What the New Changes to YouTube Mean for Kid's Content: TubeTalk 177 with Shaun McKnight

On this special episode of TubeTalk, we discuss the bombshell changes YouTube are making to the way kid's content is promoted on the platform and the implication that has for creators. It's a must-listen to!

If you've got a YouTube kids' channel, you must be freaking out right about now. Yes, YouTube has released a new update to their policies, and how they will be handling kids' content starting in January 2020. But what's actually going on? How will this affect your videos? How will this affect your revenue? How will this affect basically everything you do on YouTube? If you've got a kids' channel and you want answers, this is the episode of TubeTalk for you.

Today we're dealing with something new, something bigger than the ad apocalypse where people lost some revenue from their ads. Today we're talking about kids' channels, and the complete change to the way YouTube handles that kind of content. YouTube was recently fined by the FTC $170 million for collecting data on young viewers and then targeting them with ads, something that the Child Online Privacy Protection Act clearly doesn't allow you to do. In turn, YouTube has released new policies, new documentation, and new processes of how they're going to handle kids' content.

However, the new direction YouTube is taking is still a little vague so we still need real answers. We are fortunate enough to be able to speak to our good friend Shaun McKnight, who has spoken to the people at YouTube to understand what the changes are, and how they will affect kids' content channel. Now to be clear, Shaun does not speak on behalf of YouTube. This is purely his interpretation of the conversation and what he has been told, and the questions that he has asked, and he's just sharing the conversation with us. Shaun does not represent YouTube, just want to be clear.

Sean, and his wife Mindy are the team behind the highly-successful CuteGirlsHairstyles YouTube channel one year later. Their family of channels, which include Brooklyn & Bailey, and Kamri Noel, now has over 15.5 Million subscribers and more than 2.6 Billion video views.

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New YouTube Policy on Children's Content: Full Transcript

Liron Segev: Without further ado, let's dive in. Shaun, welcome to TubeTalk.

Shaun McKnight: Hey, thanks for having me.

Liron Segev: So, fun and games today as news is breaking and sweeping the world. Lots of changes with kids' content. Before we dive into what's going on, do you want to give us a quick overview of the kind of channels that you manage and that you own?

Shaun McKnight: Yeah, we have three family channels. The first channel we started 10 years ago, called Cute Girls Hairstyles. My wife teaches moms and single dads, or basically mom and dads everywhere, how to do their young daughter's hair in less than five minutes, so it's kind of a time saver channel. We upload two vlogs a month on that channel. My twin daughters, Brooklyn and Bailey, have been on YouTube for six years now. They're very, very popular, some of the top influencers on YouTube. They create lifestyle content and they're now in college, so they're aging up their content from what used to be high school to now college-aged content.

And then we have another daughter, Kamri Noel, who is in high school, and she does photography and some lifestyle content on her channel. We have three additional channels that we own, but do not actually create content for as a family. We have independent contractors who upload to those channels, and one of those three is actually a kids' channel that is affected by this new policy. Four of the channels are over 1 million total. We're at 15 and a half million subscribers and about 2.6 billion views.

Liron Segev: Now YouTube says, "Okay, ladies and gentlemen, if you are making content to do with kids, we have to talk." Tell me what's happening, what's going on?

Shaun McKnight: Well, before we can really identify what's going on, and who should really be angry and so forth, we have to think of YouTube for what it actually was. The intent of the platform. It's not an entertainment company. We as creators are the "entertainment company". YouTube is a software platform that hosts that content, right? And it has always been an age 13 and over platform, so in order to create an account or a YouTube channel, you have to certify and state that, "I'm over the age of 13."

So it was never intended to be a place where kids were going to consume content, right? So this new issue has kind of arisen over the past eight years. Toy unboxing channels were kind of the first real foray into kids' content on YouTube, and they really took off and everybody was, "Me too. I want one, I want one." And then there was the superhero genre, and there was the Frozen, Elsa, Spider-Man genre, and then a plethora of family bloggers mixed in throughout those eight years, right?

