I use YouTube all the time. Literally. All. The. Time.
I’ll catch up on Dunkey’s latest gaming habits. I’ll watch new Red Letter Media episodes from time to time. I’ll play the adorable cat videos the algorithm finds me. I’ll put on talk-shows or podcasts and complete chores while they play. I’m pretty sure I’ll do it later. You’ve never seen dishes cleaner than when I catch up on Laymon Gaming or plug into Linus Tech Tips.
And the ads are endless. Sometimes, two ads run at the start. Then there’s a mid-roll ad (and the algorithm has gotten better with those, as they now run during a subject change or during a sound-lull in the episode). And finally, one ad at the end.
Now, those ads are not the problem. I mean, they are a problem, insofar as I don’t like ads, and I don’t know why the algorithm thinks I would enjoy gambling on live-sports (in 2020, of all years). I watch YouTubers whose skin is white like mayonnaise. They’re not in the sun at all. Nothing I watch is athletic, save for Super Humman (“This is for all Juggalos and Juggalettes. Woop woop. Hope you like it” and then proceeds to backflip onto a pile of Lego).
The problem comes with the Home tab on the YouTube mobile app. When you scroll the Home tab, there will occasionally be an in-roll advertisement that is formatted like a video offering on the platform. It features a similar sized thumbnail, a title, and is roughly the same clickable size as any other video. Sometimes it leads to a video, sometimes it leads off-site, and sometimes it’s a download.
These ads, like the videos YouTube procures for each user, are algorithmically generated. By that, I mean someone made an advertisement just as anyone would make a video, added tags, probably added relevant text to the bio, and then the all-controlling and all-mysterious YouTube algorithm will serve it up on a hot-platter to individual users.
As someone who watches a fair amount of movie and gaming content, YouTube’s algorithm likely pegs me as a gamer/geek type, and they’re not wrong. However, what’s frustrating is the synonymous stereotyping that comes with that, and if we know anything about capitalism and advertising, it’s that it loves stereotypes (psssst: it’s because it’s easier to sell to stereotypes).
Because of this, clickbait ads made for gamers are produced, categorized, and distributed by an algorithm that decided that, “Yep, it’s time to send Melvin an advertisement for another Chinese produced bootleg knock-off video game”. Meanwhile, the thumbnail is either a screenshot from Microsoft’s 1999 video game Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings… or some scantily clad anime girl whose spine is fracturing so she can show off the front and back ‘goods‘.
And… I just… I can’t describe how bad some of the advertisements have gotten. Some have outright been stills from, what I would assume, are pornographic anime. And if not, well, that wouldn’t be a surprise for anime either, as plenty of anime each release season contains a grotesque amount of ‘ecchi’ (or, purposely perverse content). Meanwhile, I’m just trying to watch Super Mario 64 speedruns during my lunch break, or curious how the new Google Pixel compares to the last one.
It’s so frustrating. It kept happening.
And I get it. The algorithm learns based on what I watch, and that’s how it serves up content that it thinks I like. And some of the more cynical readers may be thinking, “Well, Melvin, if that’s the case, does that mean Google’s learning through your search history? Are you just admitting to your gross internet habits?”
First off, no. Google isn’t learning to show me that content on YouTube because I’m not engaging that sort of content. Second, I recently did a cleanse of all data collection from Google, as well as uninstalled Chrome from my desktop in pursuit of the cleaner, crisper, and more privacy-friendly Microsoft Edge. So, there’s no means for Google to be collecting my data and serving me highly inappropriate advertisements based upon a hidden sinful practice.
No, what’s actually happening is far worse. YouTube’s algorithm – an unbiased program – is administering and delivering the biases of YouTube: profit at the expense of morality. Advertisements of this kind have existed in the internet space since the beginning of Google’s Ad-sense. What matters are activity, engagement, and clicks. And if what gets activity (lingering on a particular advertisement), engagement (learning about the product from a video or body of text), and clicks (sinful engagement in the hope of seeing salacious material) are big-chested cartoon women, then YouTube’s interest in eliminating hate-speech and other such moral ventures are either woefully inadequate, or two-minded themselves. For how can a corporation encourage mindfulness in our language and yet forsake the value and person-hood of women?
