When Eric Steele and Tania Lewis’s nine-year-old daughter logged into her online school account on a recent remote learning day, she completed her assignment that included watching a video posted on YouTube.
Then she navigated to YouTube videos featuring her favorite singer Ariana Grande, followed by videos that debated “Skinny Versus Pretty: Which is Better?”— content that her parents would normally have restricted, but she was able to access thanks to a loophole in the New York City Department of Education’s setup that does not allow parents to limit access to YouTube videos.
“Getting control of her device has been a struggle, and we’ve just felt completely in the dark in terms of having to figure it out on our own. We just in the last few days figured out that there’s a really good reason why nothing we’re doing is working because they’re able to completely bypass everything,” said Steele, a project manager who lives in Bushwick.
Even though their daughter is using the family desktop computer that has parental access controls, once she logs into Google Classrooms for her school account, she seems to have free reign over what she can watch on Youtube, Lewis said—and the settings will not allow edits to restrict content.
Lewis likened the inability to set online parental controls to “a farm without a fence, where they’re just able to wander around.”
“There’s no way to block that, other than some really convoluted hack that a parent would have to go and just figure it out on our own,” said Lewis, a graphic designer.
The DOE said it has “strict safety policies” and that the school-issued accounts do not have access to logging into YouTube. But the DOE acknowledged that students can view YouTube videos without logging in, and is unable “to control the filtering on YouTube’s platform. In addition, we cannot control what content students access on a personal device.”
“The online safety of our students is critical in the digital age, and we have strict settings and safety policies in place to protect students while they are using DOE learning platforms and devices. YouTube is blocked through the central G-suite account and all our iPads are equipped with content filtering applications,” Sarah Casasnovas, spokesperson for the DOE, said in a statement.
The DOE said it is also trying to standardize filter controls across the school system and is undergoing the “transition (of) all schools to the central DOE G-suite to ensure we have universal security settings and filters in place.”
YouTube’s parent company Google said in a statement that it’s up to individual school districts to set content controls for their students: “G Suite and YouTube provide controls to admins on what content can be accessed via a G Suite for Education account (regardless of device the student uses)…They can allow/list only certain videos or channels. They can also choose to use the strict mode which applies automated filtering,” said Google spokesperson Sarah Travaglini in a statement. There are extra controls for Google products, such as the popular Chromebook laptops, Travaglini said. “They can also restrict access to YouTube content on School-managed Chromebooks.”
The access seems to span multiple brands of devices. Another parent told Steele and Lewis that their kid was able to watch graphic car crash videos on a DOE-issued iPad. Carrie McLaren, a Brooklyn parent, wrote on the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy’s website that her middle-school-aged son “could log into his Chromebook using his school account and potentially access porn sites, spend the day watching YouTube and ads hawking age-inappropriate games, or do pretty much anything else on the internet, unguarded.”
When the city’s public school system shut down in mid-March 2020 because of the spreading pandemic and all students switched to remote learning, Steele and Lewis said they tried to be cautious about how much access their two kids had to the internet.
“We were very cautious and tried to set up all of the rigorous [settings] so we have full control over the device. And we’ve been scratching our heads for months trying to figure out, ‘is she reading our passwords, does she just know everything that we’re doing and how to undo it?’ But no, it’s none of those,” Steele said. While they’ve spoken to their children’s teachers about other technical issues, “it shouldn’t be up to their individual teachers to know how to mitigate these kind of problems,” he said.
“I know other parents that are software developers have been able to put some more controls on their children’s devices, but that’s a whole other job. Parents are stretched,” Lewis added. “We can’t be hackers, too.”