But I think that that content type that was never intended to be hosted on YouTube and consumed on YouTube grew to probably ... my guess, my estimate is about 33% of views were coming from younger kids under the age of 13 consuming content on the main YouTube platform. And then YouTube's attempt to try and create YouTube Kids as an off, standalone app was great. It's not a perfect solution, but it just seems easier for parents to just hand over their phone to a YouTube that they're currently logged in on using their profile. And kids were watching videos, and because of the suggestion algorithm that YouTube puts in place, kids were being deviated from Peppa the Pig to content that wasn't necessarily appropriate for children of that age.

Liron Segev: Those who don't know, there is a YouTube Kids app that's highly curated. The criteria as a creator to fit into that is so specific, in fact, most people actually don't qualify. Now things have changed. I mean, we've seen live streams of Peppa Pig being streamed for 24 hours. Is this who the intended audience that YouTube is kind of saying, "Look, we need to talk"?

Shaun McKnight: Yes, I believe so. Some of the advertiser issues we've had in the past that have been in the press, yes, that's fair because bad actors have been in there manipulating the algorithm, and creating content that wasn't intended to be for children. This has to do with data collection through cookies and viewer behavior. The FTC has an issue with YouTube collecting that data, presuming that it is an adult because it was created by an adult. They have to certify that they're over the age of 13.

I think it was pretty clear to a lot of people that there were children using parents' accounts. And that's where the FTC had a problem was knowing that children were consuming content on the platform, and then YouTube was using that viewer behavior to serve targeted ads. That's what the system does, right? It's not something someone's consciously doing. It's programmed to do that.

And so there was a sharing of data from kids under the age of 13 happening, where advertisers and ads were being served based on targeted data that were provided by kids under the age of 13. That's why we're in this situation.

Liron Segev: And that's the crux of this matter. It's just, it's all to do with tracking and ads.

Shaun McKnight: Yes. Because there's pretty staunch laws, COPPA laws, to protect children from advertisements. And you know, kids are delicate. This is more of a parent issue than it really is a YouTube issue or even a government issue. We're in this situation because of parents.

And also as creators, we have a responsibility to know what the playing field is, to not put the software company that is hosting our content in jeopardy. Since we're the media creators, we're the media companies, it's not YouTube's fault per se. Yes, there's some things they could have done earlier, but this really is a parent issue. We should not be handing an iPad logged into YouTube proper to our children just because there's a Peppa Pig video there, assuming that all they're going to watch is Peppa Pig or Snoopy, or Looney Tunes or whatever it may be. That's not the way the program was intended. That's not the way the algorithm works.

Liron Segev: So now let's put a creator hat on. I have a kids channel, I've put lots of quality and educational videos up, I spent lots of time with my animators. What's going to happen to my channel as it’s targeted specifically at under-13s?

Shaun McKnight: It's really sad because, yeah, this has affected me. Fortunately, I didn't put a lot of money and resources and time into our kids' channel, so having lost the monetization on that and the engagement ability through that channel isn't really affecting me. If I had invested a lot more time and money, it would be really, really hard for me. I would struggle with this decision, particularly because I know the content I create is safe for kids.

But I also kind of have to look at it as, okay, that content was never really meant to be on YouTube proper. It's almost like for the past seven years, every time I do the laundry, I've been finding money in the pocket of those pants, right? It was never really supposed to be there, but it was a benefit to me and I'm grateful to it. But to the point that I become expectant that every week when I do my laundry there's going to be money in that pocket, and then all of a sudden it isn't. I can't be mad at the washer. I can't be mad at the pants.

I was lucky to have that money all that time. I mean, that's an oversimplified way of saying it really stinks to be in this situation, and you should be grateful for what you had during that time. But the platform was never meant to host that kind of content, because of the target audience. So it was almost like we played with house money. Now the system is correcting itself, the pendulum is coming back to where it should have been originally. Now as creators we have to find out where do we put it now where we can get the maximum monetization? Because the option on YouTube proper is not going to be there.

I believe, from what I understand, YouTube negotiated pretty heavily with the government who wanted to implement an immediate implementation of this policy. YouTube was able to get that negotiated to four months, which allows the partner managers and basically the community of creators to work together to figure out, "What are we doing with this content type?" There will be, I think, a more concerted effort on YouTube Kids. YouTube has created their own version of YouTube on desktop, like a YouTube proper but only for kids, where this content can be hosted. I think the problem for a lot of creators are that the monetization will not be there immediately like it has been on YouTube proper.

