Why YouTube Wants to Hide These LGBT Videos From Young People

YouTube vows to refine its ‘restricted mode’ function, so it doesn’t prevent LGBT youth from watching uncontroversial pop and advice videos.

It shouldn’t be controversial that all LGBT people were once LGBT kids. But it is.

And if LGBT people needed yet another reminder that our very existence is seen as inherently inappropriate for children—after the ridiculous boycotting of the Beauty and the Beast remake over its “exclusively gay moment"—a little-understood YouTube feature seems to have sent some users that same message this weekend.

LGBT videomakers were alarmed to learn late last week that YouTube’s Restricted Mode—an optional and off-by-default feature that uses “community flagging, age-restrictions, and other signals” to hide “potentially inappropriate content”—was filtering out some of their videos, even those without adult language or explicit content.

But Restricted Mode, a longstanding feature once known as “Safety Mode,” does not indiscriminately filter out all LGBT content, leaving many YouTubers scratching their heads at the workings of the underlying algorithm.

British YouTuber Rowan Ellis, who identifies as queer, drew international media attention to the problem in a video posted on March 16 in which she claimed that Restricted Mode is “filtering out a hell of a lot of LGBT content” including about 40 of her own videos. Some of her peers, she noted, were confused by which videos Restricted Mode affected and which it left unscathed.

“No one’s really sure how it’s working but we know that it has some kind of targeted effect for LGBT individuals,” she noted.

The problem was widespread, affecting both little-known and high-profile LGBT content creators. Gay YouTube megastar Tyler Oakley announced that a video he made about inspirational black LGBT trailblazers was hidden by Restricted Mode.

Lesbian pop duo Tegan and Sara noticed that a music video for their song “U-Turn,” which features no sexual content and no adult language whatsoever, was also hidden when the mode was activated, as Billboard noted.

“Our dancing IS pretty bad. Must be why?” the duo joked on Twitter.

I activated Restricted Mode on my own YouTube account and discovered that a wide range of LGBT content was now hidden from view, replaced with a notification that the videos in question were “unavailable” unless the mode was deactivated.

That test included several transgender makeup tutorials; coming out videos for Trevor Moran, Shane Dawson, and others; a documentary about transgender children; a video from GLSEN inviting LGBT youth to participate in a survey about bullying; an adorable gay proposal video; an ABC News video in which a 14-year-old transgender girl shares an empowering message about surviving middle school; and many more.

Many of these videos could serve as lifelines for LGBT youth looking for resources that are not available to them at home or at school.

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With LGBT issues left out of the vast majority of health classes in U.S. schools, YouTube has become an important platform for young people looking for answers and affirmation. Some coming out videos have view counts in the millions—a testament to their importance for a rising generation of LGBT kids. But for children whose parents and schools have activated Restricted Mode on all available browsers, many of these videos would be inaccessible.

I looked for the videos mentioned above in Restricted Mode on Monday, the day after the YouTube Creators Twitter account had already issued a formal statement reaffirming their pride in representing LGBT voices and promising to investigate the community’s “concerns.”

YouTube apologized again midday on Monday with another tweet from the Creators account:

Restricted Mode is clearly designed to be used by parents and schools to block out content deemed inappropriate for younger users.

An official 2015 YouTube Help video about the mode features a puppet, intended to represent a “nephew” who “comes [over] for a visit” and who might be exposed to “objectionable videos and comments” if the mode weren’t activated.

A YouTube Help page for the mode notes that “computers in libraries, universities, and other public institutions, and other public institutions may have Restricted Mode enabled by the system administrator.” The mode can be locked in place with a password, effectively preventing youth from accessing the content.

So why was a video of two lesbians singing and doing goofy dances objectionable for kids?

I asked YouTube for more clarity on the algorithm and a spokesperson sent me the same statement sent to other media outlets, pledging to refine the “automated system” behind the filtering: “Restricted Mode is an optional feature used by a very small subset of users who want to have a more limited YouTube experience. Videos that contain LGBT topics are available in Restricted Mode, however, some videos that cover subjects like health, politics and sexuality may not appear for users and institutions that choose to use this feature. We recognize that some videos are incorrectly labeled by our automated system and we realize it’s very important to get this right. We’re working hard to make some improvements.”

The rubric of “health, politics and sexuality,” however, presents a major obstacle for LGBT content creators hoping to reach a young audience. Three out of the four letters in the LGBT acronym refer to sexual orientations.

The LGBT community faces significant health disparities that are pertinent for adults and minors alike. And all LGBT people are politicized simply because we are alive and ask for equal rights—a problem that applies especially to transgender children today.

This is an age-old problem that erupts every time there is a controversy around LGBT curriculum in public schools—as there was in California last year when the state board of education voted to include information about LGBT Americans in public school classes—or whenever LGBT themes appear in children’s entertainment, as the latest Beauty and the Beast dustup proves.

Fears of “LGBT indoctrination” are alive and well, as a quick scan of socially conservative news sites can tell you. Under that paranoid worldview, children are innocents who must be protected from the insidious influence of LGBT teachers and onscreen same-sex smooches.

The uncomfortable truth is that young children are and can be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming.

As the American Psychological Association notes, sexual orientation “typically emerge[s] between middle childhood and early adolescence,” sometimes “for a long time before they actually pursue relationships with other people.” And some transgender people—myself included—“can trace their transgender identities and feelings back to their earliest memories,” as the APA also notes. (If YouTube had been around when I was in middle school, my life may have been a lot easier.)

YouTube certainly isn’t of a piece with far-right groups that would deny these medical realities.

The video sharing service’s parent company Google has scored a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index and has a long history of opposing anti-LGBT legislation. YouTube itself has also produced videos highlighting and celebrating LGBT content creators and they’ve pledged to work on this problem in the future.

Ironically, though, some of the same creators that YouTube has proudly featured in the past also have some of their content mysteriously filtered out when Restricted Mode is activated. And in its attempt to give parents and schools the option to block mature content, YouTube, however unwittingly, could be making life harder for LGBT kids.

According to GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey, less than a quarter of LGBTQ students saw “positive representations” of their community or their history at school. Less than half said they could find information on LGBT issues in their school library.

Only about half said they could find “LGBT-related information online via school computers,” largely due to content blockers in public schools that filter out LGBT content. And only 12 percent of millennials responding to a Public Religion Research Institute survey said that “the subject of same-sex relationships” showed up in their sex education classes.

In this information-deprived environment, LGBT children—who undeniably exist and whose lives are politicized through no fault of their own—need access to information that can change, and even save, their lives. Until YouTube works out the kinks with Restricted Mode, some of these kids will have a harder time finding that knowledge.

Update 11:00 AM 3/21/17: In a YouTube Creator blog post Monday evening, the company's vice president of product management Johanna Wright apologized in detail for some of the "mistakes" in Restricted Mode's automated system and announced that some videos, like YouTuber Calum McSwiggan's "Coming Out To Grandma," had been manually reactivated. Only about 1.5 percent of daily views, Wright noted, come from users who have Restricted Mode activated but YouTube still cares about "the principle of anyone having access to important content.""The bottom line is that this feature isn’t working the way it should," Wright wrote. "We’re sorry and we’re going to fix it."