Is Your YouTube Content Made for Children? New FTC COPPA Rules

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The FTC has clarified some aspects of the new COPPA ruling about your YouTube channel including how to determine whether your content is directed towards children.

The FTC has clarified the rules around kid’s content on YouTube because there has been huge confusion and chaos-inducing panic for a lot of creators as they just don't understand what content is appropriate for children or not. A new document tries to explain it and we're going to look through it right now.

FTC, COPPA & YouTube: What is it All About?

To very quickly summarize, YouTube has been collecting data on children under the age of 13, which violates the Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act in the U.S. As a result, the FTC has fined YouTube. And now we as video creators must all decide whether or not our content is made for kids. We have a growing YouTube playlist of COPPA videos that go into all sorts of details about this issue so please check them out.

So, under COPPA, how do I know if my channel is directed to children? Let’s cover what I think are the important points and expand on them.

For example, YouTube and Google agreed to create a mechanism so that channel owners can designate when the videos they upload to YouTube are, to use the words of COPPA, directed to children. The purpose of this requirement is to make sure that both YouTube and channel owners, or content creators, are complying with the law. That mechanism is this audience setting that you can set at either a channel level or by individual video, on whether or not your content is made for kids.

You can't avoid these settings, even if you don't live in the U.S. because your content may be viewed by children in the U.S. and YouTube's sneakily added the wording "and/or other laws" in there as well, just to cover every country, every planet, ever solar system, every galaxy in the entire universe.

Now up until a couple of months ago, I, along with every single person watching this video, had no idea who or what COPPA is. So, to briefly explain, passed by Congress in 1998, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act is a federal law that protects the privacy of children under 13.

COPPA's foundational principle is one that most people can agree on. Parents - not kids, companies, platforms, or content creators - should be in control when it comes to information collected from children online. The FTC, that's the Federal Trade Commission, enforces the law through the COPPA rule. In general, COPPA requires operators of commercial websites and online services, that are directed to children, to provide notice and obtain variable parental consents.

In general, COPPA requires operators of commercial websites and online services, that are directed to children, to provide notice and obtain variable parental consent, before they collect personal information from kids under 13.

Under COPPA, personal information also covers what are called "persistent identifiers". Behind the scenes code that recognizes a user over time and across different sites or online services. That could be an IP address or a cookie when it's used to serve targeted ads.

Now on the face of it, that would seem pretty self-evident and relatively easy to implement even on a platform the size of YouTube because YouTube for years has clearly stated in their Terms of Service that in order to use YouTube and sign in to the platform, you must be over the age of 13. However, the information YouTube has been providing to potential brands and advertisers has been somewhat contradictory.

According to evidence provided by the FTC, Google presented the following information to toy manufacturers Mattel and Hasbro; 93% of tweens visit YouTube, it's a favorite website of those aged between 2 and 12, it's today's leader in reaching 6 to 11-year-olds. It would appear that YouTube must have been collecting the data somewhere as the FTC states, YouTube actively marked itself as a top destination for kids in presentations to makers of popular children's products and brands.

So you've got an idea of what COPPA is and the fact that the FTC enforces this and why they have a big beef with YouTube because YouTube has been telling advertisers exactly why their platform is so popular with children. But what does any of this have to do with you?

YouTube Creators and the COPPA Guidelines

COPPA applies in the same way it would if a channel owner had it's own website or app. If a channel owner uploads content to a platform like YouTube, the channel might meet the definition of a website or an online service covered by COPPA depending on the nature of the content and the information collected.

Or to put it another way, to begin with, you are a video content creator. But you need a platform to distribute your content on, and that's where YouTube comes in to play. But once you start using YouTube, you are taking advantage of all of their features and tools and the identifiers they use to collect information on the internet.

That might be cookies, and once you put your hand in that cookie jar and you discover that there are children under the age of 13 in there, that's where the FTC comes in to play. You're the FTC, this is a cookie from YouTube. And now it's game over. That's $170 million fine right there. And this is where YouTube doesn’t want to pay any more fines.

Which is why this terrifying number of $42,530 keeps cropping up. That's the maximum penalty the FTC can levy on you for every single video on your channel that violates COPPA. So you as an individual need to understand what content makes it directed to children and so far, we haven't really got any help from YouTube. They've said get legal advice, but who can afford that? So here is some information from the FTC themselves:

How YouTube channel owners can determine if their content is directed to children

Under COPPA, the FTC confirms that there is “no one-size-fits-all answer about what makes a site directed to children.” Phew, thank you for saying that, you've at least acknowledged that it is very difficult to determine what is kid’s content for the individual. But they can offer some guidance.

To be clear, your content isn't considered directed to children just because some children may see it.

And we'll come back to that a little later because there is more information coming out about audience guidance with content. However, if your intended audience is kids under 13, you're covered by COPPA and have to honor the Rule's requirements. The Rules set out additional factors the FTC will consider in determining whether your content is child-directed.

The subject matter, visual content, the use of animated characters or child-oriented activities and incentives, the kind of music or other audio content, the age of models, the presence of child celebrities or celebrities who appeal to children, language or other characteristics on the site, whether advertising that promotes or appears on the site is directed to children, and competent and reliable empirical evidence about the age of the audience.

