is, it comes from a channel
that has 6.3 million subscribers, that has a total of eight billion views, and it’s all just more videos like this — 30 million people watching a guy
opening up these eggs. It sounds pretty weird, but if you search
for “surprise eggs” on YouTube, it’ll tell you there’s
10 million of these videos, and I think that’s an undercount. I think there’s way, way more of these. If you keep searching, they’re endless. There’s millions and millions
of these videos in increasingly baroque combinations
of brands and materials, and there’s more and more of them
being uploaded every single day. Like, this is a strange world. Right? But the thing is, it’s not adults
who are watching these videos. It’s kids, small children. These videos are
like crack for little kids. There’s something about the repetition, the constant little
dopamine hit of the reveal, that completely hooks them in. And little kids watch these videos
over and over and over again, and they do it for hours
and hours and hours. And if you try and take
the screen away from them, they’ll scream and scream and scream. If you don’t believe me — and I’ve already seen people
in the audience nodding — if you don’t believe me, find someone
with small children and ask them, and they’ll know about
the surprise egg videos. So 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. I hope that’s what they’re doing it for, because there’s easier ways
of making ad revenue on YouTube. You can just make stuff up or steal stuff. So if you search for really
popular kids’ cartoons like “Peppa Pig” or “Paw Patrol,” you’ll find 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 random accounts, and it’s impossible to know
who’s posting them or what their motives might be. Does that sound kind of familiar? Because 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, and we’re training them from birth to click on the very first link
that comes along, regardless of what the source is. That’s doesn’t seem like
a terribly good idea. Here’s another thing
that’s really big on kids’ YouTube. This is called the “Finger Family Song.” I just heard someone groan
in the audience. This is the “Finger Family Song.” This is the very first one I could find. It’s from 2007, and it only has
200,000 views, which is, like, nothing in this game. But it has this insanely earwormy tune, which I’m not going to play to you, because it will sear itself
into your brain in the same way that
it seared itself into mine, and I’m not going to do that to you. But like the surprise eggs, it’s got inside kids’ heads and addicted them to it. So within a few years,
these finger family videos start appearing everywhere, and you get versions
in different languages with popular kids’ cartoons using food or, frankly, using whatever kind
of animation elements you seem to have lying around. And once again, there are millions
and millions and millions of these videos available online in all of these
kind of insane combinations. And the more time
you start to spend with them, the crazier and crazier
you start to feel that you might be. And that’s where I
kind of launched into this, that feeling of deep strangeness
and deep lack of understanding of how this thing was constructed
that seems to be presented around me. Because it’s impossible to know
where these things are coming from. Like, who is making them? Some of them appear to be made
of teams of professional animators. Some of them are just randomly
assembled by software. Some of them are quite wholesome-looking
young kids’ entertainers. And some of them are from people who really clearly
shouldn’t be around children at all. (Laughter) And once again, this impossibility
of figuring out who’s making this stuff — like, this is a bot? Is this a person? Is this a troll? What does it mean
that we can’t tell the difference between these things anymore? And again, doesn’t that uncertainty
feel kind of familiar right now? 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,” “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 that doesn’t make sense to humans at all. Because of course it’s only really
tiny kids who are watching your video, and what the hell do they know? 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. But the thing is, you have to remember, there really are still people within
this algorithmically optimized system, people who are kind
of increasingly forced to act out these increasingly bizarre
combinations of words, like a desperate improvisation artist
responding to the combined screams of a million toddlers at once. There are real people
trapped within these systems, and that’s the other deeply strange thing
about this algorithmically driven culture, because even if you’re human, you have to end up behaving like a machine just to survive. And also, on the other side of the screen, there still are these little kids
watching this stuff, stuck, their full attention grabbed
by these weird mechanisms. And most of these kids are too small
to even use a website. They’re just kind of hammering
on the screen with their little hands. And so there’s autoplay, where it just keeps playing these videos
over and over and over in 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 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, all these different pieces of attention, this desperate generation of content, all comes together into a single place. This is where all those deeply weird
keywords come home to roost. You cross-breed the finger family video with some live-action superhero stuff, you add in some weird,
trollish in-jokes or something, and suddenly, you come
to a very weird place indeed. 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. 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. (Applause) But the other thing, the thing
that really gets to me about this, is that I’m not sure we even really
understand how we got to this point. We’ve taken all of this influence,
all of these things, and munged them together in a way
that no one really intended. And yet, this is also the way
that we’re building the entire world. We’re taking all of this data, a lot of it bad data, a lot of historical data
full of prejudice, full of all of our worst
impulses of history, and we’re building that
into huge data sets and then we’re automating it. And we’re munging it together
into things like credit reports, into insurance premiums, into things like predictive
policing systems, into sentencing guidelines. This is the way we’re actually
constructing the world today out of this data. And I don’t know what’s worse, that we built a system
that seems to be entirely optimized for the absolute worst aspects
of human behavior, or that we seem
to have done it by accident, without even realizing
that we were doing it, because we didn’t really understand
