When Allison Irons uploaded a YouTube video of her newborn baby wearing a reusable nappy, she knew 13,000 strangers would be watching. She had built up a respectable number of subscribers during her five years “mummy vlogging”, and knew to tag her video with the words “cloth diaper” to help other parents in need of advice. “I never in a million years suspected that same tag could be used for evil,” she said later.
On 3 March, Irons deleted all traces of her children from her channel, The Life of a Homemaker. Using YouTube’s analytic tools, she discovered that videos of her children had been embedded on paedophile websites and featured on suspect playlists on YouTube itself. Often hundreds of videos long, the playlists collate footage of children wearing nappies, breastfeeding and in the bath.
“I feel foolish,” she said in (what else?) a YouTube video after making the discovery. “I’m taking a huge step back from YouTube . . . I encourage you, if you are another parent vlogger, to do the same.” Other high-profile family vloggers soon followed suit, removing their children from the videos they posted online.
This might not sound like much, but it’s a YouTube first. The website’s safety resources for parents extensively discuss how to prevent children from watching certain videos, but say nothing about preventing them from being watched.
“Before the internet, someone with a sexual interest in children had to take lots of risks,” says Karl Hopwood, a member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. “They needed to loiter near schools, go to the beach or park.
“Now, they can browse huge amounts of content from the privacy of their own homes, and no one knows they have done it.”
But savvy vloggers such as Irons do realise. When she turned embedding off her videos – meaning they could no longer be hosted on third-party websites – male viewers dropped from 40 per cent to 17 per cent of her audience.
YouTube emphasises the importance of utilising such tools. “We work with partners and online safety groups to ensure users have the technology and know-how to manage their content online,” a YouTube spokesperson told me. Still, many parents learn about privacy the hard way.
Fern P, a 32-year-old vlogger from New Zealand, stopped filming her children after seeing Irons’s video. “At first I thought I’d just be more careful. I figured if I wasn’t showing them in states of undress, and if I disabled the embedding feature, they would be protected.
“But after thinking it through, I realised putting footage of my children on YouTube is different to taking them out in public. It’s granting strangers 24/7 access, allowing sick people to view my children in inappropriate ways any time they want, as well as giving them inside information about how my family operates.”
The risks go way beyond being watched, which, after all, can happen to any child anywhere. Kate Burls, the education team co-ordinator at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), explains that even though it would be “extreme” for a sex offender to attack a child he or she has seen on YouTube, the long-term risks are far greater.
“Once a child is active online, the bigger their digital footprint becomes, the more at risk they are,” she says. “We know that offenders who seek to groom a child will often conduct online research. They look for information about a child’s family, see if there are vulnerabilities they can exploit, or anything they can use to manipulate a child or make that child feel that this person knows them well.”
Currently, there is nothing within UK law that prevents parents posting about their children online. Across the Channel, France’s strict privacy laws can lead to fines of £35,000 for parents who share their children’s information – including pictures – without consent. In the United States, YouTube abides by Coppa, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which prevents children under 13 signing up for online services. Yet although a child cannot put his own private information online, a parent legally can.
YouTube and CEOP work hard to create guidelines, but these assume that parents will act in their child’s best interests. Unfortunately, this isn’t always true. For every Allison Irons or Fern P, there are others deliberately labelling their videos this way, fully knowing the kind of attention they attract.
For many YouTube families, vlogging is a career. YouTubers earn advertising revenue from the pre-roll adverts on their videos, and so, to put it simply, the more views, the more money. These adverts still play when videos are embedded on websites or playlists, so the profit-oriented vlogger has no reason to care exactly where the views come from.
For now, it is up to parents themselves to decide what is appropriate. Later, their children might get a say. A recent study by Family Online Safety Institute here in Britain discovered that 10 per cent of children have asked their parents to remove something posted about them online. It’s a sad and strange statistic, but even sadder is the question: if they don’t ask, who will?
For advice from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre or to make a report, visit: ceop.police.uk
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater