"Should I tell what happened today?"
That was the opening line—to me and my good friend—after our families had dinner together. It was her tween asking. Of course, we nodded.
"The girls," she continued, referring to her 7-year-old sister and the sister's visiting friend, "Asked YouTube, 'What is sex?'"
What followed was a lot of chaos, during which we confiscated the iTouch the second-graders had been using. I opened the web browser and frantically toggled back. I clicked on the videos they watched and held my breath. Miraculously, both only showed fully clothed adults kissing.
We had a lot to sort out, and many things were thrown in stark relief for me. Parents must talk about sex early if we want to be the first voice of authority on the subject. Kids can find anything on the Web, and fast. Kids can never "unsee" what they watch. And we are insanely dependent on services such YouTube to not scar or scare our kids.
Yet I couldn't get over how gentle the video was that they found. It was on the iTouch that the 7-year-old normally uses to watch cartoons and play with apps when she travels. Did YouTube know that she is so young based on what she usually watches?
Back at work, I tried the same search on my computer. What I got was much more...um...instructional. Maybe because I look up videos of baby products for my work with American Baby? The hits I got were literally of the "how to make a baby" type.
Next I used my middle schooler's phone and looked up "What is sex?" on her YouTube app. Her videos were in some middle ground, many done with blocky illustrations. There was also a video called, "What sex is like the first time." Gulp.
I sent an email to Common Sense Media to ask what they know about how YouTube filters search results. Jill Murphy, their editorial director, confirmed that the search results are tied to search history as well as to what videos are normally viewed. What videos someone views is weighted even more than search, so even if the girls kept searching YouTube about sex, their long history of viewed cartoons would skew results toward the PG-rated.
I'm still rattled, but maybe a bit reassured that if my kids ever look up topics on YouTube before coming to me (and what kid wouldn't be tempted?), I have some small measure of calm knowing (hoping?!) that their own devices might keep things age-appropriate. I will also be more vigilant about not letting them use my grown-up phone. There is clearly a big difference in what comes up if kids get ahold of an adult's device.
All this happened two months ago, but my friend and I still talk about it. We are so out of our element, having grown up in a world where you snuck a peek at sex passages in books and used your imagination. Now all I can say is...please help us, YouTube. Please don't let kids see things they're not quite ready to have played out in front of them.
Jessica Hartshorn is the Entertainment Editor for Parents magazine and still enjoys watching animated kids' shows herself.