While passively half-listening to kid-oriented YouTube videos my four-year-old son Declan refers to, correctly, as “the things that daddy hates” I have periodically found myself wondering how parents are able to get their children to remember their lines, hit their marks and perform for the cameras with a professionalism that belies their youth. It turns out, the only way to really make money with kids on YouTube is to be straight-up evil.
The recent arrest of Machelle Hobson, the mother-monster behind the obscenely successful “Fantastic Adventures” YouTube channel answered my vague question in the most sinister possible fashion. In the case of “Fantastic Adventures”, at least, Hobson tortured her seven adopted children to get them to perform, reportedly pepper-spraying, starving and physically and sexually abusing them when they messed up.
In order to keep the money train running smoothly for a channel that reportedly brought in as much as two million dollars a year, Hobson behaved like a monstrous, demonic caricature of a mother/director. The news stories about her arrest and crimes make her out to be a real-life wicked witch, a tyrant who would beat her adopted children with belts and coat hangers when they couldn’t remember their lines and starved them when they did not perform as directed.
I’d always known the world of kiddie Youtube was vapid and inane, staggering insipid and borderline unbearable to people beyond the age of 10. I knew that kiddie Youtube helped make the world a worse place even as it serves an obscenely useful purpose for parents as a cyber-baby-sitter able to quiet our younglings when we run out of patience or energy. It did not occur to me that these videos could be evil as well, that they could be the product of horrific child abuse. Why do I have any faith left in humanity? It would save time for me to just assume the worst about people, particularly where social media and entertainment are involved.
Seeing Hobson’s mug shot and hearing about the horrific abuse these children endured for the sake of making literally some of the shittiest entertainment imaginable has permanently changed the way I see children’s entertainment on Youtube. I had always assumed that being dumb and terrible was the worst crime Youtubers were guilty of. Alas, it appears that some YouTubers are also guilty of not only real crimes but extremely severe crimes against children.
I’m not sure I will ever be able to watch, or even passively half-listen to a YouTube video with my son without my mind going to the darkest possible place. Before I assumed, without really thinking about it too much, or at all, that the kids in these videos were natural performers excited to be goofing around on camera. Now, I fear, my default assumption will be that the kids in these videos are being forced into Youtube stardom by adults with sinister intentions, motivated by greed, a lust for fame or a desperate longing for more subscribers no matter the cast.
YouTube feels like an uglier place than it did even a few months ago, which is saying something, considering the platform’s terrible history. Like seemingly all technological advances, YouTube initially had all the positive promise in the world. It would be a permanent online repository of seemingly the sum of Western Civilization, where you could watch anything from an old Chubby Checker video to the Star Wars Holiday Special. As is invariably the case with new technologies, it did not take long for the site to embody some of the worst elements of human nature, like hatred, prejudice, and greed.
When left to their own devices, bosses, particularly in the world of entertainment, will treat their employees as badly as they can get away with. They’d have children work sixteen to eighteen hour days, hopped up on cheap amphetamines in order to keep them energetic and productive, as in the days of the studio system. That’s why we needed laws and advocates to demand that there be rules, strict rules, governing the way children performers are treated.
A similar dynamic is at play with animal actors. It took The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino gratuitously, excessively blowing up horses on the set of Heaven’s Gate for animal rights activists to be able to take a stand demanding that representatives of the Humane Society be on hand during filming involving animals to ensure that they weren’t being abused or killed. My point? There seem to be way more rules in place for how we treat horses and goats that appear in film and television than we do the children who star in some of the most popular family videos on YouTube. That should not be the case. Youtube bears some responsibility for the children in their videos. They gave Hobson a strong financial incentive to do anything and everything to make her videos as appealing as possible to a wide audience as possible, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Youtube is, at the very least, complicit in this nightmare.
Hopefully, the Hobson arrest and the ensuing scandal will be a wake-up call for YouTube and the kiddie YouTuber community that regulations need to be put in place to ensure that children are not being abused in the name of subscriptions, money and popularity. YouTube undoubtedly made a lot of money off those “Fantastic Adventures” videos. It would behoove them to use that money to hire social workers to visit the homes of popular YouTubers and make sure that children aren’t being beaten or starved into being adorable on camera.
Should a system with so few oversights and rules that Hobson was not only able to get away with systematic abuse for years but to make millions off her cruelty be allowed to exist? I’m not sure, but I do know that concrete measures must be put in place, possibly by YouTube itself, to ensure that abuse on this level never happens again.