Kids versus the internet: why the YouTube problems will keep happening

The digital kids (u13) landscape is evolving rapidly. As we’ve seen this week, even for companies with all the technical resources in the world, building fully kid-safe environments is not easy.

Four years, 105 people, multiple FTC COPPA Safe Harbor certifications, countless technical and legal reviews by top kids brands, billions of transactions and several products later, we are probably the best placed company in the world to talk about this. Our technology powers hundreds of millions of kids digital engagements every month.

The history of kids on the Internet is best understood across three broad stages. Note: I’m going to use technology examples which are mostly ours – this is not because I’m trying to sell you something, but because, for the most part, we’re the only ones who have actually built this stuff.

Stage 1: There aren’t any kids on the internet, what are you talking about?

For years this was the default approach for virtually every platform/game/service which had anything resembling a general audience. It came in the form of ticking a box and declaring that the user was over-13. Problem solved! Until kids started getting access to family tablets and old smartphones and suddenly their presence within these ‘general audience’ communities rapidly became very significant.

Stage 2: OK, there are kids on the internet, but we’ll just re-use the same tech and processes which worked for adults

The temptation to use scaled-out adult business models as a one-size-fits-all solution for the kids audience is pretty huge. Unfortunately adult paradigms generally don’t work for an under-13 space.

Two examples to understand this;

Firstly, advertising. Every adtech platform is built around the concept of profile data (cookies, social graph etc) to form a picture of your online behaviour. Data privacy laws like COPPA and GDPR have made this illegal for kids. Yet a lot of the infrastructure being used in the kids digital media ecosystem is still based on adult architecture. Can you imagine the digital equivalent of a shady character in a trenchcoat following your child around the playground and then back to their bedroom making notes on everything they’re doing? That’s effectively what’s still happening – which is why we built AwesomeAds. An ad platform built specifically for the data privacy requirements of kids, focusing on content, not users. That character in the trenchcoat? They’re not in our playground.

Secondly, content. For most general audience services (ads, YouTube etc), content issues are handled post-event e.g. report this ad if you didn’t like it. It assumes (sensibly) that adults have seen enough of the world to deal with imperfect services. This is why algorithms and automation generally work: 95% okay is acceptable.

Kids are not adults. The tolerance for error is infinitely less so everything has to be pre-event (95% okay is not acceptable). For content processes in under-13, you need manual/human involvement at every step. With PopJam, our social content platform, we have machine learning combined with a paid 24/7 human moderation team. With REX, our kid-safe programmatic ad solution, we ensure that every ad creative is reviewed by a human. Before you laugh at scaling limitations, know that these two products are delivering hundreds of millions of kid-safe digital engagements every month.

Stage 3: Let’s use proper kidtech

I’ve probably had fifty conversations on this topic since Sapna Maheshwari’s article in the New York Times and fifty more since James Bridle’s Medium post. But even before this, the awareness of kids data privacy risks was growing sufficiently quickly to fuel three class-action law-suits over the summer.

It’s become abundantly clear that dedicated technology is needed to support online engagement with kids. This is why we started SuperAwesome. Internally, we define kidtech in three ways;

1. Built specifically for the under-13 digital audience
No re-purposed adult technology.

2. Built with kids digital privacy as the core design principle
Designed from the ground up for the digital privacy requirements of kids (COPPA, GDPR), ensuring they are kept completely anonymous.

3. Built for sustainability
Designed to allow the media ecosystem to function and thrive. Enabling, not blocking, appropriate monetization and commerce for kids content developers.

Building technology from the ground up for kids isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come cheap. But if the recent news cycles have taught us anything, it’s that superficial compliance isn’t sufficient. Maybe it’s actually a good idea to keep kids safe while they’re online. If the biggest internet companies in the world won’t, we will.


Dylan Collins - CEO SuperAwesomeDylan Collins is CEO of SuperAwesome.

Dylan is a serial tech entrepreneur as well as an active investor and advisor across both kids media and technology companies.

Follow Dylan on Twitter.

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