I’m not a parent, but I feel like I took a step into legitimate adulthood earlier this month when my wife and I spent a weekend babysitting a friend’s two-year-old. Happily he was an easy kid to look after, but he’s still a two-year-old, and as I discovered (and you parents already know), he required near-constant surveillance. If we wanted a moment of freedom — to cook, to grab a drink, to go to the bathroom — then the only surefire option was to park him in front of YouTube.
His channel of choice was Little Baby Bum. It’s a giant in the world of kids’ YouTube, with nearly 10 million subscribers and almost 500 videos, each one setting a simple song to cheerful 3D animations. As far as kids shows go, it’s markedly inoffensive, using classic nursery rhymes and little branding, but it still had an incredible effect on his young mind. The opening of the YouTube app induced almost total silence: an almost-religious trance that seemed guaranteed to last as long as the playlist ran. Throughout, his only noise was a reverent sigh when he saw the channel’s mascot appear, no matter how many different variants of “Wheels on the Bus” he endured in a row.
I thought of this digital panacea again this week with the news that YouTube video gaming personality JonTron had made several racist and anti-semitic statements. JonTron — real name Jon Jafari — started his week by tweeting support for Iowa representative Steve King on Sunday, after King made the troubling claim that “we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.” Jafari then doubled down on this stance in an interview with fellow streamer Steven “Destiny” Bonnell, complaining of the erosion of a “unifying culture” in the United States, portraying Black Lives Matter as violent terrorists, and repeatedly making portentous warnings that white people would become the minority in American society.
Wow, how scandalous, Steve King doesn't want his country invaded by people who have contempt for his culture and people! NAZI!!!— Jon Jafari (@JonTronShow) March 12, 2017
These statements are troubling enough on their own, but they’re particularly strange from the mouth of the mop-headed Jafari, who’s best known for yelping theatrically at video games, and who’s major audience is young people. I first came across Jafari’s videos about five years ago, when he was a member of a collective of YouTube Let’s Play-ers called the Game Grumps. In the intervening years, I was dimly aware, Jafari either left or was excised from the Grumps, building up his own YouTube network and prodigious subscriber count with video game-focused clips, skits, and commentaries.
But at some point along the way he was apparently radicalized by the far-right (or at the very least adopted their talking points). I don’t think as a general rule that entertainers should be forcibly cut off from their politics — art and entertainment don’t exist in a vacuum — but Jafari’s heel turn to white nationalism is difficult to swallow when he has such unalloyed access to millions of children. Jafari’s been making videos for long enough that, for a generation raised on iPads and smartphones rather than TVs and movie screens, he’s had the time to cement himself as a much-loved figure. It’s like if Mister Rogers started distributing KKK literature around his neighborhood, or if Bill Nye announced that the Moon landing was faked by Jewish people.
Jafari’s case is a harder echo of Felix “Pewdiepie” Kjellberg’s recent videos, in which he paid two Indian men to hold a banner reading “death to Jews,” and was subsequently dropped by the Disney-owned Maker Studios. Kjellberg argued that he used the phrase for shock, and unlike Jafari, backed very quickly away from any serious right-wing views. While his actions were foul, his argument was at least partially convincing: I don’t honestly think that Pewdiepie is an ardent racist, and it’s certainly not the first time he has defaulted to shock to dig for humor in his videos.
But I also don’t think that his tens of millions of teen and pre-teen fans will immediately identify his antics as a nuanced criticism of the gig economy and global inequality, as he has insinuated. A sizable percentage will instead see their favorite celebrity in the world making the same funny faces he pulls at video games to a banner calling for genocide, and — having already been hardcoded over the last five years of Five Nights at Freddy’s videos to read Kjellberg’s faces of shock and surprise as comedy — decide that those heinous words are now the height of playground hilarity.
Anecdotal evidence pointed out by Waypoint suggests that’s already happening. Under a post detailing JonTron’s Destiny interview, one Gizmodo commenter shared a story about his girlfriend’s young nephews, both of whom made joking references to “bashing Jews” and Hitler. “They’ve learned all this stupidity from these dumb fucking YouTube Minecraft streamers and repeat it mindlessly,” the commenter said. “Think about how many children are out here learning all this horrible shit like it’s normal.”
There’s an argument that parents should be limiting what kids can watch on YouTube in the same way that a sensible parent would stop a four-year-old from watching a horror movie, but that’s nearly impossible in this day and age. YouTube is physically different, for one, appearing on phones in pockets and in playgrounds in a way a CRT TV never could. Some parents will use YouTube almost as much as their kids, but for others, there’s also a pronounced generational disconnect that means they just don’t get the medium, how it works, or the way it’s becoming the dominant form of entertainment for many kids. Add to that the fact that there’s just so much on the site, and its video creators are so prodigious, that even if you understand it completely, keeping up with your kid’s media consumption could be a full-time job.
On YouTube, these fringe opinions are insidious, too. They’re not set to Leni Riefenstahl films or videos of the Nuremberg Rallies — they dribble out during video game streams, or in Twitch chat, or in YouTube’s never-ending “up next” queue. These are ostensibly benign spaces that have become politicized in recent years, but not so loudly that the average parent will be able to clock the association. As the Gizmodo commenter notes, the kids’ parents see video games and “it’s not a red flag.”
It’s easy enough to vet what a two-year-old is watching — they can’t work the Fire Stick controls — and child-friendly YouTube and Kindle apps lock off more adult content entirely. But what happens when these kids grow up enough to develop fine motor skills and graduate beyond nursery rhymes? How best to monitor and curb this negative influence when it is found? Checking viewing histories provides a general overview, but in Jafari’s case, a glance at his channel would reveal his interest in video games, with no mention of his fringe politics. And even then, parents are sitting their kids in front of YouTube precisely so they don’t have to watch something banal or repetitive for an hour, so they can get some work done, or have some headspace to themselves.
Google’s recently announced Family Link app may be the first step toward a better option. The app lets parents control device usage remotely, setting bedtimes, controlling app use, and even remotely locking it. But the app is still not a curator, and it still can’t filter by “white nationalist,” “anti-semite,” or similar terms.
Until they get those tools, today’s parents still have to walk a difficult line, balancing quiet time and their child’s independence with the knowledge that they may be influenced by questionable people who live in their pockets.