Inside YouTube, leaders look for “balance” after scandals

Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, is staring at a picture I’ve pulled up on my phone. It’s of my 5-year-old cousin, with brown curly hair and a wide smile. He’s big into zombies, a fascination that might be unusual for kids his age, and for a while was obsessed with the Slender Man, an urban legend who stalks children. He found both on YouTube.

When I saw him a few weeks ago, he was grumbling to his aunt about being relegated to watching YouTube Kids, a version of the Google-owned video app for children under 13. He wanted to watch the full-on video streaming service, because that’s where the zombie videos are.

I tell this story to Mohan, YouTube’s de facto No. 2 executive after CEO Susan Wojcicki, as we’re discussing recent troubles at YouTube involving children on the platform, including pedophilia rings, as well as YouTube Kids, which has struggled to gain traction. We’re sitting in his office at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, about 15 miles south of San Francisco. I tell him I know the onus is also on parents, but YouTube knows there are children on its site who shouldn’t be there. I ask Mohan, 45, to imagine my cousin is in the room and to explain to him why he shouldn’t spend so much time watching YouTube.

Mohan, who has three kids, including a 5-year-old daughter, doesn’t address the zombies. Instead — ever the product guy — he extols the virtues of YouTube Kids by highlighting parental controls for setting limits on the type and amount of content children can watch.

“There’s a limit,” says Mohan. “Just like for every other type of content, there’s a limit to it.” He says YouTube Kids has 20 million weekly users – minuscule by YouTube standards of 2 billion monthly users on the main app – but says it’s “an area of investment”.

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