the systems that we were building, and we didn’t really understand
how to do anything differently with it. There’s a couple of things I think
that really seem to be driving this most fully on YouTube, and the first of those is advertising, which is the monetization of attention without any real other variables at work, any care for the people who are
actually developing this content, the centralization of the power,
the separation of those things. And I think however you feel
about the use of advertising to kind of support stuff, the sight of grown men in diapers
rolling around in the sand in the hope that an algorithm
that they don’t really understand will give them money for it suggests that this
probably isn’t the thing that we should be basing
our society and culture upon, and the way in which
we should be funding it. And the other thing that’s kind of
the major driver of this is automation, which is the deployment
of all of this technology as soon as it arrives,
without any kind of oversight, and then once it’s out there, kind of throwing up our hands and going,
“Hey, it’s not us, it’s the technology.” Like, “We’re not involved in it.” That’s not really good enough, because this stuff isn’t
just algorithmically governed, it’s also algorithmically policed. When YouTube first started
to pay attention to this, the first thing they said
they’d do about it was that they’d deploy
better machine learning algorithms to moderate the content. Well, machine learning,
as any expert in it will tell you, is basically what we’ve started to call software that we don’t really
understand how it works. And I think we have
enough of that already. We shouldn’t be leaving
this stuff up to AI to decide what’s appropriate or not, because we know what happens. It’ll start censoring other things. It’ll start censoring queer content. It’ll start censoring
legitimate public speech. What’s allowed in these discourses, it shouldn’t be something
that’s left up to unaccountable systems. It’s part of a discussion
all of us should be having. But I’d leave a reminder that the alternative isn’t
very pleasant, either. YouTube also announced recently that they’re going to release
a version of their kids’ app that would be entirely
moderated by humans. Facebook — Zuckerberg said
much the same thing at Congress, when pressed about how they
were going to moderate their stuff. He said they’d have humans doing it. And what that really means is, instead of having toddlers being
the first person to see this stuff, you’re going to have underpaid,
precarious contract workers without proper mental health support being damaged by it as well. (Laughter) And I think we can all do
quite a lot better than that. (Applause) The thought, I think, that brings those
two things together, really, for me, is agency. It’s like, how much do we really
understand — by agency, I mean: how we know how to act
in our own best interests. Which — it’s almost impossible to do in these systems that we don’t
really fully understand. Inequality of power
always leads to violence. And we can see inside these systems that inequality of understanding
does the same thing. If there’s one thing that we can do
to start to improve these systems, it’s to make them more legible
to the people who use them, so that all of us have
a common understanding of what’s actually going on here. The thing, though, I think
most about these systems is that this isn’t, as I hope
I’ve explained, really about YouTube. It’s about everything. These issues of accountability and agency, of opacity and complexity, of the violence and exploitation
that inherently results from the concentration
of power in a few hands — these are much, much larger issues. And they’re issues not just of YouTube
and not just of technology in general, and they’re not even new. They’ve been with us for ages. But we finally built this system,
this global system, the internet, that’s actually showing them to us
in this extraordinary way, making them undeniable. Technology has this extraordinary capacity to both instantiate and continue all of our most extraordinary,
often hidden desires and biases and encoding them into the world, but it also writes them down
so that we can see them, so that we can’t pretend
they don’t exist anymore. We need to stop thinking about technology
as a solution to all of our problems, but think of it as a guide
to what those problems actually are, so we can start thinking
about them properly and start to address them. Thank you very much. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) Helen Walters: James, thank you
for coming and giving us that talk. So it’s interesting: when you think about the films where
the robotic overlords take over, it’s all a bit more glamorous
than what you’re describing. But I wonder — in those films,
you have the resistance mounting. Is there a resistance mounting
towards this stuff? Do you see any positive signs,
green shoots of resistance? James Bridle: I don’t know
about direct resistance, because I think this stuff
is super long-term. I think it’s baked into culture
in really deep ways. A friend of mine,
Eleanor Saitta, always says that any technological problems
of sufficient scale and scope are political problems first of all. So all of these things we’re working
to address within this are not going to be addressed
just by building the technology better, but actually by changing the society
that’s producing these technologies. So no, right now, I think we’ve got
a hell of a long way to go. But as I said, I think by unpacking them, by explaining them, by talking
about them super honestly, we can actually start
to at least begin that process. HW: And so when you talk about
legibility and digital literacy, I find it difficult to imagine that we need to place the burden
of digital literacy on users themselves. But whose responsibility
is education in this new world? JB: Again, I think this responsibility
is kind of up to all of us, that everything we do,
everything we build, everything we make, needs to be made
in a consensual discussion with everyone who’s avoiding it; that we’re not building systems
intended to trick and surprise people into doing the right thing, but that they’re actually involved
in every step in educating them, because each of these systems
is educational. That’s what I’m hopeful about,
about even this really grim stuff, that if you can take it
and look at it properly, it’s actually in itself
a piece of education that allows you to start seeing
how complex systems come together and work and maybe be able to apply
that knowledge elsewhere in the world. HW: James, it’s such
an important discussion, and I know many people here
are really open and prepared to have it, so thanks for starting off our morning. JB: Thanks very much. Cheers. (Applause)

