Playing Dangerous Games With Child Audiences
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Complaints on how new technologies and forms of entertainment are “corrupting the youth” are not exactly new. Television, cell phones, and video games have always been objects of worry. Now, YouTube is showing itself to be one of the most concerning new technologies for children due to the rise of inappropriate content directed toward children.
Because all of YouTube’s videos are user-uploaded, they are not screened to any real degree for content that may be damaging for children, which has led to the growth of channels that purposefully appeal to children yet promote themes that are inappropriate for their young fanbases.
For example, YouTuber Sebastian Bails, who has nearly a million subscribers, has amassed a total of over 76 million views and uses thumbnails with bright colors, exaggerated facial expressions, and emojis which are clearly meant to attract children. In the videos themselves, Bails and his girlfriend, Lauren Godwin, who is frequently featured, speak loudly in tones and language that are again targeted toward children. However, the actual content cannot be further from what is appropriate for young viewers. While much of Bails’s content blends together into meaningless neon—which is not inherently problematic—looking below (and even right above) the surface reveals disturbing undertones. His content with his girlfriend involves borderline and even outright abuse, including one video titled “Telling My Girlfriend I Don’t Want to Wait Until Marriage Anymore…” in which he repeatedly pressures his girlfriend to have sex with him, and another “HOME INVASION PRANK ON GIRLFRIEND! **GONE TOO FAR**” in which he does what the title suggests. His channel shows kids that gaslighting, sexual harassment, and manipulation are alright.
Bails’s channel is only one example. A relatively tame one, ImJayStation, also directly appeals to children by speaking in exaggerated tones, putting his video titles in all caps, and featuring cartoon characters and puppets. However, these videos involve disturbing themes, including one in which he claims to have bought a slave on the “dark web” and others that involve cruel and psychologically abusive pranks on his girlfriend. His account was finally removed a few weeks ago after he faked her death and made videos about it. While this action was a positive move on YouTube’s part, it took far too long. Jason Ethier, the man behind the account, had already reached millions of children; exposed his fans, like Bails did, to disturbing content; and taught them to be abuse apologists.
This is not to say people are not allowed to post content involving mature themes on YouTube. The problem begins when creators make channels designed to attract children in an effort to profit from that large viewer base while portraying sexual and violent themes at the same time. YouTube has a responsibility to improve self-regulation and demonetize and/or ban nefarious content aimed at children. It should apply age restriction labels much more liberally and make sure its algorithm does not recommend such content to children.
Parents share the blame. It is undeniably irresponsible to stick tablets with YouTube in front of children’s faces and leave them to their own devices for hours on end. To ensure children are not being exposed to age-inappropriate content, parents should pre-screen videos and channels and limit the amount of time their children spend on the platform.
Those creating disturbing or inappropriate content intentionally geared toward children bear a larger part of the responsibility. To these creators, profit is the name of the game and they have no trouble exploiting their child audiences as a means to that end.