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Advocacy groups ask FTC to investigate YouTube Kids app for targeting children with ads

Consumer and child advocacy groups, such as the Center for Digital Democracy, today asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Google's YouTube Kids app violates rules for children's programming.

The app —available for iOS and Android —curates YouTube channels and videos considered appropriate for children. The groups petitioning the FTC, however, argue that Google is deliberately targeting advertising at children in a violation of rules conceived to govern kids' TV programming, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

The regulations were put in place in the wake of 1970s research showing that younger children had trouble rejecting advertising, or even understanding that they're being influenced. In 2004, the American Psychological Association reiterated a similar position.

Google uses targeted advertising in both YouTube Kids and the regular version of YouTube to eliminate subscription fees, but some of the ads feature toys or entertainment aimed at children. Kids also includes channels that are actually branded ones for products like Lego or My Little Pony, which means that in some cases a child may be watching a stream that's effectively one long product promotion.

The FTC complaint also casts doubt on the inclusion of unboxing videos. Unofficial unboxing videos are commonplace on YouTube, but it's claimed that the owners of the unboxing channels in the app are undisclosed, and are effectively toy ads.

A YouTube spokesperson told the Mercury News that Google "consulted with numerous partners and child advocacy and privacy groups" while developing the app, but that it's "open to feedback" on how it could make improvements.

Other groups calling for an investigation include Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Consumer Watchdog, Corporate Accountability International, and Public Citizen.