It’s something countless parents do every day to keep their children occupied while they work or get dinner put on the table: Give the child a tablet and let her watch familiar, parent-approved cartoons.
But as one mother documented on the website The Outline, parents also may need to be cautious about videos that, at first glance, they might think are safe, but are knockoffs of popular cartoon characters that can frighten their children.
The mother, Laura June, wrote about her experience after having a startling run-in with a disturbing parody of popular British preschool show “Peppa Pig.” Like many parents, she gave her 3-year-old daughter a tablet and searched for Peppa Pig clips on YouTube’s children’s app. What she heard after a few minutes had her pulling the iPad away from her daughter.
In the video, an infant's cry plays while an off-brand Peppa is tortured by a sadistic dentist, who laughs maniacally as he scrapes at his patient’s rotten, bleeding teeth. June was horrified, especially since she was using YouTube Kids, with its restriction filter activated, a feature that’s supposed to block such content.
“Peppa Pig is a show for preschoolers,” she wrote. “Knockoff Peppa Pig is the stuff of nightmares.”
The BBC, picking up on June’s experience, found hundreds of similar examples of cartoons meant to look like beloved characters doing inappropriate or violent things. On one YouTube channel in particular, the BBC found several examples of partial nudity, sexuality, violence and toilet humor acted out by characters that closely resemble Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen,” Marvel superheroes such as Spider-Man, and other characters popular with preschoolers, like Thomas the Tank Engine and Doc McStuffins.
How inappropriate are the videos? In several, characters break each other’s limbs and the bones are exposed. In another featuring Doc McStuffins, children are turned into zombies with bleeding wounds on their faces and chase their mother around the house.
Sometimes, the inappropriate parts of the videos (which are often in the 50-minute range) are momentary blips, mixed in with other nonsensical scenes, while other times the entire video is one disturbing scene after another. That makes it trickier for parents to spot a bad cartoon, and some experts are upset that YouTube’s child filters aren’t catching the knockoffs.
“It's perfectly legitimate for a parent to believe that something called Peppa Pig is going to be Peppa Pig," London School of Economics online safety expert Sonia Livingstone told the BBC. "And I think many of them have come to trust YouTube as a way of entertaining your child for 10 minutes while the parent makes a phone call. I think if it wants to be a trusted brand then parents should know that protection is in place."
In a statement to the BBC, YouTube acknowledged no filter is 100 percent accurate and urged parents to flag any material they found offensive. Since the BBC wrote its report, some of the channels have been removed from the site.
June recognizes that it’s not up to just YouTube to filter out any and all inappropriate content for her children, but she’s hoping that in the future, parents will learn from her experience and YouTube will remove the fake shows from the “related content” section of its children’s app.
“The (real) shows are produced in some kind of factory where child psychology has been deeply examined and kids’ consumer needs tested at industrial levels,” June wrote. “But when you strip away that safety, down in the muck and mystery of YouTube’s open platform, these brands become something much more sinister. A crass play for money where ‘related’ content is the lazy work of some unknown animator with enough knowledge of SEO gaming and Microsoft Paint to be dangerous, or at least extremely annoying.”
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