In the wake of the relentless gun violence that is being perpetrated by ever younger perpetrators, researchers at a non-profit organization wanted to understand more about the connection between YouTube videos and gun violence, they set up accounts on the platform that mimicked the behavior of typical boys living in the U.S.
They simulated two nine-year-olds who both liked video games. The accounts were identical, except that one clicked on the videos recommended by YouTube, and the other ignored the platform’s suggestions.
What they discovered was shocking and underlined the devastating role that media-sharing platforms play in the spread of gun violence and how our children are ensnared by it.
The account that clicked on YouTube’s suggestions was soon flooded with graphic videos about school shootings, tactical gun training videos and how-to instructions on making firearms fully automatic. One video featured an elementary school-age girl wielding a handgun; another showed a shooter using a .50 caliber gun to fire on a dummy head filled with lifelike blood and brains. Many of the videos violate YouTube’s own policies against violent or gory content.
“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,” said Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project, the research group that published its findings about YouTube on Tuesday. “It’s not the video games, it’s not the kids. It’s the algorithms.”
The accounts that followed YouTube’s suggested videos received 382 different firearms-related videos in a single month, or about 12 per day. The accounts that ignored YouTube’s recommendations still received some gun-related videos, but only 34 in total.
Some of the videos are labeled as Educational, and perhaps this functions as a loophole, but the instructions teach kids knowledge that can be deadly. “How a Switch Works on a Glock (Educational Purposes Only)” was sent to a nine year-old.
A spokeswoman for YouTube defended the platform’s protections for children and noted that it requires users under 17 to get their parent’s permission before using their site; accounts for users younger than 13 are linked to the parental account. “We offer a number of options for younger viewers…which are designed to create a safer experience for tweens and teens” the company wrote in an emailed statement.
YouTube’s weak defense shifts the blame onto the parents, who, it is implied, are not supervising their children to prevent them from receiving such dangerous video suggestions.
Along with TikTok, the video sharing platform is one of the most popular sites for children and teens. Both sites have been criticized in the past for hosting, and in some cases promoting, videos that encourage gun violence, eating disorders and self-harm. Critics of social media have also pointed to the links between social media, radicalization and real-world violence.
The perpetrators behind many recent mass shootings have used social media and video streaming platforms to glorify violence or even livestream their attacks. In posts on YouTube, the shooter behind the attack on a 2018 attack on a school in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 wrote “I wanna kill people,” “I’m going to be a professional school shooter” and “I have no problem shooting a girl in the chest.”
Justin Wagner, director of investigations at Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun control advocacy organization, said that in the absence of federal regulation, social media companies must do more to enforce their own rules. Wagner’s group also said the Tech Transparency Project’s report shows the need for tighter age restrictions on firearms-related content.
“Children who aren’t old enough to buy a gun shouldn’t be able to turn to YouTube to learn how to build a firearm, modify it to make it deadlier, or commit atrocities,” Wagner said in response to the Tech Transparency Project’s report.
Similar concerns have been raised about TikTok after earlier reports showed the platform was recommending harmful content to teens.