Currently, social media is filled with nervous content creators all panicking about COPPA and what it means for them. People are talking about losing their ad revenue, deleting their channels and quitting the platform. So is this just mass hysteria? Do YouTubers really need to be so worried?
First a disclaimer. We are not lawyers. This article is based on research and information provided by the FTC and YouTube themselves so you can be fully informed. If you're in any doubt about your channel's content and intent then please seek legal advice.
So with that in mind, here's what you need to know.
What Is COPPA?
COPPA stands for Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and it has been around since 1998. The act took full effect back in April 2000 and is managed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) It was passed to stamp out the rapid growth of marketing which directly targets children. It was also designed to limit the information that is gathered about any child under the age of 13 by requiring parental consent in order to do so.
This law is why child-focused websites require parental permission for user accounts to be set up and why the majority of website terms and conditions state that accounts can only be opened by users who are 13 and above. The law is not new and you will have encountered its effects before, even if you were unaware of it.
Anyone who produces content of any kind which is aimed at children has a legal duty to comply with COPPA and this has been the case since the act was passed.
What Has Changed?
Previously, YouTube had been relying on the fact that accounts could only be set up by users older than 13 to prove that all their content was compliant. However, the recent FTC ruling found the company's intent was very different and this was key in the recent ruling.
According to the FTC's report, YouTube described itself as “today’s leader in reaching children age 6-11 against top TV channels” and “the #1 source where children discover new toys + games.” YouTube was also claiming that it was “unanimously voted as the favorite website for kids 2-12” and “93% of tweens visit YouTube to watch videos.”
As all websites aimed and targeted towards the under 13's are required to comply with COPPA, an advertiser raised the issue and was told “[W]e don’t have users that are below 13 on YouTube and platform/site is general audience, so there is no channel/content that is child-directed and no COPPA compliance is needed.”
The FTC Ruling
The statements above, made by YouTube, were used to prove that they knew that children were watching their content and some content creators had even told them that their content was aimed at children. However, they were relying on the YouTube Kids app (on which the videos are compliant) and the terms & conditions of the account setup to protect them from being forced to comply with COPPA on a wider basis. This meant that they could continue to use targeted ads on channels with child-centric content, making huge amounts of money in the process.
Unsurprisingly the FTC was not impressed. YouTube has been handed a record-breaking $170 million fine and is now being forced to comply with the law, just as television channels and other media do. This is why the changes are taking place. The FTC is simply leveling the playing field so that all media are abiding by this law, rather than YouTube circumventing it on a technicality.
The FTC does not require YouTube to be responsible for directly policing every video uploaded, they instead require them to ensure compliance for all content flagged as child-focused in order to ensure they cannot just turn a blind eye to the law.
This is why the tools have been introduced for channel users to take responsibility for their own uploads by setting their audience. Technically the responsibility for COPPA compliance has always been with the content creators, however, the FTC has targeted YouTube as a company in order to force them to provide systems to aid creators in compliance.
How Does It Affect Creators?
Many creators are panicking but for the vast majority of them, this ruling will have no effect. Anyone who has content targeted at teens and above will be unaffected. The law comes into force if you have content which is targeting a younger audience or can be perceived as such. The onus is on content creators to prove their target audience is over 13.
At a basic level children's content is defined as containing:
- Children or children's characters- Popular children's programming or animated characters- Play-acting, or stories using children's toys- Child protagonists engaging in common natural play patterns such as play-acting and/or imaginative play- Popular children's songs, stories or poems.
As such the main flashpoints for content creators are those whose channels contain:
- Low-rated video games- Cartoons and animation- Toy videos- Vlogs or videos with children in- Stories, songs, and poems with a young target audience or appeal- Content where the language and presentation is designed to reach a young audience
YouTube and the FTC are prompting content creators to consider if their videos could be child-friendly or are child-aimed. Creators are being told that "While different games appeal to different audiences, think about whether the content you’ve created, itself, is directed towards kids, not just the audience of the game you’re playing in a video, alone."
This means that the intent is as important as content and YouTube has published guidelines to help anyone who is unsure. There are also some FAQs in the comments of the video above and further guidance on the FTC's website.
What Happens If The Video Is Flagged?
In order to comply with the ruling videos marked as "for kids" will be treated differently in order to stay on the right side of the law, protecting creators from financial penalties, while still being able to allow the content to be viewed through the main website.
The changes on a video level are:
- No comments- No targeted or personalized ads- No info cards- No end screens
A children's channel on YouTube won't have:
- Stories- A community tab- A Notification bell- The ability to save videos to watch later or a playlist- Publically viewable Likes/dislikes or subscriptions
Child-focused content will show adverts but these will be content targeting, as opposed to personalized. For those whose audience is primarily children, YouTube suggests exploring YouTube Kids as a more appropriate platform.
While it has not been officially confirmed, it's likely that the intention is to have child-focused content primarily shown on this alternative platform, where it can be more easily managed inline with the law, due to parental consent being obtained for accounts. This consent gives YouTube more flexibility in terms of promotion etc as COPPA allows more flexibility if parental permission is acquired.
If your videos are firmly aimed at an older audience, nothing will happen. If you want to specify you could add a disclosure to your videos or channel, stating that mature themes may be included. You may have noticed that many larger gaming companies do this already, by using rating graphics or similar before videos or streams which match the rating of the game being shown.
Any creator who is unsure should seek legal advice as the FTC is looking to enforce penalties on channels deliberately not identifying child-focused content in order to benefit financially from targeted advertising.