YouTube restricts kids’ ability to see some gun content

YouTube, the world’s largest video sharing platform, will make it more difficult for young users to stumble across certain gun content. Starting on June 18, the company will no longer allow users under the age of 18 to view videos involving homemade or automatic firearms as well as those showcasing certain controversial weapon modifications. It will also prohibit videos depicting the removal of firearm safety mechanisms like fixed magazine devices, altogether. The changes come on the heels of heated criticism from public advocacy groups who feared YouTube’s previous policies could lead children to develop unhealthy, and even potentially dangerous, obsessions with guns. 

The streaming giant outlined its coming changes in a blog post published this week. In addition to the new restrictions on videos showing homemade and automatic weapons, YouTube says it will also age-restrict content featuring bump stocks, or other attachments that allow convert a single-shot firearm into a fully automatic weapon. Similarly, videos showing high-capacity magazines or homemade suppressors—which quiet the sound a gun makes when fired—will be prohibited for users under the age of 18. These types of videos wouldn’t ordinarily violate YouTube’s rules, but the company says it’s restricting them anyway because it believes the content isn’t “appropriate for viewers under 18.”

YouTube spokesperson Javier Hernandez told Popular Science the changes were part of YouTube’s “continued efforts to maintain policies that reflect the current state of content” on the platform.” 

“3D printing has become more readily available in recent years so we’re expanding our restrictions on content involving homemade firearms,” Hernandez said. “We regularly review our guidelines and consult with outside experts to make sure we are drawing the line at the right place.”

YouTube policies come amid surge in ‘Ghost Gun’ confiscations

The policy changes are attempting to keep pace with a shifting firearm culture placing greater emphasis on homemade, notoriously difficult to trace, guns. These weapons, often referred to as “ghost guns” can be manufactured in whole by individuals with access to a 3D printer, or assembled with various parts. These weapon systems are on the rise. A 2023 Department of Justice report estimates crimes involving ghost guns had risen by more than 1,000% since 2017. More than a dozen states have introduced new legislation cracking down on ghost guns with New York state even going as far as to propose a bill that would require a background check to purchase a 3D printer. 

Importantly, YouTube says its new policy only applies to real-life depictions of firearms. That means films, sketches, or other artistic projects that depict DIY or automatic guns will still be allowed. YouTube will also make certain exceptions for guns appearing in news stories or other instances they deem are in the public interest. Videos found in violation of the new rules will be removed and the video owner will receive an email from YouTube. First-time violators will receive a warning and have the opportunity to take a “policy training” to have that warning removed. Multiple violations, however, will result in a YouTube strike. Users who amass three strikes can have their channel terminated. Stikes related to the new rules won’t apply to videos uploaded before June 18. 

The policy shift also comes roughly one year after the Tech Transparency Project (TPP), an advocacy group, released a shocking report showing hundreds of examples of the platform allegedly recommending videos about guns and gun violence to young boys. In some cases, those recommended videos instructed boys how to convert guns into fully automatic weapons. Other recommended videos allegedly depicted school shootings. Prior to that report, an NBC News investigation from 2021 identified dozens of ghost gun assembly videos hosted on the platform, in violation of YouTube’s own policies. 

These, and other reports highlighting YouTube’s firearm content attracted scrutiny from prominent political figures including Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Bragg, who was the judge involved in the case that led to former President Donald Trump’s recent criminal conviction, recently sent a letter to YouTube CEO Neal Mohan admonishing YouTube for “hosting tutorials on how to manufacture deadly weapons.” The NYC DA welcomed YouTube’s recent changes. 

“We applaud YouTube for implementing these important commonsense fixes to their community guidelines, which will further limit dangerous videos and minimize firearm content for minors,” Bragg said in a statement. 

This isn’t the first time YouTube has placed restrictions on firearm content. Prior to these changes, the company already prohibited videos, regardless of audience age, that demonstrate how to build a firearm. Other videos attempting to sell weapons were also prohibited, as are any-live streams depicting a user holding a gun.

How exactly YouTube intends to enforce this increasingly nuanced approach to gun videos remains an open question. YouTube told Popular Science it relies on a mixture of automated and human systems to enforce its content policies. In instances where users upload content that is very similar to previously removed videos, those automated systems can potentially remove the material before it’s ever viewed by a human. Other scenarios could be trickier. Researchers from Brown University’s School of Public Health in 2022 estimated roughly 3.5% of US adults, or around nine million people, had consumed some gun-related content while watching YouTube. The sheer amount of gun-related content uploaded daily from the platforms active “gunfluencer” community could test YouTube content moderation capabilities.

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