Parents beware: subtle dangers on the internet


These days we are often told what we shouldn’t be afraid of when it comes to technological innovation. Efforts to calm us come from all corners, and we can find a healthy dose of reassurance about any given advancement with a quick google.

Just this week, an excellent article by Oxford professor Luciano Floridi was recirculated on the internet. In it, Floridi argues vociferously against those “Singularitarians” who worry about robot rule, and humans being overthrown by AI in the near-ish future.  At the same time, the Independent wrote in some detail to comfort us with regards to the non-threatening nature of iPhone X’s new facial recognition feature.  This came after a wave of speculation about Apple’s plans to build a mass database of facial information. What’s more, we have also seen an increase in cuddly or moving descriptions of new tech, like this inspiring article which examines how VR can be used to help both deaf and hearing individuals understand the other’s experience of music.

I am not suggesting for a second that we shouldn’t be reassured. I think these articles do very important things, whether it be shooting down unsettling, dystopian predictions, or championing some of the wonderful work that is being done to improve our lived experiences with technology. But it is perhaps because of this recent proliferation of positive tech news (if we set aside the politics of tech firms and focus on the tech itself…) that I was shocked to read this article late yesterday. Not least because it reveals a bogey man that I wasn’t even vaguely aware of… 

The story was also covered by the Guardian today. Without going into the gory – and sometimes genuinely unpleasant details – I will attempt to give a brief overview here.

A technology campaigner has revealed the true extent of disturbing, violent and patently inappropriate videos that are routinely aimed at, and viewed by, small children on YouTube. The worst of these are low quality, and made cheaply to satisfy the site’s curation algorithms and harness as many views as possible. Having viewed some of them, I can testify that they are surreal, harrowing, and unlike anything I have ever seen. Here’s an example, but proceed with caution.

These strange and non-sensical offerings have long “word salads” (the author’s description) as titles in order to tap into every possible kid-video trend and ride their way to the top of searches/appear in the side bar alongside more palatable favorites. It is unclear how, precisely, they’re being created. It could be that they’re rushed out quickly by human “animators”, or thrown together in some automated fashion. Though some of them are entirely distasteful, most could merely be described as “off”.

It’s worth adding that these malarial nightmare visions occupy a wider – incredibly strange – environment that we might call “made for babies’ TV”, where enjoying “legitimate” and high grossing favorites can involve watching a grown man in his 50s suck on a pacifier….

It’s all very odd indeed. And to me, surprising.

I should mention that I am not a parent, nor am I a psychologist. Either might argue that these are less harmful than they appear. I sincerely hope that is the case.

For me, this is the sort of story that demonstrates the real, and really rather subtle, dangers already lurking just below the surface on the internet.  Whilst we worry about robot rule or mass surveillance, we may not even notice that our interaction with websites and their algorithms are already having a bearing on our behaviors and our psychology. Or worse still, warping the small impressionable minds of our children whilst we are distracted or elsewhere…

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