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Are we failing to protect the child stars of YouTube?

Laws and regulations protect traditional child performers from exploitation. But on YouTube, young stars have no such guarantees.

A nine-year-old girl who is estimated to be worth £3.2m sits in a high chair, sucking on a dummy. She imitates a baby for her 7.1 million YouTube subscribers, playing with toys and wailing on the ground. Later, her mother puts her in a pram and gives her an oversized milk bottle, before taking her to a toy store. There, the mother and daughter act out a skit in which they argue.

“Your poop was disgusting, you’ve been eating far too much chocolate… and do you know what, I’m going to show you,” says her mother. She pulls out a nappy that appears to be full of faeces – though the video title assures the viewer it is chocolate – and shoves it in the nine-year-old’s face. The video has over 86 million views.

In another video, a different child YouTuber is seen with chocolate smeared on her pyjama bottoms, imitating using the toilet. Presumably-fake faeces are smeared around the lid of the toy toilet and the child picks up and throws some of the poo. Another, similar video sees a mother again placing a nappy full of fake-faeces in front of a child’s face as the child feigns disgust.

The thumbnail for this video prominently features the fake poo, and the tags for the video (words its creator labelled it with to help people searching for videos online) include: “bad baby”, “gross”, “poo”, “disgusting”, “crybaby”, “messy toilet”, and – very lastly –“family fun video”.

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Professor John Oates is the founder of the British Psychological Society’s Media Ethics Advisory Group. He and his team of psychologists work with traditional broadcasters to advise on whether their programming is ethical, which often involves safeguarding children and young people who are involved in productions. His advice is taken seriously by the traditional media.

“At least a couple of productions recently have decided not to go ahead, so we’re happy about that,” Oates says, although he explains that the body is only advisory so can’t outright veto productions. “We also offer quite strong advice on how things can be modified… for example making sure children aren’t on set for sensitive scenes and are filmed separately and reconstructed in later.”

Ways in which Oates and his team safeguard children include ensuring the child is consenting to what they’re doing, providing access to a psychologist to asses harm or provide aftercare, and making sure the child isn’t exposed to illegal or socially unacceptable behaviour. The Media Ethics Advisory Group is often sent scripts to check before a production has begun, meaning they can help prevent anything unethical getting off the ground.

“No, no way, no,” says Oates when I ask if his team would have signed off on the video described above, in which the child YouTuber acts like a baby and is shown fake faeces. “First of all, it was infantilising the child… the girl in the highchair pretending to be a baby, a little bit of that is OK, that’s part of a child growing up, but to infantilise a child in that way [shown in the video] I think is excessive, excessive.”

Oates questions how the many other child stars of similar videos – which are called “bad baby” videos and are exceptionally popular on YouTube – will react to this footage as they age. Alongside these stars, YouTube has an array of child celebrities who feature in toy-related videos and unboxing videos (where a star opens up a product on camera), as well as daily vlogs (where a family film their lives for YouTube). Many family vloggers have millions of subscribers and share the most intimate details of their children’s lives, in many cases including their actual births. Some mothers film themselves breastfeeding their children – some as old as four – for the site. 

“There’s the question of what the child will think of these materials, which are there for all time basically, when they’re older and when they have a better capacity to judge ... what they were induced to engage in,” says Oates. He believes there is the “potential” for long-term psychological harm, as well as a possibility these children will be bullied as teenagers.

At present, Oates is developing the Media Ethics Advisory Group’s most comprehensive guidelines to date. When I ask if he’s considered writing guidelines for user-generated content such as these YouTube videos, he say’s “not as yet”.

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In the United Kingdom, when a child is going to take part in a traditional performance (be that TV, film, theatre, paid sport, or paid modelling) they are required to get a licence from their local authority. A licensing officer will ensure the child is safeguarded before permission is granted for them to perform.

“The regulations do cover those types of activities [YouTube videos starring children]. The problem is how we on local authorities would police those activities,” says Gareth Lewis, the chairman of the National Network for Children in Employment and Entertainment (NNCEE).

Although the latest child performance licensing legislation published in 2015 states it “does not extend to user generated content”, Lewis explains that Section 37 of The Children and Young Persons Act 1963 (which the 2015 legislation supplements) could be used to regulate people under 16 taking part in certain performances on YouTube.

“We do occasionally issue performance licences for young people [on YouTube] and I’ve carried out inspections of young people who are taking part in vlogging,” says Lewis, who also works as a child licensing officer for Cheshire West and Chester Council. He explains YouTube licenses are only issued occasionally because applications are only made occasionally. “As you can appreciate, if somebody is in their home address, behind closed doors, talking about what they’ve done at school today or being part of a family where mum and dad are constantly recording the whole of the family for YouTube… it’s very, very hard for us to police that.”

Legally, parents who film their children for YouTube should contact their local authority for a licence, but Lewis says not many YouTube parents do so. The NNCEE has reached out to Viral Talent, the UK’s biggest talent agency for child YouTube stars, but to date they have not received a response. Viral Talent, who represent some stars who film “bad baby” videos, did not respond to a request for comment before this article’s publication. 

Britain's biggest vlogging family, the Saccone-Jolys, say they stay in contact with their local authority. They are represented by an agency called Gleam, and film daily vlogs with their children, as well as the occasional music video (they do not create “bad baby” videos). “The safety and well-being of our children is of absolute priority at all times,” says Jonathan Saccone-Joly, who runs the channel. “As their parents we are always constantly conscious of making sure that they are happy and healthy. In addition, we make sure that we are aware and adhere to all guidelines set out in relation to children working in entertainment. We remain in close contact with our local authority and the NSPCC and we will continue to support campaigns and causes that fight for the health and wellbeing of children.”