Liron Segev: We're not talking about little bits of money. I mean, some people have made entire businesses out of this, entire companies. They've got staff, they've got offices, they've got multiple channels, bringing in multiple six-figure income per month from these kids' channels. This is going to go from that, I would assume, to probably virtually zero in a couple of months.

Shaun McKnight: It is, and so that's the other thing. I think it's important for people to understand. It's easy to think, okay, YouTube's the big bad bully here because the government said, "Oh, you're doing this," and YouTube is like, "Well, we're just going to make the creators pay for this."

But think about if what I'm saying is true and roughly 33% of views on YouTube are coming from children under the age of 13 consuming gaming content and kids content and toy unboxing and so forth, YouTube has a split with the creators of 55/45. They're losing 45% of that huge chunk of views per month, so their revenue is being hit too. This wasn't an easy decision by YouTube to do this.

Liron Segev: That's a good point because not only the creators get a hit because YouTube is not paying them as much anymore, but YouTube isn't being paid either. Everybody takes a hit. It's good for the kids. I mean, we want to be clear. You have to protect the kids. That's non-negotiable.

Shaun McKnight: That's number one.

Liron Segev: This is just basically systems put in place to help do that. The question is, how do we now deal with the situation that we find ourselves in? I like your example of, we've been living on borrowed time anyway. If you have kids channels, you know that you were playing with fire when you started this.

Shaun McKnight: Correct.

Liron Segev: Did YouTube tell you what the implications will be? Is there a new processing you have to self-select your content when you upload it in the future?

Shaun McKnight: Yeah, that will be happening in the next coming months. Obviously before January 1st, I think they'll be putting that in place. Currently, there's a beta for channels that have to self-certify against vulgarity, violence, sexual content, and so forth. More for safety for children, but also to make sure YouTube understands what is this video about?

So they know how to rate it. That was self-certification and there's a trust algorithm that goes against that. Meaning, I can certify that my content is safe for all audiences. Then YouTube has its own algorithm that goes in and it knows what's in my video. It's using Google Vision. It can tell whether that matches how I certified and so forth. Over time, I can earn trust in the algorithm, which also helps me in my growth.

All they're going to be doing is adding one more line in there that says, "Is this piece of content targeted to children under the age of 13?" Whether or not we click that box determines, alongside the verifications through the algorithm, how much trust we're gaining. Also, I read yesterday through all of this, there's a lot of press going on.

The FTC has actually made a statement that by YouTube implementing this self-certification and if a creator goes out and intentionally creates content for younger kids and certifies that it is not for children under the age of 13 just simply to bypass the policy and make the higher CPMs on YouTube proper, that that opens up that content creator for exposure to the FTC that they can call out full force on that content creator. That's actually scary to me to hear that. Because YouTube has put enough in place now to protect those children that I, myself as "the media company" uses the software platform to target children under 13 when it wasn't meant to be, the FTC can now come against me directly.

Liron Segev: Wow. Well, you shouldn't be doing it. At the end of the day, facing the FTC is very different than getting a community strike against your channel.

Shaun McKnight: Correct. Or even losing your own monetization on that channel. You're talking penalties and fines and potential prison and court and legal. I mean it's not something to play with.

Liron Segev: Now, it's all about the under 13, so it's all about the intention of the content creator as well. Like Brooklyn and Bailey, when they make their content, their intent is to talk to other teenagers, to other college going kids. Their intention isn't to target little kids.

Shaun McKnight: Correct.

Liron Segev: Now, what happens if little kids do watch your channels because they love them and they're awesome? What happens then? Is it still your responsibility?

Shaun McKnight: Well, as a content creator you can't really control who watches your content, but the theme and the dialogue and how you age it up or down can actually lead to what your intent really is with a piece of content. If I'm creating a skit and it's aged down and kind of nursery rhyme-ish, even though I have my teenagers on screen doing it, that is likely going to be consumed more by kids who can relate or like that which will be under the age of 13 then those that are over 13, right?

That poses an issue because it's not like I have minors under the age of 13 on screen, but the content type pretty clearly suggests that I'm trying to entertain that demographic. That would technically fall under the new policy.