These seem a bit broad and not just leveled towards YouTube which still makes it all a bit vague. And with that general vagueness and confusion in mind, the FTC are delighted to share some general rules of thumb that are as follows:

First, unless you're affirmatively targeting kids, there are many subject matter categories where you don't have to worry about COPPA. For example, if your videos are about traditionally adult activities like employment, finances, politics, homeownership, home improvement, or travel, you're probably not covered unless your content is geared towards kids. The same would be true for videos aimed at high school or college students. On the other hand, if your content includes traditional children's pastimes or activities, it may be child-directed.

Second, just because your video has bright colors, or animated characters, doesn't mean you're automatically covered by COPPA. While many animated shows are directed at kids, the FTC recognizes there can be animated programming that appeals to everyone.

For example, vidIQ created an animated series of videos. One on Steve Dotto, the other one on Ohana Adventures. They were animated, but were they directed at kids or does it depend on the subject matter? PrestonPlayz was one of those animated videos, he's into gaming and perhaps a younger audience. Would that have appealed to kids? Or video creators? Again, it still leads to a lot of unanswered questions.

This next example might be the most simple and concrete one to understand. But at the same time, worryingly reveals the level of sophistication that might be used by the FTC to determine whether or not your content is appropriate for children. For example, many content creators explicitly stated in the about section of their YouTube channel, that their intended audience was children under 13.

I've already innocently joked about this in other videos that just by putting a disclaimer on the screen saying that the content is not appropriate for under 13s wouldn't wash with the FTC. But apparently sticking that in your about section of your channel is absolutely fine.

COPPA & YouTube Keywords

If a content creator uses certain keywords in their metadata, tags and title descriptions, then the videos are more likely to be found by a certain target audience. For example, if you include ‘Barbie Doll’ in the video title, then it's likely to be found by girls between the ages of maybe 4 and 13 at a rough guess. But does that mean that creators might be banned from using certain keywords that might appeal to children under the age of 13? Surely not.

Take NerdSync's example of "Why the Ducktales Song sticks in your head". That song is still stuck in my head, 30 years after I watched the original cartoon. NerdSync's video on it, is a deep educational insight into why that is. I don't think that video would necessarily appeal to children under the age of 13 because it's for the retro version of the cartoon and it's so complex that it might be boring for kids. But it uses Ducktails as a keyword, so this gets very confusing, and very cloudy in its judgment the moment you un-peel a layer of any of these examples.

Is Your YouTube Content ‘Made for Kids’? Ask Your Audience

And if all of these examples do fail to give you an answer on your content, the FTC suggests that you indirectly canvas your audience. It might help to consider how others view your content and content similar to yours.

For example, has your channel been reviewed on sites that evaluate kid’s content? Is your channel, or channels like yours, mentioned in blogs for parents or young children or in media articles about child-directed content? Have you surveyed your users or is there other empirical evidence about the age of your audience?

I've got an issue with surveying your audience because YouTube is going to remove all of the tools that allow you to do that on your channel such as comments and the community tab and notifications, false subscribers. It's a "Catch 22" situation to be honest.

I would also venture to say that the vast majority of channels never get the privilege of being featured on blogs or reviewed by websites. So is that a bit of an insight into who the FTC is going to go after? Those being larger channels, well established, probably already know who their target audience is but are creating content regardless of the rules and regulations.

The more and more I read of this and dive into the FTC, COPPA, YouTube rabbit hole, the more I feel as if everything I say to you is my interpretation of what's out there. And I don't feel as if any of it is true fact, and to be honest, I think until we start to see concrete examples in 2020 of channels being affected by this, we're all trying to go forward with 30 maybe 40% of the actual information that we need. We'll continue to do content on this but man, this is hard stuff. And I think a lot of channels are in for some rude awakenings. But on the other hand, it could turn into a complete red herring and affect far fewer channels than we expect.

I think it all hinges on the gaming area of YouTube. A huge area with lots of creators really worried about whether gaming content is classed as children's' content. That's going to be the litmus test I think. What happens in that area.

I want to return to the topic of the audience now. YouTube asks a very simple question to the video creator. Is your content made for kids or not? As we've shown in the examples here and research that we've all been doing, the answer is a lot more complicated and broad for most channels. Take Dude Perfect as a highlight example. Their content of trick shots appeals to both an audience young and old. I can enjoy it as much as a seven-year-old child. Just in slightly different ways. So what is the answer for Dude Perfect? YouTube give you a very binary choice but, according to COPPA, there's a lot more leeway in how you as a channel creator can interpret that question. And answer it.

In a frequently asked section on the FTC website, they say COPPA only covers information collected online from children. It does not cover information collected from adults that may pertain to children. Thus COPPA is not triggered by an adult uploading photos of children on a general audience site or in a non-child directed portion of a mixed audience website.

Non-child portion of a mixed audience website? Normal YouTube where you have to be over the age of 13 to sign up. Doesn't that mean that most of the content in that area of YouTube should, by definition, be mixed audience anyway? I genuinely don't know the answer to that. I would probably have to speak to a lawyer, one such as Ian Corzine who I have to give all of the credit for again for much of what I'm talking about here.

And I will also say just as a general YouTube strategy, all he's doing right now is making content on COPPA, the FTC. He's a social media lawyer channel at large covering many topics but because this is such a powerful trend right now he is doubling down on this content. And profiting from hundreds of thousands of views. It's a clear example of when YouTube decides that you are the ambassador or the fore leader for something ironically that's really giving YouTube a hammering right now, you should continue to make content on that subject. This is exactly what Ian is doing so do make sure to check out the channel. Really worth investing some time in there.

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