David Farrier, director of docu-thriller Tickled, stumbles into another deeply disturbing instance of vulnerable people being exploited online – this time children, on YouTube.
Editor’s note: While we have endeavoured to protect the identities of the children involved, we recognise that by publishing this story their privacy may be compromised. It is our opinion that privacy concerns, while valid, are outweighed by the issues raised by this story, including the responsibility of Google and YouTube to protect their most vulnerable users.
For information on helping children stay safe online, visit netsafe.org.nz.
The Ice Bucket Challenge and the 22 Push Up Challenge spread like wildfire. I took part in the former, and simply observed the latter, cynical by then about the entire endeavour. By the time the Mannequin Challenge rolled around, it wasn’t even attached to a cause – it was just something everyone did, just because. So when someone pointed me towards the Shrunken Ally & Maddie Challenge I thought, “Oh God, what now”.
What I got were pages and pages of YouTubers answering a series of questions, direct to camera.
“Should I ask the question, and you answer?” says a girl to her friend. They are in their room, posters adorning the walls. “Yeah, okay, you do the question” her friend replies.
“Okay. Okay. Would you rather grow into an enormous size of 10,000 feet tall, and over three times the size of the world’s tallest building, or have your home invaded me a colony of ant sized people who want to take over your home for themselves?”
The girls burst into laughter, compose themselves, and answer the question.
“If possible please … Oh.” The girl pauses. “Show it to the camera?”
They bicker for a bit, and then one of them puts her foot in front of the camera.
The video is 16 minutes long. It has 1200 views. A bunch of other users have left a bunch of comments. “Man, weird video!” one says. I find myself agreeing.
There are loads of these videos – all responding to a questionnaire sent out by a pair of teenagers called Ally and Maddie.
In a post on their now-deleted Google+ account they explained how their obsession with shrinking things first began:
“hello my name is Ally, and recently me and my friend Maddie were watching the movie honey we shrunk ourselves and after we were done watching it we got on the topic of what we’d do if the people we hated were shrunk to that size!”
They appear to send out around 15 questions at a time, including “What would you do if you found a 1-inch tall guy you don’t like in your room at night, how would you react?” and “Let’s say you’re leaving your room to go to school, and suddenly you feel something in your sock, realizing the little guy you don’t like was inside your sock would you leave him inside all day to torture him?”
The YouTubers taking this challenge are very young, and they are making fetish content for adults. They just don’t know it.
The fetish is microphilia, which involves the fantasy of being shrunken down to a tiny size. It’s related to macrophilia, the love of giants – or as this headline rather dramatically put it:
As far as fetishes go, it’s not giant, but it’s not tiny, either. Right now on clips4sale.com, there are 1,876 stores selling giant and micro-related content, with 88,435 clips available for purchase.
There are three main categories of microphilia and macrophilia content: foot, buttcrush and vore.
The first involves, well, feet. Buttcrush involves being shrunk down and sat on by a regular sized person, or staying your regular size and being sat on by a giant. Vore is about being shrunken down to such a small size that you can be eaten by the other participant.
I should point out that most of the adults into this fetish focus on other adults.
“Kids being part of the fantasy is definitely not a part of it. The forums will ban and report anyone that uses children in their content. Even in user-created stories, it must be with characters over the age of consent,” says Josh (not his real name).
Josh, who has a microphilia fetish, got in touch with me because he was alarmed at what he’s been seeing on YouTube. Earlier in the year he’d watched my documentary Tickled and noticed some parallels.
Tickled focused on Jane O’Brien Media, a company that solicited tickling videos from young men. The victims I interviewed in the film were not underage, but they were misled as to what the videos would be used for. The tickling videos also contained Q&As with the participants, who believed they were taking part in a competition.
Josh said he was pleased that I hadn’t demonised everyone with a tickling fetish just because of one bad egg. He hoped I would treat his fetish in the same way.
He says not only is Ally & Maddie a bad look for the fetish community he’s a part of, it’s “very, very wrong”. He told me he’s frustrated that his messages to YouTube about this phenomenon remain unanswered.
“The girls seem lured into doing it, I believe unwittingly. These types of videos tend to generate more views and subscribers for these young girls’ channels, which then starts a cycle of them fulfilling the desires of these predators so they can keep getting more subscribers and views.”
Josh believes it is highly unlikely Ally & Maddie are two young female YouTubers. He believes the account is run by an adult male. His suspicions are based on the type of content the channel is soliciting from the young girls, and the account’s methodical patterns.
“He approaches young girls on YouTube, pretending to be a young girl himself. He targets girls uploading videos on YouTube infrequently, often [ones] with few subscribers and low overall channel views, I believe in order to stay off the radar. He then asks them his set list of questions relating to his fetish; the girls then upload a video to their channel responding to his fetish based questions. After that, he moves onto another girl.”
And while the Ally & Maddie account has been around for three years, it appears the user behind it has been active under other names for much longer. Back in 2009, “BrittneyAshley” was requesting very similar content with similar questions. While inactive, the account still exists.