Liron Segev: PewDiePie is playing Minecraft exclusively now. But nobody can say PewDiePie is a kids channel. His intention isn't to go after the kids audience. Which I suppose leads me to the family vlogger situations where we know lots of family vloggers who've got all the kids in the videos. The fact that the kids are in the video doesn't make it 13 and below.

Shaun McKnight: Correct. Yeah. Going back to the first part of that question with PewDiePie and Minecraft, I actually asked that question specifically when I talked to YouTube yesterday and I'm talking very early in the morning. I was one of the first creators they had spoken to just because of the connections that I have with other large channels and they knew that I could probably help communicate and help give some advice to them.

I mentioned, so where is that line really drawn there when it comes to, if I'm over the age of 13, but my content ages down or if I'm ageing content down, but the primary viewer is over the age of 13. How does that work? I mentioned specifically DIY Slime and Minecraft because those are the two in the female and male demographic to I think, bridge that somewhere. How do you draw the line there? It's not as clear cut as I think even what Susan put out in her blog post or the letter. They have to look at that on a deeper level. For example, slime videos made by many adults and a lot of teenagers, makes slime, but it seems like the younger generation are the ones that really grabbed a hold of it. Right?

I think they're looking at, okay, what was the intent of the creator? Are they clearly targeting kids? Then what percentage of their overall audience clearly is under the age of 13? Then somehow there’s this whole calculation there and they try and verify whether or not that is a channel or a piece of content that puts kids at risk.

It wasn't as clear cut when it came to trying to draw a line in the sand. That's something I'm glad I don't have to do. YouTube has to do that.

Liron Segev: Yeah, because if you extend it to things like skits or you extended to DIY, like ‘Five Minutes Crafts’, you could argue that they're aimed at kids who are going to do crafts at home during the school vacation, but they have to do it with an adult to supervise. It's not black and white. This is a very gray area.

Shaun McKnight: Yeah. The areas that were very specifically called out, at least when I was talking to them were skits where kids are in role play costumes, animated cartoons clearly directed at children, toy unboxing. Stuff like that, that's very clear cut is going to fall under this new policy. The stuff like Minecraft and DIY and vloggers is different, right? Because it can go either way and so those have to be looked at more and there's a lot of criteria.

YouTube look at some classifiers that they put in place to try and determine if a channel falls above or below that line. Obviously, one of the first classifiers is what type of content is created and who does it target.That tells a lot, right? I can say I target teenagers, but if I'm making a video of Peppa Pig, teenagers aren't watching Peppa Pig, right?

One of the next classifiers is the onscreen talent under the age of 13. If the primary talent on screen is under the age of 13, it's very likely other kids that age or younger are going to identify with them as opposed to an older teenager, somebody in their 20s or an adult. Right? Those are two of the classifiers. I don't know what all the others are. They all go together to sift through the channels to try and verify who has maximum exposure, to minimal, to no exposure when it comes to putting this policy in place.

*Liron Segev: Yikes. Recently kids channels have already had things like comments disabled. All of that will continue. Do you think things like the community tab and live streaming and live streaming comments, are those going to follow suit as well? *

Shaun McKnight: Yes. Yes, they will. I mean, primarily those were done in the past because of child safety and predators. Not wanting to contribute to conversations on the channel to pedophilia and things like that. If a channel falls under this category then any engagement interaction ability on that video or channel will be turned off.

There won't be an ability to playlist. Notifications will not go out. Their community tab will disappear. Comments will remain turned off. Those types of things will not be allowed principally because the algorithm looks at those things to determine whether or not it's going to suggest to more people and they don't want children's content on there. The algorithm can't really be promoting it.

Liron Segev: Essentially no velocity. You're going to have a really hard time getting those views, especially without the ads and not going to be suggested. Those kids' channels are really, really going to struggle, not just financially because there's not enough ad revenue, but even those views that they were expecting to get, they're also going to take a large hit it seems.

Shaun McKnight: I would imagine. YouTube didn't tell me that they're going to turn off suggested or stop the browse feature. The only way you can see a video would be if you directly type in the channel or specific keyword terms. They didn't say that to me. I can only assume when they were telling me that these engagement aspects would be turned off for those videos or channels, that that would then affect its ability to be promoted through the search and discovery.

