The summer sun is beating down on lower Manhattan in late July as I turn into the shaded courtyard entrance of the NoMo SoHo hotel for a media breakfast organized by Amazon FreeTime, the company’s family-friendly alternative to YouTube that it says has been used by over 10 million children.
Upstairs, in one of the hotel’s cool and dimly lit meeting spaces, FreeTime evangelists are working the room armed with Amazon Fire tablets, each of which includes a one-year subscription to the premium version of FreeTime and its 20,000-plus books, videos, and games. Near the window, Fire tablets are stacked alongside kids’ edition Echo Dots on a kid-size table with kid-size (knockoff) Eames chairs—all available for sale on Amazon, of course.
Amazon executive Kurt Beidler, managing director for FreeTime, has flown in from Seattle to serve as host. Gentle and deliberate in his manner, Beidler can at times recall Mr. Rogers, minus the cardigan and tie. As we take our seats, sipping coffee and nibbling lemon ricotta pancakes, he explains that FreeTime Unlimited, as the subscription service is known, has been designed as a “safe space in a walled garden for your child.” If you’re a parent who’s concerned about finding age-appropriate content and avoiding advertising, he says, “Amazon will do the work for you.”
FreeTime Unlimited contains many titles and characters that parents and kids will recognize, with content from such partners as Mattel, Nickelodeon, PBS Kids, and Sesame Workshop—which are also present on YouTube and other media platforms. (Sometimes even the same content.) But there are no unboxing videos, no external links to social media, no comments, and no ads on FreeTime Unlimited. “My team goes out and gets all the best stuff that there is,” Beidler says. “We look at ratings. We look at customer reviews. Everything in FreeTime Unlimited is handpicked.”
After being selected and licensed, FreeTime content is categorized by age and scrubbed of any material that would violate Amazon’s guidelines. In a settings dashboard, parents can create additional rules, requiring that kids read books before they watch videos or play games. The service also takes note of kids’ interests—and uses that data to inform its recommendations and licensing priorities. But the data stays within FreeTime, according to Beidler; Amazon’s Prime Video team, for example, is not creating children’s shows based on insights gleaned from FreeTime.
“If a certain character is growing in popularity, then we want to go look for more like that,” Beidler tells me. “But that would be the extent of it.”
The current moment should be an opportunity for FreeTime to shine. Market leader YouTube, which boasts two billion monthly logged-in users, is facing an onslaught of criticism for both fomenting hate speech and collecting children’s personal information without their parents’ consent. (As censure for the latter, the company agreed to pay the government a fine of $170 million last month.) YouTube is also struggling to rein in bad actors who use popular children’s characters like Elsa and Peppa Pig as a vehicle for videos that depict violence, sex, and other material inappropriate for young viewers, a disturbing phenomenon that first gained widespread attention after a November 2017 blog post published by artist James Bridle. Many parents, spooked by the cloud that has enveloped the YouTube brand, are looking for alternatives.
“There’s a growing awareness that content that seems to be safe can turn a bit [dark],” says Allen Hughes, director of Amazon devices. “We see that as something parents are bringing up more when we chat with them about it.”
Yet I’ve never heard another parent talk about Amazon FreeTime Unlimited. Some of this may be Amazon’s de facto choice, as the service is wrapped up within the company’s much larger goals. FreeTime’s promise of “endless fun” for kids and “peace of mind” for parents aims to convince conscientious moms and dads to buy Echo Dots and Fire HD tablets. Once in the home, those devices can drive additional spend within the Amazon ecosystem—like, say, renewal of FreeTime itself, which costs Prime members $2.99 per month after receiving the first year free. Or purchases associated with Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa technology. “Amazon knows that the future of its business is getting you to be comfortable with Alexa,” says Forrester analyst James McQuivey. “If they can get the 10 year-old in the household to be comfortable with Alexa, that’s all the more value for the long-term relationship with the household and with the 10-year-old. So on the one hand, yes, it’s going to inhibit their ability to serve that customer if they can’t share data across Amazon silos. But it would also cause more harm than good.” (In May, lawmakers asked the FTC to investigate Amazon’s practices with regard to children’s privacy.)
Regardless, as McQuivey notes, “Does Amazon need to explicitly say, ‘Hey, you could buy these toys [mentioned in FreeTime] on Amazon?’ They don’t need to. The child knows this, the parents know this, and the parents are probably grateful.”
Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited, then, raises pressing issues when it comes to the ongoing debate about kids and screen time, particularly online short-form videos. We’ve already seen entertainment become an add-on to serve another part of a company’s business interests, from Apple offering TV+ to tighten its hold on its device users, to AT&T launching HBO Max next year, in part to bolster its wireless and broadband businesses, to Amazon itself offering Prime Video as an inducement to pay for its annual membership, which includes free shipping on all e-commerce orders.
