The girls were nine when they turned the camera on and made a twerking video, playfully copying what they’d seen in music videos online.
In the time before it was removed from YouTube (thanks to the due diligence of author Kashmir Hill, an editor at Fusion), the video was hijacked by a hacker, collected over 70,000 views, and could not be taken down by the girls who put it up.
Dr. Gaunt’s work explores the sexualization of young black girls online, and the enduring impact of posting videos on social media platforms like YouTube, where the content — often intended to be silliness among friends — is exploited. She explains,
“These girls are in their bedrooms playing, it’s not sexual to them. They’re just imitating what they’re seeing online. But imagine that there are 600 people peering into your 8-year-old’s bedroom. The cognitive, social and emotional impact may be real….”
The videos in Gaunt’s database were mostly filmed with smartphones, and many of them have been taken down for violating YouTube community guidelines. In their Teen Safety guide, YouTube tells its young users never to post sexually explicit content.
Like all tech companies, YouTube is not allowed to collect data from users under the age of 13 without the permission of their parents. This being the cornerstone of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act.
But everybody knows that kids long ago figured out how to lie about their age and get an account anyway. It’s this loosely guarded gate that leads to the dangerous crossroads of adult entertainment and child’s play.
Which is exactly what happened with the twerking video. What was done in fun was viewed as lurid and sexual by men who left disturbing comments, phone numbers, and pleas for more.
It’s not uncommon for these sorts of videos to be hacked, repurposed for predators, and even monetized. Based on analysis, the 600 videos in Gaunt’s database were viewed over 26 million times, profiting about $2 per 1000 views.
Imagine for a minute: your child posts a video, it’s hacked so she can no longer access it, users then pay to watch your daughter’s video as sexual entertainment, and the hacker profits.
This is not an isolated scenario — at least 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube each minute, of each hour, of each day.
As social media platforms become the world’s biggest forum for communication and expression, the tech industry struggles to outpace its most pressing moral dilemma: how to both profit from, and protect, the youngest users.
Parents should make no mistake: having an ongoing conversation with your children regarding their digital footprint, as well as clear and firm rules for screen time, is not just a matter of their responsibility and education, it’s an urgent matter of their safety.