The #ElsaGate controversy and the thousands of accompanying complaints about disturbing YouTube content featuring popular children’s characters like Frozen’s Elsa and Peppa Pig participating in inappropriate activities, thousands of videos were removed from the platform’s supposedly safe kid’s section. But parents would be silly to believe that the recent changes have ended the chances of their kids being exposed to the potentially frightening material. While the cynical creators of algorithmically awful #ElsaGate videos did manage to expose the obviously awful, there is plenty of curated content on both YouTube and other popular streaming platforms that is equally poisonous. The reason? There’s a deep inconsistency how the entertainment industry regulates and rates children’s entertainment as well as a shocking lack of interest in limiting the sort of material that is uniquely disturbing to kids.
In order to be funneled into the kid’s category, a show apparently only needs to be animated, candy-colored and frenetic. Beyond that, there’s little consistency in the offerings available on YouTube, Netflix, or, for that matter, television that isn’t PBS. Parents often use shows to entertain their kids so it is in the interest of streaming services and children’s network to give off the appearance of bounty. This seems to incentivize executives to greenlight anything kid-ish. I say seems because some of the stuff out there makes me — and I’m not a censorious person by nature — do a double take.
Researchers have discovered a panoply of images and situations that are particularly frightening to children. For instance, one of the terrifying situations a child could witness is the loss of a parent. Yet one of the most dramatic parent deaths on film is depicted unflinchingly in The Lion King, which is rated G. And streamable curated children’s content is absolutely lousy with images that parents find banal but kids consider disturbing. Many children are upset when they see humans transform into monsters. But don’t tell that to Ben 10 whose alien watch transforms him into a variety of grotesque forms.
Kids are also very frightened by humans that appear deformed, or characters that sport vicious claws and teeth. That’s bad news for the G-rated Suckers, featuring a muzzle wearing stuffed panda with razor-sharp claws.
All of this would suggest that parents should demand more from the video platforms that their children engage with. Yes, it’s great that YouTube is finally removing obviously disturbing videos aimed at children. But what about the other streaming services serving up equally disturbing content that parents simply don’t see as damaging? In order to do this streaming services should agree to a rating system that is based on actual research and not adult suppositions about what frightens children. The fact is that the entertainment industry has proven incapable of holding themselves to not just a high standard, but a smart standard. Time to bring in the scientists.
In the meantime, parents should be much more wary about what their children are watching. Just because the word “kids” is in the prefix and they can’t find Mindhunter, doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to scared by a vicious, clawed panda. Better to engage in content that does have the backing of educators and psychologists, like Sesame Street on HBO or the bulk of the offerings from PBS Kids. It’s worth the effort.