YouTube’s biggest selling point is the unfiltered creativity that it promotes. Though the site is home to a great deal of videos that are of questionable quality, it also helps breed tremendous talent and enforces minimal restrictions over their content, leading to the creation of channels and shows that wouldn’t have a chance of making it on traditional TV. Unfortunately, this is also the reason why YouTube should be treated with caution by parents.
There are an abundance of YouTubers who make content specifically targeted towards kids. You have Fun Toys Collector, for example, a channel devoted to unboxing toys. Then there’s Stampy, an affable fellow who uploads Minecraft Let’s Plays free of foul language and adult humor. However, despite young people making up the majority of YouTube’s most dedicated users, the wealth of content posted to the site would still not make the watershed. This already leaves parents in a precarious position when it comes to monitoring which YouTubers their kids can watch, but as evidenced by the recent controversy surrounding JonTron and his highly inflammatory opinions regarding immigration and black people, there’s a lot more to worry about than just curse words.
JonTron, a YouTuber with over 3 million subscribers on his main channel and formerly a member of the Game Grumps, appeared on a live stream with Twitch.tv personality Stephen “Destiny” Bonnell on Sunday, with him making some incredibly misguided comments that promptly angered his fans. During the two-hour debate Jon claimed that “wealthy blacks commit more crime than poor whites,” though offered no evidence to back up this astonishing claim, said that discrimination no longer existed in Western countries and also attempted to link crime in Africa with crime committed by African Americans, seemingly suggesting that crime in black communities was a result of genetics rather than poverty and environment. Suffice to say it was a complete mess.
JonTron’s career is based around making jokes about bad video games and movies, and while it’s not targeted at kids, it’s not difficult to see why his irreverent humor would appeal to younger audiences. If you are a parent who isn’t averse to your child watching entertainment that contains some foul language (Jon is actually one of the least potty-mouthed gaming-focused YouTubers, all things considered), then it wouldn’t be hard to understand you being content with your kid watching JonTron’s videos, especially if they’re a young teen.
However, much like traditional celebrities, a large part of the appeal of e-celebrities is what they get up to behind the scenes. This is perhaps even more prevalent with YouTubers, as they often cultivate a much more personal bond with their audience that makes their fans want to know more about their lives away from the camera. This is why vlogging is such an incredibly popular trend on the site, with prominent vloggers such as Zoella taking home seven-figure salaries as a result of their tremendous popularity. JonTron only sporadically releases new videos on his channel, but since he started becoming more political earlier this year he’s appeared on live streams with the likes of Sargon of Akkad, a man who once tweeted “I wouldn’t even rape you” to UK politician Jess Phillips, held an interview with the hugely controversial far-right publication Breitbart, before finally appearing on Destiny’s stream and saying of immigrants: “If they assimilated they would enter the gene pool eventually.”
It’s troubling how an ostensibly joyful and funny YouTube comedian could produce goofy videos about bad games the one month, and then claim wealthy black people commit more crime than poor white people the next. It’s also not difficult to see how a young viewer could take his opinions as verbatim, and how their parents wouldn’t have the slightest clue that the jovial YouTuber they let their kid watch is parroting bigoted rhetoric.
We’ve also seen a similar issue arise with PewDiePie, though on a much less extreme scale, as a result of an ill-advised joke he made in which he paid two Asian men on the freelance marketplace Fiverr to hold up a sign reading: “Death to all Jews.” PewDiePie, the most popular YouTuber on the site with over 54 million subscribers, was dropped by Disney’s production company Maker Studios as a result of the controversy, and while he apologized for the joke in question he continues to make references to Nazis and Jews in his videos in response to the backlash. In one of his most recent videos, titled ‘The Hitler Simulator,’ he creates a character that looks like the Nazi leader in the open-world survival game Conan Exiles, before running around and killing monsters that he refers to as “Jews.” Not exactly kid-friendly stuff.
The comedic value of these videos is debatable (he dismissed criticisms of his shock jock humor as him being an “amateur comedian” trying out jokes, an excuse which feels insincere considering that he enjoys a larger audience on one of his videos than most comedians will see in their entire lifetime), but regardless it’s still likely that many parents wouldn’t want their kids to be privy to such comments. While he has always used foul language in his videos, his silly sense of humor has inevitably attracted a huge young audience, who have gone from watching videos of him shouting over gameplay footage of Happy Wheels through to butting heads with the Wall Street Journal as a result of their coverage of his anti-Semitic joke. While PewDiePie shouldn’t be beholden to his audience, and the ever-changing nature of YouTube inevitably means that the direction of its channels also changes on a frequent basis, it’s still an unfortunate predicament for parents to be put in.
Even with YouTube’s parental control feature activated, there’s still a variety of content not suitable for children slipping beneath the radar. Unfortunately, whereas parents may have been confident in allowing their kids to watch certain YouTubers they’d previously deemed “safe,” JonTron serves as a perfect example of why this safety isn’t guaranteed. If you let your kid watch The Amazing World of Gumball, you’ve got the guarantee that the show has been green lit by production companies and ratings boards that have deemed its content appropriate for kids; you wouldn’t expect Gumball to stop mid-episode in order to tell Darwin the benefits of eugenics, for instance. However, YouTube channels don’t have that luxury, and so a Let’s Play or game review channel can incongruously combine politics or questionable opinions into its regular programming on a whim.
So while YouTube remains a firm favorite among kids and teens, and there’s plenty of excellent video makers creating great shows for them to watch, as a parent it’s very important to treat the site with caution. Behind each popular channel is a person with opinions and who has direct, unfiltered access to an audience of millions — unfortunately, you never know when that person is going to say something really, really dumb.