In parallel, startups are creating safe and private walled-garden alternatives to YouTube’s open paradigm, sometimes with the blessing of toy companies and brands seeking younger audiences. All of which is to say that children, with their growing and in many ways predictable appetite for digital content, are a tempting audience for entertainment-based empire building. But using children as a lever to cement family loyalty, as Amazon has learned, can be more complicated than it seems.
Looking for FreeTime
Amazon launched FreeTime as a Kindle subscription service way back in 2012. At the time, Netflix was recovering from its botched Qwikster DVD-spinout, Instagram had recently been acquired by Facebook for $1 billion, and YouTube was reinvesting in its original channels initiative. Amazon and its partners imagined that FreeTime would take off at the same rapid clip as Amazon’s other offerings. “Amazon’s Kindle FreeTime Unlimited is a great way to introduce some of Disney’s most popular apps to an even larger audience,” Disney Games vice president Tim O’Brien said in the official Amazon release.
As FreeTime plodded along, Amazon began heavily investing in original content available through its Prime Video service. The company is now spending $7 billion per year on video and music, and cleaning up on the Hollywood awards circuit. FreeTime’s more modest recent moment in the spotlight, meanwhile, happened last summer, when Apple at last ushered the service into its App Store.
A glance at the App Store suggests that FreeTime appears to be entirely dependent on Amazon’s devices for its growth. Amazon FreeTime Unlimited is currently ranked No. 165 in Entertainment, far behind Amazon Prime Video at No. 5. YouTube Kids, by way of comparison, is currently at No. 30, and Nick by Nickelodeon is ranked the 108th most popular. (YouTube’s main app is categorized by Apple as part of Photo & Video, where it ranks No. 3.)
Because FreeTime Unlimited functions as a safety solution for Amazon’s devices, rather than a media destination in its own right, it seems unlikely that the service in its current form will ever rise to the top of the charts. (The confusing name, a reference to kids’ free time, won’t help.)
Amazon says that over 10 million children have used FreeTime since its launch, but it does not disclose exactly how many kids are active subscribers or how many kids’ edition Fire tablets and Echo Dots it has sold. According to the company, in terms of devices, the numbers are in the “millions.”
One of the few indicators of Amazon’s success in this realm is its recent launch of a kids edition Kindle, which the company unveiled earlier this month. Like the kids edition Fire tablets, the Kindle Kids Edition comes with a sturdy case and a two-year “worry-free guarantee,” so parents won’t fret about the potential need for costly repairs. Amazon’s continued investment in kids edition devices suggests that the products are selling well, or at minimum that the company still believes in the potential here.
On a Fire HD Kids Edition provided by Amazon, I set up a theoretical profile for my son, who is 12 months old and just starting to take note of screens and their contents. Overall, FreeTime Unlimited delivered on the company’s promises. I could find both classics, like Caps for Sale, and developmentally appropriate books, like First 100 Animals.
As a reminder of the service’s value, FreeTime’s dashboard displays the number of content options available within the parameters that parents have set. For my son, I had access to 1,930 books, 7,180 videos, and 550 apps.
If I had a complaint, it would be the large number of offerings from brands like Hot Wheels, which were so overtly commercial that I couldn’t imagine a public library ever choosing to acquire them. There were also occasional gaps in the policing of FreeTime’s browser. After opening a PBS Kids link to explore Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, I was one click and a confirmation message away from opening the PBS Kids Store, where tutu tees ($34.99) and Curious George nightlights ($22.99) were for sale. (In response to my finding, Amazon removed the PBS Kids websites for review.) Parents can block all browser access in the settings dashboard, but I was disappointed that that felt necessary.
The race to build a successful walled garden
If FreeTime is trying to chip away at YouTube’s dominance through the sale of preloaded devices, several startups are eyeing other pieces of the children’s online media opportunity. Nearly all are committed to walled-garden models, though there are variations in the particulars.
One of the fastest-growing to date, a reading-focused app called Epic, was cofounded by former YouTube executive Kevin Donahue in 2014 and has raised over $50 million in venture funding.
“We think that there’s this opportunity to be a next-generation media brand for kids that’s fun and responsible, and that’s about learning while you’re being entertained,” Donahue says. Families pay $7.99 per month; for teachers and librarians, the service is free. Schools have become central to Epic’s word-of-mouth growth, and by the end of the year, the company expects to be serving 20 million kids.
Unlike FreeTime, Epic is unabashed in its use of data. Using its proprietary information on what children are choosing to read, listen to, and watch, the company started creating its own original content nine months ago. On average, Epic publishes a new book every week. Recently, Donahue’s team noticed an uptick in kids watching DIY videos about slime. “So we thought, kids love slime, they love DIY, they love pets, and they love school stories,” Donahue says. Those themes all merge in an e-book Epic Originals series titled My Pet Slime, geared toward children 8 to 10 years old. With a partner, Epic published the first book in the series in physical form as well.
