James Bridle’s essay on disturbing YouTube content aimed at children went viral last year. Has the problem gone away – or is it getting worse?

In November of last year, I read an article in the New York Times about disturbing videos targeted at children that were being distributed via YouTube. Parents reported that their children were encountering knock-off editions of their favourite cartoon characters in situations of violence and death: Peppa Pig drinking bleach, or Mickey Mouse being run over by a car. A brief Google of some of the terms mentioned in the article brought up not only many more accounts of inappropriate content, in Facebook posts, newsgroup threads, and other newspapers, but also disturbing accounts of their effects. Previously happy and well-adjusted children became frightened of the dark, prone to fits of crying, or displayed violent behaviour and talked about self-harm – all classic symptoms of abuse. But despite these reports, YouTube and its parent company, Google, had done little to address them. Moreover, there seemed to be little understanding of where these videos were coming from, how they were produced – or even why they existed in the first place.

I’m a writer and artist, with a focus on the broad cultural and societal effects of new technologies, and this is how most of my obsessions start: getting increasingly curious about something and digging deeper, with an eye for concealed infrastructures and hidden processes. It’s an approach that has previously led me to investigate Britain’s system of deportation flights or its sophisticated road surveillance network, and this time it took me into the weird, surreal, and often disturbing hinterland of YouTube’s children’s videos. And these videos are worrying on several levels. As I spent more and more time with them, I became perturbed not just by their content, but by the way the system itself seemed to reproduce and exacerbate their most unsavoury excesses, preying on children’s worst fears and bundling them up into nightmare playlists, while blindly rewarding their creators for increasing their view counts even as the videos themselves descended into meaningless parodies and nonsensical stories.

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