The Algorithm That Makes Preschoolers Obsessed With YouTube Kids

Toddlers crave power. Too bad for them, they have none. Hence the tantrums and absurd demands. (No, I want this banana, not that one, which looks identical in every way but which you just started peeling and is therefore worthless to me now.)

They just want to be in charge! This desire for autonomy clarifies so much about the behavior of a very small human. It also begins to explain the popularity of YouTube among toddlers and preschoolers, several developmental psychologists told me.

If you don’t have a 3-year-old in your life, you may not be aware of YouTube Kids, an app that’s essentially a stripped-down version of the original video blogging site, with videos filtered by the target audience’s age. And because the mobile app is designed for use on a phone or tablet, kids can tap their way across a digital ecosystem populated by countless videos—all conceived with them in mind.

The videos that surface on the app are generated by YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which takes into account a user’s search history, viewing history, and other data.* The algorithm is basically a funnel through which every YouTube video is poured—with only a few making it onto a person’s screen.

This recommendation engine poses a difficult task, simply because of the scale of the platform. “YouTube recommendations are responsible for helping more than a billion users discover personalized content from an ever-growing corpus of videos,” researchers at Google, which owns YouTube, wrote in a 2016 paper about the algorithm. That includes many hours of video uploaded to the site every second of every day. Making a recommendation system that’s worthwhile is “extremely challenging,” they wrote, because the algorithm has to continuously sift through a mind-boggling trove of content and instantly identify the freshest and most relevant videos—all while knowing how to ignore the noise.

The architecture of YouTube’s recommendation system, in…

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