Last night, YouTube added a new filtering mechanism called "Safety Mode" to the popular video sharing website used by millions. This option allows you to filter out the sort of videos you may find offensive, whether that's those featuring adult content or violence or some other objectionable content. It will even filter out profanity from the YouTube comments.
Using the new setting found at the bottom of any YouTube video page, you can switch Safety Mode on or off. And while parents will certainly be tempted to do so in an attempt to enable parental control mechanisms for the site, they should be warned that even the least tech-savvy youngster can easily shut this new feature in a minute or less.
Introducing "Safety Mode"
According to a post on Google's YouTube blog, Safety Mode is enabled via a setting found at the bottom of any video page. To switch it on, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and look for the new option listed directly under the "current location" and "current language" settings. (Note: this is apparently still being rolled out, you may not see it immediately).
If this is the first time you're accessing the setting, the link will read "Safety Mode is off." Simply click the link to set Safety Mode on by selecting "on" from the bulleted choices provided. Then click "Save" to close the configuration dialog box.
This will switch on Safety Mode for your current browsing session, but it will not make the change permanent. In order to "lock" in Safety Mode, you'll first need to sign into your YouTube account with your password and then enable the setting. From that point forward, the option will remain enabled whenever you are logged into your YouTube account.
Designed for Parents
While on the one hand, it's nice to have an option to keep the more offensive content out of sight, the majority of YouTube users aren't likely to be offended by the service's current crop of videos. YouTube already has relatively stringent guidelines to keep pornography, images of drug abuse, graphic violence and other objectionable material from being hosted on their service.
Instead, the YouTube users who are going to be most interested in a content filter like this are parents. Since YouTube is home to a number of kid-friendly videos including everything from the Muppets to the odd, yet strangely addictive YouTube character called "Fred", the site has remained one of the top destinations on the net for children.
However, the new "Safety Mode" does little to prevent kids from seeing the content parents want to hide. Although once on it does a reasonably good job at filtering YouTube's vast array of material, it's only a button-click away from being turned off again. And if you think your kids can't find the button in need of clicking then you just don't know kids very well. If anything, today's youngest generation of Internet users are more tech-savvy than their parents, often having to help mom and dad navigate around the Web, not the other way around.
Yes, It is Meant to be a Parental Control Mechanism
Some may argue that "Safety Mode" isn't really intended to be a parental control mechanism - it's just meant to be a handy filter for those of us with more delicate sensibilities. But YouTube's own demo video states otherwise. "Safety Mode is an opt-in setting that helps screen out potentially objectionable content that you may prefer not to see or don't want others in your family to stumble across while enjoying YouTube," says the narrator. Who do you suppose those "others in your family" are? Granddad? Uncle Bob? No. Clearly YouTube is positioning the new setting as an option for parents.
In fact, in April of last year, Google informed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that they had begun work on a new content filter for precisely this purpose. The document (viewable here) states that Google was providing the information to the government agency in response to the proceeding initiated by the Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007, a policy created to examine the blocking technologies available on the Web. In the document, Google states:
YouTube engineers are working on a number of initiatives designed to give users and families greater control to moderate their YouTube experience, including the ability to filter video comments they find inappropriate. This new feature, which is currently being tested in the United States, gives users control to set their own comment preferences by enabling them to choose whether to see all video comments, no comments, or filtered comments.
This seems to show that Safety Mode, first and foremost, was designed to be a sort of parental control mechanism and not just another handy setting. But allowing anyone to click a button to enable or disable the filtering mechanism simply isn't good enough protection. Even if it's switched it on for a particular user account, the user can switch it off again just by scrolling to the bottom of the page.
It may have been better if YouTube had introduced special "kid accounts" which forced users on a particular computer to sign in in order to see YouTube videos. Once enabled on a PC, visitors to youtube.com could have been presented with a sign-in box, not the YouTube homepage. The accounts could then be managed by parents who could enable and disable the filter at will. Instead, the "Safety Mode" feature looks as if it's an attempt to placate the FCC and worried parents while not actually providing a anything the average web-savvy kid couldn't figure out in 30 seconds flat. So parents, enable the filter if you must, but remember, no technology - and especially not this one - can serve as a replacement for actual parenting.