And this isn’t exclusive to bootleg video games. This has happened with TikTok ads that grab still-frames of women in inappropriate positions. The original videos may not have even been sexually provocative, or produced with inappropriate intent. All it takes to exploit a person’s body is someone at a contracted marketing firm using a still-frame from an innocuous TikTok video, objectifying the content creator in question, and making an advertisement by manipulating weak-willed users on the other end of their smart phone.
Now, to clarify, this problem only seems to happen on YouTube’s Home tab on the mobile app. I have not had any issues with the algorithm dishing out highly inappropriate advertiser content on the console app (PS4 in particular, but I’m sure it’s a standard across the board) or either the Desktop or Mobile Browser versions of YouTube (although, I haven’t used either in months). That said, I have gotten those gambling ads on virtually every platform, and that would be a wild temptation for anyone who has a gambling addiction (sidenote: I don’t have a gambling addiction).
But, when I think about how many children are gifted tablets by their parents, and how YouTube has profited heavily off minors using the ‘auto-play’ feature to take them from “SURPRISE KINDER EGG” videos to “PREGNANT ELSA BATTLES SICK SPIDER-MAN”, I can’t help but feel like YouTube is smiling all the way to the bank.
And so, what could I do but get YouTube premium? Sure, I could just stop watching YouTube on my phone. I could exclusively catch up on shows or other users via my PS4. I could also make the whole-sale transition to podcast entertainment and leave YouTube in the dust. But I really like the YouTube platform (just not YouTube itself, but what else is new?), and the free trial for Premium is an entire month, so of course I got YouTube Premium.
But this isn’t a promotion. Maybe it’s an admittance of failure. I signed up for a free trial with YouTube Premium not because it has bangin’ exclusive content and not because I wanted to save time watching videos without ads (frankly, I was fine putting up with the in-video ads). No, I got YouTube Premium for one thing: To stop chiseling away at my conscience. It’s almost like, rather than they get paid promoting immoral ads, I’m just going to pay them directly (Hurray, Melvin! You’re a part of the capitalist machine!).
But, sin is a monstrous enemy. It is not more powerful than Christ, but it is deceptively powerful against man. All it takes is one, two, three temptations of the same kind for a man to give in, and repeatedly exposing myself to absurdly provocative advertisements is downright unwise. I’ve struggled with sexual sin in the past, as many men and women have before. Half of the battle is fought against passive exposure. The other half – tackling trauma, confessing sin, growing to trust God – is incredibly hard but unbelievably liberating.
And that’s why we start by limiting exposure. Not only do we learn as early as Genesis 4:7 the deceptive practices of sin, that it creeps at the door, we also hear the charge that we “must rule over it“. This, in practice, can sometimes look like sacrificing a part of ourselves for the sake of avoiding sin, and that’s okay! Matthew 5:27-30 makes it pretty clear that Jesus advocates cutting our eye or severing a limb to prevent adultery! That’s quite the practice! And even if this passage is often attributed to metaphor and hyperbole, one still understands the truth in what Jesus says: It is far better to aggressively restrain oneself from the allure of sin than to act on sin itself.
Is getting YouTube Premium the best way for me to restrain my body? Maybe not. Just because I got YouTube Premium to avoid inappropriate and sexually provocative advertisements doesn’t always mean my journey into YouTube is without sin. There are times I get overly lethargic and binge watch an entire users catalog, or maybe watch a video that crosses commentary with gossip. I seriously hate both of those things. Sometimes, I require more mindfulness with how I spend my time, but just because I sleep in late does not mean I will get rid of my comfy cozy mattress. I’ll simply set an alarm.
But I do know that, right now, this step needed to be taken. Either this free trial (and subsequent monthly payment), or using one of my other gmail accounts for a free trial (woops, sorry Google) had to happen. I could also just outright quit YouTube and be done with it, but I find a lot of joy in keeping up with various YouTubers, or joining in the perpetual waiting that is a new Jontron episode. But, if I decide to take a long YouTube siesta, I have no doubt the Lord will sustain me. I don’t need it, after all. The only thing I need is Christ.
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Melvin Benson is the Founder, Editor-In-Chief, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!