Even in economically troubled times, Christmas is still a prime opportunity for children to be showered with the latest in electronic gadgetry, from iPods to laptops. For decades, parents have worried about children wandering into the scariest corners of television. But with new technologies come a lot of new and even scarier trails to follow.
Imagine a young teen with a new laptop, and add YouTube, now owned by Google, which performs 63 percent of the world's Internet searches. It's not a farfetched thought: Nearly half of boys and a third of girls ages 13-17 name YouTube as one of their top three favorite websites. The volume of videos posted on YouTube is mind-boggling. Google estimates that 13 hours of content are uploaded every minute.
What's being posted for the youngster to watch? YouTube users can flag a video if they think it violates YouTube's community guidelines, which prohibit sexually explicit videos, graphic violence and hate speech. But how can monitors keep up with a 13 new hours of video a minute?
Parents might rest easy. A young girl will probably make safe searches, like for Hannah Montana. That search gives you safe videos -- but also advertising links that would worry any responsible parent. Right now on YouTube, a Hannah Montana search gives you an ad that says "Miss Horrorfest III: The Hottest Submissions So Far! Watch the Incredible Semi-Finalists." One click later, that girl will be watching an intense set of bloody horror-movie clips.
What does "Horrorfest III" have to do with Hannah Montana? Aren't the links a search generates supposed to match the search term? That's often true. But the "Horrorfest III" ad comes up for searches for almost anything, from the Washington Redskins to "Lord of the Rings" to Brent Bozell (maybe I deserve it). That would also include searches for other Disney kid stars, from the Jonas Brothers to "High School Musical" actors Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens.
YouTube has become the hottest, biggest name in video sites, but Google won't reveal how many internal reviewers it's hired to check for objectionable videos. The New York Times magazine was recently encouraged to look for monitors in Google's California headquarters and found a few twentysomethings in jeans "with porn flickering on their laptops."