Consumer Reports: Is YouTube watching your kids?

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Nina Pineda reports on YouTube gathing data on children's viewing habits to sell ad content (WPVI)

Kids love watching videos on YouTube, but what parents may not realize is that data on their viewing habits could be gathered, analyzed and then used to sell ads.

Now, a collection of nearly two dozen advocacy groups, including Consumers Union, say Google, which owns the site, may be violating a law meant protect the privacy of children online.

Eight-year-old Maisie and her little sister Violet love huddling over a tablet to watch videos on YouTube.

"They have an interest in something, and they'll type it in to see if there's a video about that," mom Michelle VanNess said. "They do a lot of funny songs."

It is content she says is clearly made for kids. But while they are watching YouTube, YouTube may be watching them -- gathering data on their viewing habits that advocates say is a clear violation of COPPA, or the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

"It's meant to prevent companies from collecting data about children, and then using it to do things like target advertising to them without the parental consent," said Robert Richter, with Consumer Reports .

YouTube's terms of service specify that the site is for users 13 and older, and Google says it offers a YouTube Kids App that's fully COPPA compliant. But not all parents are using it. According to one report, 80 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 use regular YouTube daily, and advocates say the company knows it.

"You have to understand that these companies make their money by knowing who their viewers are," Richter said. "YouTube can tell the giant advertising machine behind it, these are definitely going to hit some kids and so you can show some specific ads there."

The 22 advocacy groups banded together to file a complaint with the FTC, estimating Google has collected data on nearly 25 million children without their parent's explicit consent.

Consumers Union says parents probably don't even realize it's happening.

"As a parent, you need to understand that your kids watching YouTube is like you watching YouTube," Richter said. "And Google is collecting the same information."

If the FTC chooses to investigate and discovers violations, they could fine Google about $41,000 per individual violation.

"I don't think it's completely fair game," VanNess said.

A spokesperson for YouTube sent a statement to Consumer Reports, saying that protecting kids and families is a top priority. They are currently reviewing the complaint and will "evaluate if there are things we can do to improve." They also encourage parents to use the YouTube Kids app, which is specifically designed for children.

To read the full story from Consumer Reports, CLICK HERE.

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