Lewis explains that not all child YouTubers would fall within the remit of regulations, and the issue is complicated by the vast variety of creators and content. Those who are acting out a script or skit, or being directed by a parent, are more likely to fall under the regulations than family vloggers who “film in their own home doing their own every day-to-day activities” like the Saccone-Jolys. A commercial backer is often taken as a sign that a production is more official. Like older YouTubers, many children on the site are sponsored by brands to speak about products, or create scripted advertisements – something Lewis says should require a licence.

Before issuing a licence, a licensing officer will make sure the performance is legally compliant, and that the child is safeguarded from harm and feels positively about the performance. When it comes to “bad baby” videos like those described above, there could be remit to refuse a license. “If I wasn’t happy with the content then I personally would refuse to issue a performance license and if needs be I would seek further guidance from maybe child psychologists or other people to get their advice on the potential for any psychological harm for children later on in life,” Lewis explains.

Yet Lewis emphasises that one of the great difficulties in regulating this area is that judgement falls on each local authority, meaning whether a licence is needed or not is “down to their interpretation of the regulations”. He says the NNCEE is “aware it’s a growing problem” and it is currently being dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

When asked if there are any plans to create specific regulations or guidelines about YouTube child performers, he says “not at the moment”.

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In Channel 4’s reality television programme The Secret Life of Five Year Olds, young children are filmed going about their daily lives. The production company involved described the process of getting the children’s consent as “extraordinarily in-depth and thorough”, and a child psychologist was involved during recruitment. Nonetheless, last year academics from the department of law at the University of Winchester published a report about the show, concluding that additional legal and ethical safeguards are needed to protect the privacy and interests of children in traditional broadcasts.

“At least they’ve got some kind of regulations, whereas the children of YouTube don’t,” says Rachael Hendry, a third year law student at the University of Winchester who was involved in the research and recently co-authored a report on the state of children’s privacy online. Hendry’s dissertation, “A critical discussion on the involvement of children in family ‘vlogging’ YouTube channels, and the extent to which this infringes their privacy”, will explore whether children in YouTube families need greater safeguarding.

“You need a third party, some sort of children’s ombudsman that can represent [the children],” she says. As well as privacy protection, Hendry believes the children of YouTube may need greater financial protection, so that they are guaranteed a cut of the money they help their parents earn via YouTube adverts. “Without the children they couldn’t class themselves as family vloggers – they couldn’t make the money that they do.”

Hendry emphasises that many existing laws fail to protect YouTube children in the same way as traditional celebrities. Last year, the Supreme Court banned the British media from reporting on a high-profile celebrity’s sexual encounters for fear of how the news would impact their children. Earlier this year, by contrast, an American family vlogger was caught sexting a woman that wasn’t his wife. Screenshots of the exchange were shared on social media and the story made local and British national news.

It will take time for legislation to be changed to truly consider the children of YouTube, but a regulatory body could arguably be created tomorrow. Ofcom, the body responsible for regulating the UK’s TV, radio, on-demand, and broadcast services, presently do not have regulatory powers over YouTube. Ofcom’s power comes from legislation, which would have to be changed in order for YouTube to come under its jurisdiction.

When asked whether it had considered regulating in this area, the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport – who earlier this year launched an Internet Safety Strategy to keep children and young people safe online – said the issue did not fall within their remit. 

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Earlier this week, the writer James Bridle wrote a Medium post complaining about how weird content on YouTube could affect child viewers. The article discussed content on the site that is disguised as children’s content but is often highly disturbing in nature, and Bridle theorised this could damage children watching at home. Yet the children who potentially face the most psychological damage are the stars of such videos.

It seems impossible – often undesirable – to regulate the internet. Yet if the British government can plan to put age verification on all online porn, couldn’t they protect the comparatively few UK-based YouTube child stars? A regulatory body could work on a complaints basis, meaning it wouldn’t be necessary to screen the millions of videos uploaded to YouTube from the UK, but merely have a recourse to investigate any that were troubling. The lack of regulation in this area has already failed children in America, with YouTuber DaddyOFive losing custody of two of his children after he was filmed abusing them in “prank” videos.

In many ways, this isn’t a new problem. Winnie The Pooh author AA Milne was famously resented by his son, Christopher Robin, for basing his children’s stories and poems on him. Other children would relentlessly mock and taunt Christopher in the playground. He starred in picture books which have sold over 70 million copies in 91 years. The child YouTuber who acts in the scatological skits referenced at the start of the article has accumulated 4,857,422,248 views in two years. 

YouTube is aware of the issues surrounding its child stars and constantly evolves its policies. Last night, it announced to The Verge that it has updated its policies to crack down on inappropriate content targeting children. Although this is great progress, once again policies seem to protect the child viewer over the child star. Although children under 13 are not allowed to create a YouTube channel, parents are allowed to film their children freely. The site does have a privacy complaints process, so theoretically when a child gets older they could ask for videos that were uploaded by their parents to be removed. 

For the time being, the responsibility lies with parents themselves to decide whether or how they should film their children. The consequences of this lack of regulation will most likely become apparent in a decade, when YouTube’s child celebrities have grown up. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh