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YouTube Is Missing an Opportunity to Be a Leader in Diverse, Representative Kids' Media

New research from Common Sense reveals kids are viewing content that isn't representative of the world they live in, and that matters.

Children watching content on a mobile phone.

We see them in the back seat, propped on the living room couch, or in their rooms, headphones in, focused for hours, watching YouTube videos. In the past four years, online video viewing has seen a significant increase among kids of all ages. In fact, many teens say YouTube is the platform they cannot live without—and my 14-year-old son would agree. The popularity of YouTube and other online platforms creates a unique opportunity for user-generated content to positively affect the ethnic-racial development of millions of kids across the country. As the largest user-generated platform for online video, YouTube could be a groundbreaking leader in shaping kids' view of the world.

However, YouTube seems to be missing the mark. Our new report, Who Is the "You" in YouTube?: Missed Opportunities in Race and Representation in Children's YouTube Videos, reveals that kids are watching content that doesn't represent the diversity of the world we live in. And this same material either presents content that supports stereotypes or misses opportunities for teaching about race and ethnicity at all. We know that kids and parents want more from the media they consume, and research shows that exposure to negative depictions of a child's own racial or ethnic identity can result in myriad negative outcomes, from negative self-esteem and academic performance to a lessened sense of value in their own ethnic-racial group and their future aspirations. With the rise in user-generated content and the increasing popularity of this media, it's important for Common Sense to understand how user-generated content fits into the narrative around representation and ethnic-racial development. Researchers in this study looked at 1,242 videos watched by children age 0–18, and here are some of the key findings that emerged:

Young kids are watching content that perpetuates stereotypes and doesn't accurately represent the world they live in—even more so than tweens and teens.
Common Sense found that 62% of YouTube videos watched by kids 8 and under didn't feature any Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) characters, and another 10% showed shallow or stereotypical portrayals. And those videos that did feature BIPOC characters were significantly more likely to include interpersonal violence (e.g., bullying, meanness, pranks; 27% compared to 16% of videos with prominent White characters), bad language (32% vs. 13%), and higher drinking/drugs/smoking (7% vs. 2%). Videos featuring White individuals were more likely to portray those characters in a positive light.

When we looked at the YouTube viewing histories of tweens/ teens, an average of 9% of videos contained stereotypes. This means that if a tween/teen watches 10 YouTube videos a day, every day for a year, they might see over 300 videos depicting ethnic-racial stereotypes in that time.

There are missed opportunities for YouTube to elevate positive representations and voices from BIPOC people and to leverage important conversations and representation about race and ethnicity.
Children age 0–8 watched a considerable amount (27% of the videos in our sample) of "colorblind" cartoons in which the main character doesn't have a clear ethnicity or race. Teaching about race and ethnicity was extremely rare: Of the 1,242 videos watched by children, only two discussed race and ethnicity. This is a significant missed opportunity to teach young children through storytelling by highlighting characters from diverse backgrounds in main roles. We know that babies begin recognizing race and ethnicity at a very young age, so if we want to change the narrative, it's super important to seize these opportunities from the start.

While YouTube does have a Black creators fund, it needs to do more to invest in and highlight BIPOC creators who feature real-life, inspiring stories and ensure their channels get promoted to a greater content distribution audience. Regarding YouTube Kids, for example, the creators' fund makes no mention of diversity and inclusion, and given how crucial representation is for young kids, there should be more emphasis on representation here as well.

There is an appetite for inspiring and empowering content that elevates the voices and perspectives of BIPOC characters and creators.
YouTube videos containing ethnic-racial stereotypes had lower viewership compared to those without stereotypes. Videos without ethnic-racial stereotypes in our sample had a median of about 1.3 million views, while videos with ethnic-racial stereotypes had a median of only about 734,000 views.

Tweens and teens also sought out content that contained characters that looked like them. This pattern suggests that YouTube could act as a source of positive representation for youth who are seeking messages and entertainment that align with their ethnic-racial identity.

YouTube has the power to be the platform that gets it right on diverse representation.
Although YouTube states that it aims to elevate high-quality content for kids, it's clear that kids are still watching content that features negative ethnic-racial representation. Because user-generated content is unmoderated, stereotypes can be perpetuated and even rewarded by the YouTube algorithm.

More attention needs to be focused on promoting diverse creators in the YouTube algorithms. And by making it easier for users to flag inappropriate content and institute policy violations for offenders, YouTube could avoid the spread of trending videos promoting questionable/biased portrayals.

The answer shouldn't be just to suggest that children use YouTube Kids. Although YouTube has been making changes to improve the quality of content presented to children on the YouTube Kids site and child-directed content on the main YouTube site, most kids are accessing content on the main platform.

YouTube should take accountability and exert its power to positively influence how race and ethnicity are represented and discussed on its platform. By elevating diverse voices and real-life experiences, making it easier to flag biased content, and improving the quality of content across its entire platform, YouTube could change the narrative. YouTube can have a positive impact on kids' view of the world by helping them build their ethnic-racial identities and promoting understanding that goes beyond stereotypes and tropes.

In the meantime, families, caregivers, and educators can find content that elevates BIPOC experiences when YouTube isn't highlighting that for them, or check out these alternative kid-friendly platforms.

Déjà Rollins

Déjà Rollins is from Dallas, Texas. Her professional experience in radio and TV broadcasting laid the foundation for her doctoral studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research centers on mediated communication and technology with an emphasis on race, culture, and identity formation. Déjà received her B.S. in journalism from University of Texas, Tyler, and her M.A. in communication from University of Texas, Dallas. Déjà's hobbies include pranking her children, working out, painting, rocking a karaoke set, pretending she's a five-star chef, and binge-watching new TV series