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100 thoughts on “The nightmare videos of childrens’ YouTube — and what’s wrong with the internet today | James Bridle

  1. My little brother watches YouTube on the TV, when I'm home with my dad and my little brother has watched way too much TV, I try to make him go study, read, draw or something. But then my little brother starts screaming, crying, hitting the walls, the floors, and the my father says "Let him do what he wants, he's too loud!"

  2. I clicked on ONE small vlog channel's video by accident. My ENTIRE recommended was literally all little kid videos and crap like James talks about.

  3. ahhh using autoplay one day I went from Kpop MVs to these creepy compilation videos and it was very strange and kind of scary to think that little kids get the same sort of thing

  4. my parents gave me my sisters ipod when i was in 2nd grade. i’m so glad i just played minecraft on it instead of watching weird videos

  5. Simple. Don't show it to them
    Maybe they'll hate you in the future for not getting exposed to technology early unlike the 'other' kids,
    but they'll appreciate it.

  6. My cousin, she's four, is the smartest four year old I've ever met. But she watches these videos. Her second language is English snd it's amazing. I met her for he first time this summer ( we live in different countries) and thought she was six. Always asks questions is very energetic. It's strange to see other kids scream and screech in public cause I think of her. My friend's brother has been effective by this system too. He's now 7. Used to watch this stuff until he was 6. He's been held back from school three times, is incredible hyper, and rude.

  7. Millions of years of evolution FOR THIS? I'm still baffled by how many of these weird kids videos there are. What kind of messed up thoughts do the makers of these videos have? If you ever make a video for small children please ask yourself "would I want my kids growing up with this?"

  8. Honestly i learned a lot from youtube, but kids shouldn'tget near a tablet or phone untill at least 10.. you only can blame the parents, these videos make there minds empty, when i was younger i grew with naruto, sally(if anyone knows her)…etc.. some really sad or creative cartoons, these cartoons develop children emotionally and mentally, not remove there creativity.. What will they grow to be in the future?

