The lighthearted videos appeared to be scripted, edited and neatly produced, and featured their young stars engaging in wholesome mischief as playful music hummed in the background.
It was a recipe that worked for "Fantastic Adventures," a hit YouTube family comedy series created by an Arizona family and shut down this week amid allegations of child abuse off-screen. Before YouTube terminated it, the family's channel had attracted nearly 800,000 subscribers and amassed more than 2 million views — potentially netting upwards of $20,000 per sponsored video.
But while some production aspects of the series echoed traditional show business, the criminal charges reveal a worst-case scenario of how a lack of oversight in mom-and-pop-produced videos can play out, child safety advocates say. Mother Machelle Hackney is accused of neglecting and physically abusing the seven adopted children who starred in the videos.
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When it comes to seemingly harmless videos of young people on its platform, YouTube has no purview over what is happening behind the scenes to those children.
"It's the wild, Wild West," said Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit serving families with children in the professional entertainment industry that has advocated for more oversight of minors who star in YouTube videos.
"I hate to say it, but if this family ends up being made an example of that would be great because I think it will save other children from exploitation," Henry added.
Family channels on YouTube come in a variety of formats, such as toy reviews, baking how-to shows or the adventures of family vloggers. Some feature children and are designed for a younger audience, while others are meant to educate or inspire discussion. YouTube does not say how many exist; dozens of the biggest family-focused channels attract millions of followers.
The video site has made clear that it wants to protect children, and will take down any account that appears to show child abuse, as it did in May 2017 when it removed a family channel called DaddyOFive that involved a couple allegedly abusing and humiliating their children.
In a statement this week, YouTube said it works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to arrest and convict anyone whose account depicts harm to children, adding that last year, it terminated and reported 46,000 offender accounts.