- A new study on YouTube’s recommendation algorithm found it pushed violent videos to children.
- Researchers from the Tech Transparency Project created four accounts for fictional nine and 14-year-olds.
- Accounts that watched recommended videos received hundreds more violent videos than the ones that didn’t.
A new study found YouTube’s recommendation algorithm pushed videos about modifying guns, school shootings, and a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer to accounts simulating the online behavior of several nine and 14-year-old users.
According to a report by the Tech Transparency Project published Tuesday, the video platform’s algorithm frequently pushed violent content — including videos that violated YouTube’s own policies — to accounts of fictional children that had indicated interest in video games.
The group created four accounts, two each depicting a pair of nine-year-old and 14-year-old boys, and watched a playlist of over 100 videos each, largely about video games. The younger accounts watched a playlist filled with videos about popular video games like “Roblox,” “Lego Star Wars,” and “Among Us,” while the older accounts watched videos featuring more explicitly violent games like “Grand Theft Auto V,” “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and “The Last of Us.”
For the following month, researchers tracked hundreds of videos recommended daily to the fictional children on YouTube’s homepage. One of each pair of the accounts chose to watch at least 50 of the recommended videos, while the other accounts did not interact with the violent recommendations.
The researchers found that the accounts that interacted with some of the algorithm’s recommendations that contained videos like gun modifications and movie and TV scenes of school shootings received about 10 times as many of the videos in subsequent recommendations.
Also recommended to both age groups was the 2017 film “My Friend Dahmer,” which depicts the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and is rated R. During the study the film was incorrectly labeled as PG on YouTube, and appears to still be mislabeled as of Wednesday.
“My Friend Dahmer” is still incorrectly rated as TV-PG on YouTube as of Wednesday, and was recommended to accounts of fictional children in a new study.
In a statement to Insider, YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez said the Tech Transparency Project report is “difficult for us to draw strong conclusions from,” adding certain aspects of the study’s methodology are unclear.
Specifically, Hernandez said it is unknown if researchers used tools available to parents who control a child’s account. Accounts for users under the age of 13 are required under YouTube policy to be connected to a parent’s account, a policy researchers said they adhered to in the report.
“We offer a number of options for younger viewers, including a standalone YouTube Kids app and our Supervised Experience tools which are designed to create a safer experience for tweens and teens whose parents have decided they are ready to use the main YouTube app,” Hernandez told Insider. “We welcome research on our recommendations, and we’re exploring more ways to bring in academic researchers to study our systems.”
YouTube’s blog says the recommendation algorithm drives “a significant amount” of views on the platform, as it’s designed to serve viewers content aligned with their interests, a contrast to how the platform worked in its early days when it simply promoted popular videos on the platform.
The Tech Transparency Project found that many of the videos recommended to the children also violated YouTube’s own safety guidelines, and some of the videos covered in the report have been removed from the platform. However, at least one video about modifying a Glock handgun was reuploaded with a different title and remained available for the researchers.
“Video games are one of the most popular activities for kids. You can play a game like ‘Call of Duty’ without ending up at a gun shop — but YouTube is taking them there,” Tech Transparency Project director Katie Paul told The Associated Press. “It’s not the video games, it’s not the kids. It’s the algorithms.”