Santa Monica advocacy group Consumer Watchdog voiced its concerns over the YouTube Kids app at a news conference Tuesday, calling on parents to "take Google with a large grain of salt."
The app "is full of content that is advertising, masquerading often as some sort of story or entertainment," said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's privacy project director.
The news conference came just hours after a coalition of groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood as well as Consumer Watchdog, filed a formal complaint asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the the YouTube Kids app is exposing young audiences to an excessive volume of commercials.
The groups contend that the app, launched in February, violates federal laws in place since the 1970s that limit how advertisers can target young children.
"The groups aren't saying there shouldn't be ads whatsoever on the channels," Simpson said. "What we're saying is that what's happening now is unfair and deceptive. ... Google should be playing by the same rules as other broadcast entities."
YouTube is owned by Google.
Asked about the complaint, a YouTube spokeswoman said Tuesday: "We worked with numerous partners and child advocacy groups when developing YouTube Kids. While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable. We disagree and think that great content shouldn't be reserved for only those families who can afford it."
The app allows parents to limit how much time their kids spend on it and to monitor what they watch. YouTube also screens all advertising that appears on the app.
The app received positive reviews from a handful of content creators such as Jim Henson Co. as well as advocacy groups such as Common Sense Media and the Family Online Safety Institute.
"YouTube for Kids is compelling, informative, entertaining and parents will be pleased they can easily set time limits," Stephen Balkam, founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, said in a statement ahead of the app's launch. "My hope is that it will open the door for even more great content for kids."
Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said the groups that filed the FTC complaint are hoping the agency will take action.
"I'm optimistic [the FTC] will act," Simpson said during the news conference. "And if they don't, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."