“We’re more like a Netflix or a streaming service, or even like a TV network in a certain way, because we’re building these audiences around these brands,” Donahue says. (Recall that Netflix claimed that it bought House of Cards because subscribers who watched the British original on Netflix also enjoyed movies starring Kevin Spacey.) “When the next book comes out, there are kids waiting for it, clamoring for it.”
Despite spending more than four years at YouTube, Donahue has little patience for his former employer’s insistence on operating as an open platform rather than as a more secure safe harbor for children. “Silicon Valley is filled with all these amazingly brilliant people,” he says. “You would think they could come up with something that was designed for kids from the ground up, that could scale, that delivered beneficial content and experiences for children.” Even YouTube Kids, in his view, is problematic: “You can’t take a product that you designed for adults and say, let’s now do this for kids. You should start with first principles, and you should start with what children need.”
In a June interview, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki rejected the idea that YouTube should reconsider its default openness. “I don’t think that’s the right answer,” she told Recode’s Peter Kafka, “because we would lose a lot of voices and a lot of people who share content.” (According to a Pew survey, 81% of U.S. parents with children under age 11 let their children watch YouTube.)
Donahue acknowledges that the walled-garden path is “definitely harder” to pursue. But he believes that success, at scale, is possible: “It can be done,” he says, noting the success of kids’ brands in traditional media. “We think the tide is turning.”
Over in London, a startup called SuperAwesome is pursuing the even more ambitious strategy of constructing a “kid tech” version of the internet. Under the hood of websites and apps catering to children, like those of toy companies, SuperAwesome powers kid-safe advertisements, comments, and videos using a combination of human oversight and artificial intelligence. In other words, SuperAwesome is an adtech platform that happens to be compliant with children’s privacy laws. (It will also launch a streaming video service of its own next year, focused on kids ages 7-11.) According to PwC, the digital advertising market for kids will be worth $1.2 billion by 2021.
“Our technology is built to keep the child entirely safe and anonymous,” says cofounder and CEO Dylan Collins. Every month, he says, the company is powering 12 billion interactions. This year, revenue will top $75 million.
From afar, Collins has watched Big Tech’s leading players unveil kid-focused products and services—YouTube Kids, Facebook Messenger Kids, Amazon FreeTime. Despite their parent company’s clout, he says, they never seem to take off in a viral way, or solve the fundamental problems facing families. “They’re trying to build destination solutions to what is an internet problem,” he says. “They’re betting that all kids are going to go there, which is absurd.”
He adds: “We should genuinely congratulate them for beginning to invest in kids. But their investment levels are not even scratching the surface.”
The badly kept secret of all kid-focused devices and online offerings is that they have a remarkably short shelf life. No elementary school student would be caught dead using YouTube Kids, which is viewed as a product for the preschool set. Similarly, Amazon’s decision to launch a Kindle Kids Edition is an implicit acknowledgement that kids above a certain age will want to graduate out of the Fire Kids Edition tablets, which include colorful safety-bumper cases designed for smaller hands.
“We think about offering a range of devices that support the development of a child and parental choice throughout that 3 to 12[-year-old] lifecycle, with the tablet being a little earlier and devices like the Kindle Kids Edition a little bit later in life,” Amazon’s Hughes told me.
The challenge for families—and the companies that serve them—is that both technology and kids’ preferences are evolving faster than grown-ups can follow. Jill Murphy, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, a review site for parents, recalls a time when “we used to talk a lot about how from 0 to 8, parents are still in the driver’s seat, and over 8 is damage control,” she says. “Now those ages are dramatically shifting. With the introduction of voice remotes and point-and-click devices like the iPad, [kids] are more in control than ever.”
At the same time, kids are more vulnerable than ever, thanks to product features like auto-play, which, when combined with an algorithm like YouTube’s, which prioritizes engagement, can manipulate viewing habits and, ultimately, beliefs. A kid-specific device and content service, in Murphy’s view, “buys some time,” but doesn’t solve the problem of internet literacy. “You want to set them up for self-monitoring,” she says. “You want them to build those critical thinking skills.”
Internet literacy sounds like a positive thing, but in a sense, it, too, is part of the problem. Our current system places an enormous burden on individuals to monitor and police their internet browsing and buying activities. We can give our children walled gardens, but as adults, we have to test children’s toys purchased on Amazon for lead before putting them under the Christmas tree, scrutinize baby formula in order to ensure that it hasn’t expired, and proactively delete audio recordings of our children. It’s an exhausting arrangement.
FreeTime Unlimited is exactly the type of quick-fix solution that parents seek and that Amazon has learned how to deliver, a pacifier rather than a meal.
For better or for worse, whichever tech companies come to dominate children’s entertainment online will likely follow a similar formula.