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YouTube Kids app goes overboard with ads, consumer groups charge

The "hyper-commercialized" YouTube Kids teems with ad tactics deemed illegal on television, watchdogs say -- and they want the FTC to take action.

YouTube Kids is deceptive to children, consumer and children's advocacy groups say. Jason Cipriani/CNET

A collection of consumer and children's advocacy groups have come together to urge US regulators to do something about Google's new child-focused YouTube app.

Organizations including the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have jointly filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission against the recently released YouTube Kids app, arguing that the service attempts to "take advantage of children's developmental vulnerabilities and violate long-standing media and advertising safeguards that protect children viewing television."

"YouTube Kids is the most hyper-commercialized media environment for children I have ever seen," Dale Kunkel, professor of communication at the University of Arizona, said in a statement Tuesday. "Many of these advertising tactics are considered illegal on television, and it's sad to see Google trying to get away with using them in digital media."

The FTC said it received the complaint and will review it, according to the Washington Post. The FTC did not immediately return CNET's request for comment.

Google in February launched its YouTube Kids app for iOS and Android. The service is intended to provide a safe environment for kids to browse content without running into inappropriate videos. To achieve that goal, Google went through YouTube and stripped away any content that was not directly targeted at children. Parental controls are also bundled with the app to help caregivers keep age-appropriate content in front of kids and limit viewing times.

"Videos in the YouTube Kids app are narrowed down to content appropriate for kids," Google wrote in a blog post in February. "You can browse channels and playlists in four categories: Shows, Music, Learning and Explore. Or search for videos of particular interest to your family, like how to build a model volcano, math tutorials, the amazing (and endless) world of trains -- and everything in between."

The YouTube Kids app follows the path set out by other video companies, including Netflix, that offer children-only sections. But YouTube's app is supported by advertising, while Netflix Kids comes with a monthly subscription to the company's streaming service.

According to the coalition of organizations, YouTube Kids comes with more insidious content than Google may let on. The organizations argue that the Kids app violates several outlawed practices, including "intermixing advertising and programming in ways that deceive young children." The organizations say that they have also discovered several "branded channels" from companies like McDonald's and Barbie, as well as user-generated content that does little more than push toys and candy on kids without disclosing that it could be a promotional video.

"As the complaint points out, [Google] appears to have ignored not only the scientific research on children's developmental limitations, but also the well-established system of advertising safeguards that has been in place on both broadcast and cable television for decades," the organizations wrote in a statement. "Those important policies include (1) a prohibition against the host of a children's program from delivering commercial messages; (2) strict time limits on the amount of advertising any children's program can include; (3) the prohibition of program-length commercials; and (4) the banning of 'product placements' or 'embedded advertisements.'"

In a letter to FTC secretary Donald Clark, the organizations said that Google's YouTube Kids app specifically violates Section 5 of the FTC Act, prohibiting unfair and deceptive marketing practices.

"Because even our cursory exploration of YouTube Kids revealed so many misleading and unfair advertising practices, we urge the Commission to promptly initiate a full investigation and take action to stop these practices," the organizations wrote in the letter.

Google on Tuesday defended its approach to YouTube Kids, saying it worked with a variety of partners and child advocacy groups when developing the app.

"While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app," Google said in a statement, "we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable."

The YouTube Kids app is part of a broader effort on Google's part to appeal to children. The search giant said earlier this year that over the last year alone, several of its teams have been eyeing ways to provide products solely to children. The YouTube Kids app is the first in a series of child-specific offerings Google is planning.

Update, 2:27 p.m. PT: Added that the FTC reportedly will review complaints raised by the consumer groups.