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YouTube Algorithm Funnels Violent Gun Videos to Kids: Study

YouTube suggested over 100 gun-related videos to a simulated 14-year-old in a single day.

BATH, UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 16: A 12-year-old boy looks at a smartphone screen on March 16, 2023 in Bath, England. Following the lead of the EU Commission and several US administrations, TikTok is set to be banned from UK government phones amid security concerns around the Chinese-owned video app. Recently TikTok announced that every account belonging to a user below age 18 have a 60-minute daily screen time limit automatically set. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Researchers have found that children who click on videos surfaced by YouTube's recommended algorithm are far more likely to receive violent and gory content — especially videos related to guns.

In order to determine how recommendations shape children's viewing experiences, the non-profit Tech Transparency Project created two YouTube accounts to simulate the video choices of a nine-year-old boy who watches video game-related videos.

One soon received an onslaught of graphic gun videos, including instructions for how to modify weapons and depictions of fictional mass shootings. The other received similar videos but to a far lesser extent.

The difference: The account that received more violent content relied on YouTube's algorithm to help determine which videos to watch next.

The study found that in a single month, YouTube served over 380 firearms videos to the account that used its recommendation feature, compared with 44 for the account that did not click on its recommendations. Meanwhile, YouTube dished out over 1,300 gun-related videos in that same month to a simulated 14-year-old's account — including one day with over 100 recommended gun videos.

Some of the graphic videos that YouTube surfaced appear to breach its own safety policies, including content that contains "harmful or dangerous acts involving minors," and instructions for how to "convert a firearm to automatic fire."

Those included a movie about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, graphic depictions of how bullets damage the human body, and alleged body camera footage of a gunfight between a 12 and 14-year-old and police.

Elena Hernandez, a spokesperson for YouTube, told The Messenger the platform protects children by requiring that those younger than 13 only create accounts linked through their parents' accounts.

It's difficult to assess the study itself, Hernandez said, because its methodology was not made publicly available.

"For example, the study doesn't provide context of how many overall videos were recommended to the test accounts," she said, "and also doesn't give insight into how the test accounts were set up."

YouTube said it actively searches for accounts belonging to children under age 13 and terminates thousands per week as a part of the process.

This story has been updated to include a comment from YouTube.

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