What is YouTube’s “Restricted Mode” and Why Does it Matter?

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“YouTube is Anti-LGBT?” This is the title of a now-viral video created by YouTuber Rowan Ellis which recently caused the #YouTubeIsOver hashtag to trend on Twitter. In the five-minute clip, Ellis points out that the site’s Restricted Mode, a feature introduced several years ago to ensure a “family-friendly” version of the site, disproportionately blocks the content of LGBTQ+ creators.

Trans make-up tutorials, discussions of sexuality and even music videos have all been censored by these guidelines, a fact which YouTube recently apologized for in a statement which called the censorship “confusing and upsetting.”

On top of filtering out “inappropriate” content, the rules also have an effect on monetization. In a nutshell, popular users can gain ad revenue from their videos but only if they meet certain standards and are deemed “safe” enough for advertisers.

So, not only is LGBTQ+ content being blocked, creators are also having their income effectively reduced for talking about issues which could prove invaluable for teenagers worldwide struggling to understand their identity.

An important fact often omitted from these discussions is that not only has LGBTQ+ content been affected by the restrictions; gaming channels have felt the repercussions of these algorithms, as have creators discussing issues including feminism, atheism and mental health.

High-profile users have spoken out on the restrictions, explaining that it can be extremely difficult to follow guidelines as even a swear word can result in a video being demonetized.

The issue here, however, is one of uncertainty. Even a tweet posted on the official YouTube Creators account explained that “videos that discuss more sensitive issues” may not be available – a transparent yet extremely vague explanation which, essentially, offers no enforceable guidelines to users intending to bypass the restrictions.

The definition of “sensitive issues” is ambiguous at best, but it’s worth taking a look at wider cultural assumptions of what should be deemed “appropriate” and what should not.

Topics like gender and sexuality have always been a societal bone of contention – some are reluctant to discuss them altogether, whereas others often mislabel their discussion as “promotion” as opposed to “debate” or “education.”

This implication dates back for decades – one of the most famous examples was UK bill Section 28, which “prohibited local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality and prevented councils spending money on educational materials and projects perceived to promote a gay lifestyle.” This legislation was twisted to justify the dismissal of gay teachers nationwide, whereas others used it to sexualize LGBTQ+ identities – a sexualization still implicit in the suggestion that these creators aren’t “family-friendly.”

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It’s the same rhetoric which saw religious groups paint trans women as sexual predators in a fight to exclude them from female restrooms, or imply that “queer” is directly synonymous with “kinky.”

Ironically, this stigma means that sex education is mandatory in schools whereas same-sex education is not – even the education we get is often rudimentary due to the embarrassment attached to open discussions of sex, meaning that most of us are left to discover it through porn and awkward (at best) first experiences.

Most of us (unfortunately) remember our first awkward sex chats with our parents, but this is a luxury rarely afforded to LGBTQ+ youth as “coming out” at a young age is often met with the response that the whole thing is probably just a phase.

This is, of course, the best-case scenario – more extreme reactions involve conversion therapy (still legal in certain U.S. states), violence or homelessness.

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This lack of education extends to issues of gender identity, a topic rarely discussed in the vast majority of schools. These may be complex issues which are difficult to explain, but their invisibility is having a disastrous effect on youth worldwide. For example, a study conducted in 2014 showed that 41% of trans people in the U.S. had attempted to take their own life at least once, whereas last year was the most deadly year on record for trans women – particularly trans women of color.

This is not to say that YouTube is the key problem – it isn’t. The site as a platform has given not only a voice but also an income to young LGBTQ+ creatives worldwide, a fact which shouldn’t be forgotten.

Despite reports which seem to indicate that keywords like “gay” and “sexuality” have been targeted by the restrictions, it’s worth remembering that the site is, at its core, a big business, and big business relies on advertisers. Naturally, these companies often don’t want to align themselves with discussions of these issues because they’re divisive.

Even though more brands than ever have taken a stand by declaring their political allegiances, making general statements about love and acceptance and incorporating the words of famous activists in their advertisements, there are still strict guidelines which go some way to explaining Restricted Mode – a fact alluded to by another post on the YouTube Creators blog.

Identity politics may have become trendy, but these restrictions show there’s still a long way to go when it comes to countless other issues including race, trans identities and mental health (one of the most notable restrictions was placed on Tyler Oakley’s “Black Trans Trailblazers” clip).

To say that YouTube is homophobic is a limited statement. The restrictions may be questionable, but it’s worth remembering that various other “sensitive issues” have been erased and that the problem lies within a wider cultural climate reliant on ad revenue and non-divisive opinions.

Beyond the clickbait titles and various recent controversies, the site is – at its core – emblematic of technology at its best. Not only does it create jobs and allow more of us than ever to connect with like-minded people worldwide, it can serve as a vital educational tool for young people whose concerns and questions are never factored into the education system.

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For now, the site has acknowledged the algorithm faults, apologized for the problems caused and vowed to do better. However, YouTube is reliant on ad revenue and, no matter how sexy identity politics may seem, advertiser presence almost always results in sanitized content at best – and, at worst, the erasure of issues like mental health, religion, gender and sexuality.

To say that #YouTubeIsOver is unhelpful, but to say that the site needs to recognize its cultural importance and consider bringing discussions of crucial but under-represented issues is fair. After all, the education system largely omits a number of important issues – why shouldn’t YouTube work hard to create a viable, much-needed alternative?

Now that you’re up to speed on the controversy, check out our guide to making money on YouTube.

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