  9. My little cousin has become addicted my aunt has learned with her next child to not give her the phone and she has turned out miles better it could be ruining the child to cure cancer ruining actual humans
    Edit: no disrespect to my aunt or cousins I still love all of them

  10. I'm going on a journey to scout the realm of this collection of nightmare on YouTube. If I don't respond, it means I died to it, and had my horrified corpse stuffed into an egg

    Day 1: recommendations in incognito mode are a nightmare. Unable to report spam videos. Searched "cartoons" and braced myself for the true nightmares. I underestimated it. Some ignorant kids spamming emojis in the comments. Saw "hdhhrbsbjfugu" multiple times. Beginning to traverse dimensions of fear

    Day 2: I may have developed PTSD. Interdimensional incoherent masses fly at me, torturing me…

  11. Geez, I used to watched cartoons on TV when I was these kids’ age. I started watching YouTube when I was 6 or 7, and that was only for Angry Birds (gameplay, claymation, or plush vids), Minecraft (gameplay, mods, and skyblock), and other video game videos (mostly old ds games I’ve owned). Heck, I’ve even watch old Club Penguin event trailers, AND classic YouTube Poops. Oh, I’ve also watched EvanTubeHD. I’m glad that I didn’t watched these videos that are seen today. Now, I just need to show my mom this video-

  12. My grandchildren, especially my grandson, was watching these egg reveals. I took issue, gently. Now he watches hours and hours of people playing minecraft, just like his father plays youtube constantly (even while sleeping) of people playing any number of games. I tried to tell them it can't be good for his psyche, or their kids' and I've been branded as trying to tell them how to raise their kids and meddlesome. They see nothing wrong with their kids watching this stuff, (I think because they've never paid enough attention.)
    I, however, limit my grandkids' screen time (they got 'freetime' tablets for christmas, which they're always glued to) and when we make them get off them, it's always a fight. I hate this and don't see why society lets this continue. All hail the almighty dollar…

  13. I fell asleep with youtube on, on autoplay. I woke up to a video that was completely terrifying and traumatizing till this day. It was some creepy girl and a tall slim man in a robe and a long nose mask. They were just standing there looking at the camera. Very creepy

  14. Really liked this video ❤ there are a lot of videos on the internet that seem like they're okay to watch for kids but the content is not appropriate or educational and that's why parents shouldn't give their children permission to have the choice on what they watch on the internet because they don't know what is good for them and what things they shouldn't be learning at such a young age

  15. This is weird because from a young age I’ve had access to YouTube and I’ve almost always watched informative or comedy videos (by comedy I mean VanossGaming or other gaming YouTubers)

  16. I didn't get to use a computer till age 9. Sure,my dad had a laptop,and there was a desktop computer in my mom's room,but those were for my parents. Most of the time,I played these,er,"games" with my cousins(they lived in the flat above us) where we would pretend to be superheroes fighting crime(aka the wall). When I was finally allowed to use my mom's computer,I only played Flash games. I sort of ignored YouTube's existence until 2016. Thankfully,I didn't grow up like these children,and I'm glad to say that I have never clicked on any of those weird,nightmarish,creepy videos.

  17. Im glad i grew up in the time when the video i only watched was a guy in the zoo talking about elephants.

  18. now i havent finished the video but its a little ironic that this guy is talking about a danger to children but introduces himself by saying he essentially makes advertisements for military drones

  19. so i wasn’t allowed to watch yt until like i was 8. i did spend a lot of time on a screen, but I was playing club penguin

  20. I knew that this stuff existed on this site, but I never realized how bad it had gotten until I watched this. What I saw just on the screen behind him, just in this video, it truly scares me.

  21. My baby brother was once afraid of Spiderman from a video he saw on YouTube. I agree. "Children's YouTube" Should be monitored.

    Edit: Those chocolate egg videos get on my nerves.

  22. Uh i think you should just get a smart tv and open wholesome kids shows which you would love to watch as a kid i mean if you had favourite shows as a kid and love to look back on it then why not give your children the same experience too

  23. 2020: Cringe-worthy New Year video for kids.
    2050: Cringe-worthy video for kids about a tablet unboxing.
    2102: Not even gonna reach my hundredth birthday. Bye, Earth!