Liron Segev: Yikes. Should a channel be pivoting? I mean, they've got four months because this is going live on January I believe. Right?

Shaun McKnight: Yeah. I did talk to them and that was part of the reason why they negotiated hard for the four months. Actually, there were various aspects of it too. I believe some of it may have been they've got contracts they've got to fulfill with advertisers through the holidays. I think that may have been part of it. They have shareholders they have to hold and regard, but I also believe they were doing it for the creators because they know these creators have teams. They have employees who have families. This is their job. Turning that off overnight would just not work. YouTube was going to bat for the creators. I think primarily it was for the creators to allow four month's time to evaluate the channels.

Because there are channels that will be able to pivot, their content is on that line, but not clearly under that line. I think a younger kids channel may have a harder time pivoting just because the audience that they've accumulated are likely those younger kids. So, creating different content for that audience probably isn't going to be as successful, but I can't say that for sure.

But I also believe in that four month period YouTube is trying to figure out, "Okay. We're going to push this content to YouTube Kids desktop and YouTube Kids app. So now parents, hand your iPad your kid, just do it through the YouTube Kids app." While that's not a perfect solution, YouTube Kids app has had its issues, but it's a much more controlled environment than what YouTube proper was, right?

So, I think these four months are going to be a lot of solutions trying to be put in play. And I think YouTube would have rather had more like six months or a year to do this, but they didn't have that luxury. So, it's trying to figure out, "Where do we put this content and how can we help monetize it in a way that can help these creators who have built businesses on this and have employees?" They've implemented a $100 million fund for some of these larger creators that have been affected that have high production quality and so forth to build their own version of YouTube originals for YouTube Kids.

But in my opinion, $100M doesn't really go a long way when you look at some of the sizes of these channels. I think it was something that YouTube could quickly pull out and it was going to help and there's been no guidelines on really how that's going to be administered. It was just announced really over the weekend, but YouTube is trying the best way to figure out how it can help creators monetize their content as target-based ads, interest-based ads, on YouTube proper for content aimed at children under the age of 13 will be going away.

And I estimate just on my own calculations, that can be up to 85% of a channel's ad sets because you can still have Google preferred or somebody who specifically wants to advertise on that channel. Those will still happen, but it's the interest-based ads that we'll be going away.

Liron Segev: So if you're starting out a kid's channel or you were thinking of jumping in on this kid's channel of bandwagon, you should be rethinking your entire strategy at this stage.

Shaun McKnight: Absolutely. I think there's a place for kids' content online. It just grew on the part of the platform it was never intended to grow on and there's an auto correction happening now based on what's been in the press and what's happened with kids in the past and the content, and the bad actors and so forth. There's not a perfect solution right now. YouTube is trying to make YouTube Kids that perfect solution.

Liron Segev: And assuming that they'll now focus a lot of time and effort and money into making it much better than just a little spinoff because of how popular it actually has been.

Shaun McKnight: I absolutely believe that. I mean, you look at kid's programming on TV, on Disney and Nickelodeon, there's a lot of advertisements going on there, but those are controlled environments. So, the media companies have legal teams that are reviewing every piece of content that goes on air to make sure they're complying with all the rules and regulations when it comes to minors in terms of advertising and viewership and the actors on set, right? We as content creators who are the media companies on YouTube have not been under that standard before.

So within YouTube Kids, I think YouTube is going to make that a safer platform for kids to be able to watch and consume content. And I think they want to try and make it somewhat palatable or bring advertisers in that specifically want to advertise, Kellogg's, Honey Crisp or whatever it may be, Nesquik or Lego or Mattel, right? I don't know if the CPMs will reach the levels they have on YouTube proper just because YouTube proper was meant for an adult audience. It's different when you're advertising to kids, so CPMs tend to be lower. But I think YouTube is going to make an effort within their Google ad sales team to try and boost monetization within that kid sector.

Liron Segev: Cool. Hard pill to swallow but it has to be done and I think for those that are venting their frustration, which is understandable, this is one thing we just have to accept as going to happen.

