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How a kid-friendly app leaks mature content via YouTube


With the rose-hued glasses of nostalgia firmly in place, today's tech-tangled parents may long for a simpler pre-Internet time when kids simply got into fights or stayed out too late, rather than getting tangled up in sexting mishaps or giving out inappropriate personal info on Facebook.

For all technology's hazards, however, it has given moms and dads the opportunity to engage and explore our kids' preferences in media and leisure activities collaboratively with them. When we're enabled by parental controls or app ratings to help our kids make good choices, that's a win. When the rating systems or the restrictions don't encompass an edge case, unfortunately, that's a problem.

Reader Chris A. emailed us to point out a subtle gap in the App Store's rating system when it comes to games and other apps aimed at kids. The example app here is the Avengers Initiative game (US$6.99 and rated 9+ for cartoon violence), but several others exhibit the same potential issue.

In the settings and social content area for Avengers Initiative, there's an option to visit the "Marvel XP" microsite for supplementary content, character profiles, videos and so on. In order to get to the good stuff, you've got to register a Marvel account; in fairness to the company and to Apple, there is an age challenge during registration that requires you to say you're 13 or older in order to sign up. A parent might sign up for a child, however, on the assumption that the web content in Marvel XP would be consistent with the rest of the app.

Here's where it gets dicey: the video content in Marvel XP is hosted on YouTube, so if a young person taps on the Hulk's video introduction the player window that comes up includes the YouTube player bar on the bottom. Guess what happens if you tap the YouTube logo in the bottom right corner? Indeed, the device screen is taken over with the full interface, including the search button. Funky sexy adult-type videos, here we come!

You can see the steps to reproduce this in the video below (hosted, un-ironically, by YouTube).

Sure, it's an obscure pathway to get to the fun stuff. But this is likely reproducible in most applications with embedded YouTube content, regardless of rating or intended audience. Disabling the YouTube app (pre-iOS 6) doesn't block it, nor would putting restrictions on Safari. It's simply not considered in the ratings matrix.

The good news is, there may be a simple fix for these apps that keeps the video, but without the "let me see the whole world" button. YouTube's "modestbranding" flag, applied to the embed HTML snippet, should permit developers to embed video sans logo & link which may in turn keep the tots from meandering around. If the Ghostbusters and Avengers app teams took this simple step, that would help Chris's peace of mind when it comes to his kids' iPad time. Developers who don't have the correct embedding setup should probably let parents know that the apps they're browsing include a video escape clause.

Another way around the whole problem: game devs, don't host your video content for your sub-17+ apps on YouTube at all. Pony up for a paid account on Viddler or simply run your own streaming server, instead.

Rating apps on content and appropriateness is never going to be a perfect system. Most apps that provide web browser functionality should technically be rated 17+, which has been a point of contention for years now. On some level, that flag makes some sense; there's no way for the iOS restrictions system to control where those apps end up on the big scary Web.

Different families will have different tolerances for exposure to edgy or inappropriate content on YouTube. (I think I hit my limit this weekend when the Harry Potter videogame playthrough chosen by my eight-year-old turned out to include a rather impressive amount of profanity.) But it's harder to have the conversation about what's appropriate or allowed if you don't even know about the library of out-there videos that's hiding in plain sight, right behind the Hulk.

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