  24. I'm sorry but what I view is best is to just keep young children under 10 away from internet, social media, etc. Just let them watch tv or have clubs like jesus-

  25. my brothers have been watching these videos since they were babies. they can’t even type because they don’t know how to spell so they have to speak into the microphone and if it doesn’t come up they have to ask me or my parents to help. when i was their age i knew very well how to read and write. it’s soooo sad. i refuse to give my child a phone or tablet until they’re in middle school and they can go out alone with friends. i know they are gonna be BEGGING for one but it’s for the best because i cannot have my child be that addicted to those stupid videos.

  26. I don’t have a child but I do have a younger sister and everything he said was absolutely true. It also kind of upsets me that my sister didn’t have a real childhood because of YouTube she also has nightmares ever since she started watching YouTube videos and I’m really trying to get her away from it but as he said they start screaming and yelling and that’s the worst you can hear.

  27. For a brief period of time, my younger brother and sister were watching stuff like this, luckily my mom and dad care about us and our wellbeing and banned that stuff. It did leave some impact as my little brother is now terrified of zombies and has frequent nightmares. For those young kids and toddlers with parents who are oblivious to the stuff, I fear for them.

  28. I always knew the kids section of youtube was weird. I mean how can you watch any of the animated kids stuff without feeling uncomfortable? And I kinda understand the unboxing stuff because that's just how our brain works, we like the surprise but the nursery rhymes or anything relating a kids character like spiderman or elsa for example is just downright weird and creepy

  29. I was thinking the other day how i wish computers still had cd players so i could bring the kids i babysit my old learning CDs. they were so much more reliable, safe, and actually a lot of the games were very good for development. Most popular childrens youtube videos and game apps are terrible quality

  30. Im always shocked when I start babysitting a kid and i see them on a tablet watching youtube videos unsupervised. Aren't there child safe websites??

  31. Thinking back on it now. A lot of kids in the 2000s watched really stupid cartoons specifically tailored to them. This isn't surprising. Its just a cartoon channel making "cartoons" for kids who are easily amused except the only difference is that these YouTube channel don't receive complaints for their content.

  32. I first got yt in second grade but I rlly only remember watching Minecraft but I wasn’t glued like I remember watching Scooby Doo all the time with my siblings and other stuff similar to that.

  33. Its a monkey see monkey do thing also. I heard someone who had a little cousin watching a bunch of kids and an adult pretend to be babies and eat tons of candy and then she started eating all this candy and desserts every time they're available

  34. Seriously my little cousin is addicted to these videos and I constantly check what he’s watching cuz sometimes the video is rlly creepy or weird :/

  35. Those videos are sick asf
    I have my nieces and nephews watching em everyday literally!
    It’s a madness of the YouTube!

  36. If anyone watches SML, Doofy the Dragon, the show that Junior and his friends watch, might be a gag to Elsagate and these types of kids videos.

  37. I remember when I first got access to YouTube in 2010, when I was 7. I just pplayed flash games, watched old Super Mario let's-plays, and later, Minecraft videos. I'll admit, I was borderline addicted, but I still read books, watched wholesome kids TV shows, and doodled on random books a bit more often. It is true that some people are naturally repelled from these weird videos, but others aren't. And for them, we all should be vigilant.

  38. I grew up playing The Backyardigans and The Little Mermaid games on my V-Tech.
    I grew up reading and learning without a screen- The only media I had access to was the TV, where my dad and I would sit together, make pancakes, and watch Spongebob.
    I sit here now, watching as kindergarteners are glued to their screens that they shouldn’t even have access to, as they cry and wail when it’s taken away.
    I fear for what’s coming to our nation.
    I fear for our children.
    This is severely out of character from my normal activity, given as I’m an Abbacchio stan account, but this needs to be heard.

  39. Parents need to set an example as well, as many are just as hooked on their own phones. Not saying it’s as much of a problem at all and not trying to offend anyone, but it’s something to remember. They listen more to examples than words

  40. At 12:21 he mentions underpaid Facebook employees with improper mental health care.
    I would have assumed this too, but the position is actually quite decent. They get good mental healthcare and opportunity to speak to a psychiatrist if they choose to.

  41. I remember watching toy unboxing videos as a kid (im still technically a kid but still) I watched toy unboxing videos. I never ended up on that weird side luckily

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