A few months ago, around the time my kid turned 3, she started to watch — under supervision — videos on an iPad in the mornings while I got dressed. At first, she mostly stuck to middle school productions of Annie or Peppa Pig, and though I wasn’t always standing over her shoulder watching with her, I am always hyper-aware of what she’s doing, because YouTube is a hellworld.
Peppa Pig is an innocuous, incredibly popular British animated show for preschoolers about a pink pig, Peppa, and her family. Another show my daughter likes, Doc McStuffins, is a Disney mega-vehicle about a 5- or 6-year-old girl, Doc, and her fantasy hospital land where she “treats” her stuffed animals for their minor ailments. If you don’t have a toddler, you’ve never heard of these shows. If you do, they are either abhorred as a nonstop cacophony, or revered as a few minutes’ respite so that you can get something done while your child is briefly entertained by some inoffensive “content.”
Although YouTube — and its child-friendly app, YouTube Kids, which has automated filters for content — is not the primary destination for Peppa and Doc consumption (full episodes are available on iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix) it’s the quickest, and sometimes easiest, way to watch if you’re just looking for a couple of minutes of the show. Both Peppa Pig and Doc McStuffins have some form of an official YouTube channel, though they offer limited content. The YouTube Kids app, by its own admission, does filter the videos to try to ensure it’s kid friendly, but it does so in an automated fashion, meaning that things like faux Peppa Pig sneak in quite easily. It works pretty much exactly like you think: You search “Peppa Pig,” and whatever videos are titled or tagged with “Peppa Pig” come up. But parents still need to watch over their kids, especially once the app begins to “suggest” other videos in the panel beneath whatever is being watched currently. Because what is suggested is often very bad.
“It’s Peppa! I love dis video!”
Several weeks ago, within a few seconds of my daughter pressing play on a video that sounded unlike any Peppa Pig I had ever heard, I went over and pulled the iPad away from her. “It’s Peppa! I love dis video!” she whined as I looked at it. It was obvious that whatever video she’d stumbled on, it definitely wasn’t the Peppa we knew. After hours of hearing the show’s bubbly British cast, you can spot it a mile — or a metre — away. And what I was hearing was… some off-brand Peppa.
The video, titled “#Peppa #Pig #Dentist #Kids #Animation #Fantasy,” is completely horrifying. Though the animation sort of looks like an actual episode of Peppa Pig, it’s poorly done, and the narrative quickly veers into upsetting territory. Peppa goes to the dentist, who has a giant needle and a lot of scary tools. The pigs are mysteriously forest green rather than pink. Burglars appear to try to burgle.
Peppa Pig is a show for preschoolers. Knock-off Peppa Pig is the stuff of nightmares.
And knock-off Doc McStuffins, which my daughter also accidentally browsed to just days ago, is scary too. Kids wet the bed and scream at their parents. It’s loud. Everyone cries. All of the audio seems like it's chopped up from random sources. On the actual Disney show Doc McStuffins, the ailments are all made up — “you’ve got sticky-icky-itis, you need a bath!” On faux McStuffins, people break legs. Bones get exposed. It’s terrifying. One video opens with a man injecting a pumpkin with a hypodermic needle, which somehow results in Doc and her buddies becoming zombies. There’s also a fiery car chase.
The weird thing, of course, is that my daughter who, again, is 3, is a perfect audience for this kind of copyright infringement, specifically because she doesn’t know that this is not really Peppa or Doc: She is fooled in exactly the way that whoever made this wanted her to be. My recourse, of course, is to report the videos. And to be clear, these videos do seem to be made to confuse children, meaning that kids are somehow, inexplicably, their target audience. This is not like a video of an animated Peppa Pig getting high with Snoop Dogg (that is also available) made for adults to laugh at. These videos are for kids, intentionally injected into the stream via confusing tags, for them to watch instead of legit episodes of beloved shows. Presumably made for ad revenue, they’re just slightly twisted enough that any parent with eyes will be upset when they realize what their kid is seeing.
The maker of the Peppa Pig-goes-to-the-dentist knock-off (there’s a real episode where Peppa gets her teeth cleaned, and I can tell you that it’s not scary at all) is “Baby Funny TV,” a channel with nearly two million “views” (probably mostly of kids who, like mine, are just looking for more, actual Peppa Pig) and tons of “parody” videos. The fact that 3-year-olds don’t “get” parody doesn’t matter. It’s false advertising in the truest sense: a confusing, vague use of adored characters used to sell to the easiest marks. The channel with the faux Doc videos I’ve seen, “Smile Kids TV,” has over 10 million views. And none of their videos are good.
And though I’m not arguing that it’s solely YouTube’s job to filter out this junk (every parent needs to keep an eye on what their kid is seeing, no matter how good the algorithm is), I am recognizing an interesting reality about “brands.” Which is this: the real Doc McStuffins is a known entity. It’s made by Disney. I know what we’re getting from it. Though I usually watch the episodes with my daughter, I don’t have to hang on every word in case something upsetting happens.
That’s because nothing upsetting happens. The shows are produced in some kind of factory where child psychology has been deeply examined and kids’ consumer needs tested at industrial levels. She never has worrying questions, and she comes away, occasionally, with a new vocabulary word or two. I have watched this show enough to know something important: I approve. I like Doc; I like Doc’s career-driven mother and her stay-at-home dad. I like the show, and I don’t mind my daughter watching it. I approve of this brand.
But when you strip away that safety, down in the muck and mystery of YouTube’s open platform, these brands become something much more sinister. A crass play for money where “related” content is the lazy work of some unknown animator with enough knowledge of SEO gaming and Microsoft Paint to be dangerous, or at least extremely annoying. And then I’m reminded, again, of why I didn’t let her watch TV until she was 2 years old.