Shaun McKnight: Correct. I think some of the bigger creators that, after the first ad-pocalypse and some of the ad issues that have happened in children's safety, have seen a little bit of the writing on the wall. Like I myself had seen it after that first ad-pocalypse. I'm like, "I don't know if I want to invest a ton in here because it could go away so quickly like it did for many people back then." And so, we pulled back the reins on our kids' channel and I know a lot of big creators were looking for other venues to place that content.

Some of them created their own standalone apps where a parent can pull up in this nursery rhyme channels and just hand that to their child and it's a completely controlled environment. Only their content can be viewed there and that child just watches over and over. There may be some subscription model to that. So, there's plenty of people that have pivoted in that aspect of, "Where can I put my content that doesn't put me at risk?" But unfortunately, some really good friends of mine, big, popular kids channels are being affected by this and it's sad. I mean, it's sad. I really hurt for them.

Liron Segev: And now, they have to make other arrangements because they are not just supporting themselves in this, but these other families involved, these are real people. Any business can not take a hit of 80 to 90% of their revenue in such a small period of time.

Shaun McKnight: One more thing I wanted to bring up just because it's in the press, I thought it was really interesting that the fine was only $170M for something like data collection against children who are under the age of 13. And the only reason why I can think it was low ( Facebook's fine was around $5B) because this just seems like a drop in the bucket for Google, is intent. YouTube's platform was built for a plus 13 age audience and you have to certify that when you create an account. So clearly, we know kids are consuming content there, but why is it YouTube's responsibility at that point to say, "Oh, no. This is a kid watching this." When there was a certification stating that "I'm over the age of 13."

It wasn't clear cut that they were collecting data on under 13 year old kids on purpose and making a profit. You know what I mean? Because based upon their roster, they're looking at that, I would assume, at least 85% of all those kids viewing accounts were created by adults who were just letting their teens use their account, right?

So, I think that's the reason why it wasn't much larger because it was hard to really say. And actually, they're asking YouTube now to look at the data of viewing patterns to determine whether or not that adult-created account really is a kid. And by virtue, the government's asking YouTube to collect data from that 13 year old to determine whether or not a under 13 year old was actually watching. I think that's really funny that that's where we're at.

Liron Segev: We've gone in a complete circle.

Shaun McKnight: Yeah. The government is asking you to collect data on these users to determine whether or not they're actually under the age of 13, even though the original creator of that account certified they were over 13.

Liron Segev: And were they actually allowed therefore to collect data on this person.

Shaun McKnight: Yeah, pretty ironic.

Liron Segev: Yeah. Fantastic. Well, it's never a dull moment on YouTube. Let's put it that way. Shaun, people want to check out some of your channels. For those who don't know, where can people check you guys out?

Shaun McKnight: You bet. We have our main channel, Cute Girls Hairstyles, and our daughters, Brooklyn and Bailey and our third daughter, Kamri Noel. Those are the names of their channels, all three of them, just type them in. You can find them. We do not target children under the age of 13, for which I'm really grateful that we never did, but my thoughts and prayers and all the vibes that I have in me are going towards those people that are affected and their teams to find a way to work through this and continue just in a different way.

Liron Segev: YouTube is a very close knit community and when something like this happens, it really, really does affect everyone else, but this is a big one. This isn't a an ad-pocalypse where you've lost a little bit of revenue, this is literally life changing. So yes, I definitely echo that sentiment. We know a lot of these creators personally and we know that it's good wholesome content, like they're in the same boat as everybody else and they just have to deal.

All right, thank you for spending some time with us. Really kind of getting to the heart of this since you've had it firsthand from YouTube. This should be a red flag on any other platform too, because this could just be the precedent for other platforms to follow suit as well.

Shaun McKnight: Totally agree. I don't think there's a place online that these creators can flee to where they're going to make money without this same issue coming to light.

Liron Segev: Absolutely. So, be smart. Make smart choices, and let's protect our kids at all costs. That's the bottom line.

Shaun McKnight: Agreed.

Liron Segev: And if you guys know of anyone who's potentially might be affected by the self certifications, maybe YouTube hasn't reached out to them, maybe they're not a big channel, but they're looking to go in this direction, please share this episode with them.

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