Updated on Jan. 3, 2017 to include details about the recent controversy surrounding YouTube star Logan Paul.
YouTube has become an intrinsic part of many young people's lives. While TV sources like The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon used to be appointment viewing, more and more kids have favorite YouTube channels rather than favorite TV shows. Whether people go to it for unboxing videos, Minecraft tips, Five Nights at Freddy's jump scares or makeup tutorials, YouTube is killing the television star.
The problem? You often don't know who those stars are going to be, and nobody is in charge of vetting them before your child becomes their biggest fan.
I don't want to devolve into fear mongering. Say it with the right nefarious tone and "Do you know who your child is watching on YouTube?" sounds exactly like the panicked news broadcasts that ask, "Do you know what those acronyms your teen is texting really mean?"
But seriously: Do you know who your child is watching on YouTube?
The internet kicked off 2018 with outrage surrounding Logan Paul, an internet celebrity with more than 15 million subscribers on YouTube. He posted a video blog from Japan's Aokigahara, colloquially called "suicide forest," where he filmed the body of a recent suicide victim and uploaded it to his channel.
Paul blurred out the victim's face and said in the video that depression was not a joke, but nonetheless the 22-year-old celebrity exposed millions of fans -- most of whom skew young -- to the body of a person whose family had no say in the matter. The most-common criticisms were that Paul's video trivialized suicide, disrespected the dead and mistreated his audience.
Paul has apologized, but not before drawing harsh criticism from all corners of the internet, including both Hollywood and social media celebrities. For many, the apology was not been nearly good enough.
Unfortunately, this isn't new In early 2017, a big topic of discussion revolves around popular YouTube star Jon Jafari, known as "JonTron" on the site. His YouTube channel has more than three million subscribers, and he has nearly 1.8 million followers on Twitter. He took to that Twitter account on March 12 to communicate some controversial views about immigration to those followers.
As the tweet started spreading, Jafari dug his heels in deeper both on Twitter and in a livestreamed debate with another video star, making comments about "white interests" and "the gene pool" and the un-sourced claim that wealthy black Americans commit more crimes than poor white Americans.
These things come not long after the Disney-owned Maker Studios cut ties with PewDiePie, one of YouTube's biggest stars, over an anti-Semitic stunt. PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg) had also been kicked off Twitter (he later came back) for tweets about ISIS.
PewDiePie, who has 54 million subscribers, has responded to criticisms that he's a Nazi by making a video about playing a "Hitler Simulator." (It's actually the game Conan Exiles, which has a lot of violence and sexual content but is not about Nazis.)
But this post isn't about specific politics or opinions. Maybe Jafari's comments are thing your child will hear in your household anyway, so you don't care if they also hear them on YouTube. I might not be voting for you for Parent of the Year in that case, but I'm not here to run your home.
I'm just asking the question, again: Do you know who your child is watching on YouTube?
While Jafari is an adult and has plenty of adult fans, it's no secret that the demographics of many YouTubers (especially in the video game space, where Jafari made his name) skews young. A survey conducted by Variety says that "the five most influential figures among Americans ages 13-18 are all YouTube faves." They're more influential among today's youth than "traditional" celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Katy Perry.
Sure, those mainstream celebrities aren't perfect, either. Miley Cyrus didn't exactly continue being the world's greatest role model for young girls once Hannah Montana went off the air. The difference, though, is that Disney was keeping a close eye on what was on the air. While Cyrus might have had some shady thoughts in her private life, you had to go out of your way to see it, because Disney goes out of its way (even contractually) to make sure that their young stars at least appear wholesome as long as they're "Disney kids."
With YouTube, the lines between private and public have blurred to the point that they're almost nonexistent. PewDiePie's jokes about Jews and Nazis aren't behind some secret door that asks if you're old enough to handle their material. They're just on his main YouTube page, where they're viewed by millions of people. And kids, who are impressionable, can pick up on those jokes and start repeating them without having any sense at all of their context.
It doesn't help that kids themselves are often the ones becoming famous, long before they're ready to truly grapple with what that means. As Robinson Meyer said at The Atlantic, "We stuck a smartphone in every 14-year-old's hand and told them it could make them famous. Little wonder that the kids who won that lottery don't know when to turn the camera off. Little wonder that before the backlash, Paul's video was going viral. The internet's only currency is attention."
As with everything, it isn't all bad. There are plenty of popular YouTubers who acknowledge the potential age of their audience and accept the responsibility that comes with that. Justine Ezarik (known as iJustine) told me in an interview a couple of years ago, "It really sets in how young some of these kids are when you see them at events and they are barely five. It is a big responsibly because you're never really sure who is watching the content you post. I also don't want to alienate my audience by making everything too kid friendly -- so trying to find a fine line between what is suitable to post is very difficult."
And like all other media (TV, movies, music, video games, etc.), YouTube as a platform isn't inherently evil, despite the folk devil reputation it can get. It's just not something that a parent should use as a babysitter. My suggestion? Show interest in what your kids are watching. Ask about their favorite video stars and look into them yourself. Play Minecraft with your kids so you know what the heck they're talking about. (If your kids are really young, you should also consider using the YouTube Kids app instead of just regular YouTube.)
Before JonTron's fans accuse me of wanting his views censored, that's not my point. PewDiePie, JonTron and all other adult content creators have the right to say what they want on the internet (though they aren't entitled to get money from big companies for doing so). But if you're a parent, you need to know that this content is out there, because while YouTube is great for a lot of things, it's not all equally safe and appropriate for all ages. Is the Minecraft video your child is watching actually innocent, or is the person off-camera spouting views that you don't want your kid hearing?
Won't someone please think of the children?
CORRECTION, March 17: An earlier version of this story misspelled Justine Ezarik's last name.