Photo via Lucélia Ribeiro/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The trouble with censoring Kiddle, the new ‘Google for kids’

How much are we really protecting children by withholding basic information from them?

Internet Culture

Published Mar 4, 2016   Updated Feb 29, 2020, 10:42 am CST

The “Google for kids” search engine Kiddle just launched and has already been embroiled in controversy about the way it filters online content.

The search engine’s homepage states that it is a “visual search engine for kids, powered by editors and Google safe-search.” A self-described “kid safe visual search engine” whose search results are “family friendly” and “either hand-picked and checked by our editors or filtered by Google safe-search, you know you get kid-oriented results without any explicit content. In case some bad words are present in a search query, our guard robot will block the search.”

At first blush this all sounds like a good idea. There is in fact a lot of content on the Internet that children shouldn’t be exposed to. But the biggest issue with Kiddle (so far) are some of the words that their robot deems “bad.”

Uterus is one of these bad words. Another is labia. Still others are: Safe sex, vagina, penis, testicles, and semen.

Watching a judgey blue robot appear with a message that reads “Oops, try again!” was exasperating, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these terms, nor should children be limited in their access to or knowledge of them. 

Watching a judgey blue robot appear with a message that reads “Oops, try again!” was exasperating, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these terms, nor should children be limited in their access to or knowledge of them.

Recent research has demonstrated that school children who do not receive comprehensive sexual education are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and to experience increased rates of teen pregnancies. However, as of December, only 19 states in the United States required schools to teach “medically accurate” information about sex and reproductive health. Further, Planned Parenthood found in 2012 that only 42 percent of parents had conversations with their kids about sex “many times.”

In the absence of adequate information from school and possibly the option of having thorough conversations with parents, the primary outlet for a child’s research on their bodies, puberty, and sex will inevitably be the Internet.

Contrary to some popularly held beliefs, children and adolescents can handle information about sex. Not only that, they deserve information about sex and reproduction, because that their physical and emotional health is at stake.

Though Kiddle isn’t the only one to blame here. There isn’t a great deal of age-appropriate sexual education material online that is written for an audience of kids. There are plenty of resources for parents and educators, but very few that assume children as the audience. There’s a real need for educators, medical professionals, and youth advocacy groups to make age-appropriate material about human anatomy and reproduction.

It’s clear that the creators of Kiddle wanted to build a corner of the Internet where children would be ostensibly “safe” in a very vague and conservative sense of the term, but how much are we really protecting children by withholding basic information about their bodies? 

However, there’s certainly an immediate need for Kiddle to cease referring to terms such as uterus and penis as “bad.” Doing so only reinforces the idea that there is something shameful, dirty, or inherently wrong with our bodies–a dangerous message that children are exposed to enough without Kiddle reaffirming it in bold, angry letters.

To Kiddle’s small credit, however, a search for the terms transgender, gay, bisexual, and lesbian return some helpful results for children of LGBT parents and about the experiences of some LGBT kids. But this was not the case when the site first launched; these terms were initially blocked as well. But after some well-deserved uproar, the search engine began returning results for LGBT-specific terms, and ceased using an error message that referenced the use of “bad words” when a blocked word is searched. Clearly the need for this content is real, but it begs the question as to why there isn’t more information related to other gender identities and human biology in general.

It’s clear that the creators of Kiddle wanted to build a corner of the Internet where children would be ostensibly “safe” in a very vague and conservative sense of the term, but how much are we really protecting children by withholding basic information about their bodies? Instead of taking the easy route and filtering anything that could be sexual, Kiddle needs to do the more difficult and nuanced work of finding age-appropriate information related to biological search terms, and the rest of us need to step up and make sure kids have good information when they’re looking for information about their own bodies.

Elizabeth King is a Chicago-based writer covering news and politics. She also enjoys writing cultural criticism and pop culture analysis. Follow her on Twitter@ekingc.

Photo via Lucélia Ribeiro/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Mar 4, 2016, 6:37 pm CST