About a year ago, Zerius Zontay discovered that his family's work was no longer appearing on YouTube Kids. He and his wife, Symphony, regularly post short clips on the giant video-sharing site, featuring their three sons, who play with toys, sing songs and joke around.
Zontay wanted to get their clips back on YouTube's app for kids, a destination where the video site tries to direct viewers who are under the age of 13. For months, Zontay lobbied YouTube, repeatedly sending emails to community managers, to no avail. Then, in June, as protests against police misconduct spurred a national conversation on race, his frustration simmered over.
"I'm seeing YouTube promoting Black Lives Matter, but with the Kids app, they're showing that certain kids don't matter," said Zontay, a former music teacher. "You scroll for a long, long, long, long time before you get to a Black face."
In recent years, YouTube has come under intense pressure for how it handles kids content, both for letting too many underage people use YouTube's main site and for allowing harmful programming in the Kids app.
In 2017, YouTube published a "Field Guide for Creating Family Content," and began restricting more types of programming from appearing in the app. Last year, the Zontays' channel disappeared from YouTube Kids at a time when the video site was removing thousands of channels in bulk to try and cleanse the app of inappropriate content.
When reached for comment, a YouTube spokesperson sent a statement in response. "We are committed to supporting and amplifying Black creators on YouTube Kids and have launched programming initiatives designed to highlight equality, racial justice, and activism for kids of different ages, but we recognize there's more to be done," it read.
YouTube, part of Alphabet Inc.'s Google, pitches itself as an equalizer in the media world, allowing anyone to upload videos and amass an audience. But some of YouTube's video producers say the company hasn't done enough to support diversity. In June, four Black YouTube creators sued the company for racial discrimination, arguing that the service automatically removed their videos. YouTube has said it doesn't discriminate and that the suit is without merit.
On June 11, YouTube announced a new $100 million fund for Black creators.
The opacity surrounding YouTube's recommendations, rules and content-moderation process is a frequent source of frustration among its users. YouTube staff members don't select the videos or the content creators that get promoted, instead letting its software surface programming based on viewing habits.
The Zontays were never notified directly that their programming had been removed from the Kids app. Instead, they learned about it when a fan reached out and asked why their videos were missing. While they waited for an answer from YouTube, the Zontays saw a post on Facebook from a YouTube creator with the inverse problem: Their video was inadvertently appearing on the Kids app even though they had uploaded footage not intended for minors. "It makes no sense," said Symphony Zontay.
Melanie, the owner of CrayCrayFamilyTV, a Black family-friendly vlogging channel, said she has experienced similarly puzzling problems. (She asked that Bloomberg News not use her last name for privacy reasons.) Videos of her two daughters, Naiah and Eli, have been removed from YouTube Kids without explanation while the family's clips of doll videos have remained on the app.
She suspects YouTube's algorithm may be at work, surfacing similar videos from families with a different racial profile. "It's more digestible to see very lily-white families doing things," she said. "It's just unfortunate."
A company spokeswoman told Bloomberg News that some channels have been removed because a number of their videos -- showing the binge consumption of junk food or "pranks where kids were in distress" -- were "not enriching or appropriate" for children. The company said that many of those channels have since "adjusted" their content and, as a result, would be reinstated on the Kids app. YouTube didn't specify which channels had run afoul of the rules.
Zerius Zontay said his family has not produced any inappropriate videos and pointed to several examples of clips currently available on the Kids app that feature pranks and skits involving junk food. "We do not have this type of content, but others do and they are on the app!" he wrote in an email.
YouTube Kids draws a fraction of YouTube's main audience, but the app is where parents, educators and YouTube steer children. Last fall, after settling with U.S. regulators for violating children's-privacy laws, YouTube began promoting the app with videos that creators or the company deemed "Made for Kids." For millions of children, YouTube has replaced television as the central medium for passing the time and learning how the world works. There are Black creators on YouTube Kids, and the site's top-earning channel, Ryan's World, features an Asian-American family.
Even after being kicked off the Kids app, the Zontay family's programming continued to thrive on YouTube's main site. Their primary channels, ZZ Kids TV and Goo Goo Colors, have more than 6.5 million subscribers -- just shy of Nickelodeon's numbers on YouTube. In 2019, the two channels brought in over 97 million views on the Kids app before being removed, according to Zerius Zontay.
"In parts of the country where they aren't seeing Black faces, how else are they going to learn about diversity if not through YouTube?" said Melissa Hunter, head of Family Video Network, a multichannel network that represents the Zontays.
On June 28, the Zontays posted a 52-minute video about the issue. In it, Zerius, Symphony and their three sons are wearing shirts that read, "Black Entertainment Matters." A few days later, they found that their channels had been reinstated on YouTube Kids with no explanation.