12:05, March 22 77 0 theguardian.com

2019-03-22 12:05:04
Parents are exploiting their children on YouTube – and it’s not funny

When my twins were babies, I caught a short episode of them on video in which one leaned over and snatched the pacifier from the other one’s mouth and, for a second, I dreamed of putting it on YouTube and scoring one of those baby-does-hilarious-thing hits, in which the ad revenue rolls in while you sleep and you are rewarded simply for being alive.

I didn’t upload the video in the end, for the same reason I didn’t do anything much in that period beyond running round my apartment in concentric circles, picking things up and then putting them down again. But the memory of that temptation – the gold-rush sense that there was easy money to be made if one could only capture a moment of “spontaneous” fun involving one’s children – remained, and like most gold rushes, its pull is a vortex.

This week in the US a mother was arrested for allegedly abusing her seven children in the process of making “hilarious” madcap videos of them for her popular YouTube channel, Fantastic Adventures. It is the most extreme case to date of a spectrum that includes adults feeding their toddlers age-inappropriate lines and generally manipulating them for online ad revenue.

In 2017, a family was investigated over the making of YouTube videos on its channel DaddyOFive (175m views), in which the parents “pranked” their kids by screaming in their faces and making them cry hysterically. And another family was charged with child endangerment for putting their eight-year-old and his nanny in the bed of a pickup truck and haring around a small town in southern California (1 million people watched the video).

This week, when welfare officers in Arizona visited the house of the woman who runs Fantastic Adventures, a channel that has racked up more than 250m views, they found a household of traumatised children who alleged they had been pepper-sprayed and locked in cupboards for forgetting their lines. Online, meanwhile, they were shown doing endlessly jolly things and performing like ponies.

The mystery is why so many people watch this stuff. Even the benign child videos have a vague Baby June sense of snuff about them, or the desperate air of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. In the case of the most popular and successful channels, these kids are in essence child actors unprotected by labour laws, making their parents sizeable incomes.

There are more pressing regulatory issues around YouTube, and the child exploitation racket, unless there is provable abuse, is probably impossible to curtail, not least because it is the natural end point to the universal dynamic that we are all content providers now. The lie, of course, is that it is easy money or that these productions are just slightly massaged versions of Candid Camera home videos. As scripted content, the cost to the child is one of time and effort, but more than that, perhaps, one of perception. Most of these children are young – barely out of toddlerhood – when to perform an idea of cuteness and be made aware of its currency is to usher in early a plague of the age: self-consciousness.

Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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