Back then, the Q&As weren’t framed as a competition, but as a game of tag. The questionnaires came under headings like “Ex-Boyfriend Tag”, “Honey I Shrunk my Ex Tag” and “Itsy bitsy Tag”. The videos still exist on YouTube, and it appears they were all created for the same person.
The thing is that, devoid of context, the videos aren’t contravening any of YouTube’s terms and conditions. They are posted by the user themselves, and their content is G-rated.
Ally and Maddie’s channel never uploads its own videos; it just uses its account to create playlists of the Q&A videos posted on the children’s accounts. The channel subscribes to over 900 accounts, almost entirely belonging to young girls.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he has sent his video request to all of them,” says Josh. “Going by the questions he asks, he seems to be trying to cover all the bases: foot, buttcrush and vore. But with children”.
“The specific mix of facts in this situation, given the specificity of the fetish, is not something NetSafe has seen before,” says Martin Cocker, “but we have seen all of these components of this situation.”
I’d reached out to Cocker, the chief executive of the New Zealand online safety organisation, for comment on the Ally & Maddie videos.
“There are two main concerns. Firstly, the person is presenting himself as a young child, and secondly, he is approaching young children. Essentially this is a person pretending to be a child who is deceiving children online. Although it’s not legally ‘grooming’ it seems to be on that slope.”
However, no one is technically doing anything wrong. “With the facts we have, there appears to be no obvious breach of the law,” says Cocker.
I asked NetSafe if they had a contact at YouTube I could follow up with. NetSafe forwarded the details I’d sent them, and later that day – before I’d spoken to anyone from Google – Ally and Maddie’s channel was suspended, their playlists gone with it.
Later that night a Google representative got in touch, and I responded with some questions. I wanted to know whether my email had led to the account being suspended, and whether they were aware of this sort of content on the service.
“There are more than 400 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute and we do not comment on individual videos,” said Gustaf Brusewitz, Google’s Head of Communications and Public Affairs for the Asia-Pacific region.
“We take safety on YouTube very seriously and our Community Guidelines clearly state that inappropriate material is not allowed on our site. We remove violating videos when flagged by our users and disable the accounts of repeat offenders.”
As to how YouTube felt about this sort of content: “YouTube has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual content involving minors. Uploading, commenting, or engaging in any type of activity that sexualizes minors will immediately result in an account termination.”
The issue is that this is a much bigger problem than a single errant account. Ally & Maddie is just one of many adult accounts which appear to be asking children on YouTube to create microphilia content. And it’s not just microphilia. Start searching for competitions and challenges on YouTube, and the number of children unwittingly creating fetish content quickly multiplies.
“Hey, it’s Kaylynn here,” says a girl of about ten, addressing the camera directly. “I am reading some questions about, um, bugs. It’s from Birdy James. The first question is ‘When was the first time you stepped on a bug and what kind of bug was it….” she trails off.
This is one of many videos titled The Bug Challenge, all created for a user called Birdy James. They all focus on children talking about their experience stepping on bugs. This appears to be part of the crush fetish.
A kid watching Kaylynn’s video probably just sees their friend answering some questions that are funny to them. But when you consider it’s most likely an adult asking the questions, things take a much darker turn.
Once you go down the rabbit hole of “challenge” videos, you inevitably end up at the Lego Challenge. There are hundreds of Lego Challenge videos.
This challenge – aimed at young boys who are asked to step or sit on on Lego pieces – is particularly disturbing. While many of the Lego Challenges focus on crushing, an additional element seems to be the eliciting of pain in the subjects. This is evident from what happens in the videos themselves, and the descriptions left by the children who created them:
The Lego Challenge also appears to be a gateway for other users who want to focus purely on the pain aspect of the videos – and in the Lego Challenge videos they know they have found willing participants who are desperate for views and subscribers:
Pretty soon, other users with other fetishes swoop. It’s a feeding frenzy. I’m somehow not surprised to see tickling appear.
It’s not uncommon for users to directly request the Instagram or Skype details of children in the comments section:
“Kitty Nani 13” is a regular commenter on many of the videos. Her channel has only two videos, one of which is simply a list of challenges, displayed in multiple languages. This phenomenon is in no way limited to only English speakers – and the “challenges” speak for themselves.
By this point, the veil of a challenge – and what the videos are for – is almost non-existent. “Touch my body parts” is inherently awful, as is “Kids it’s pajama time 2016″, which sends out multiple requests.
Most of their video request playlists have over 100 completed video requests.
Not all accounts circling the “challenge” scene operate in the shadows. This user brazenly posts videos of himself giving “shoutouts” to young boy’s accounts in order to gain their favour. His 5000 favourited videos mostly consist of young boys. And his comments on other videos are all something like this:
He explains the “iCarly challenge” direct to camera in one of his videos:
“You have to lick and suck each of your toes for two minutes straight.”
Some of the boys have responded.
How YouTube can deal with this issue is not at all clear. Sure, while I was writing this piece Ally and Maddie’s channel was taken offline. But all that essentially did was delete a playlist. The videos still exist, on hundreds of children’s accounts.
NetSafe says it’s up to parents to monitor any Q&As their children are taking part in on YouTube. “Parents should be across it. Children are often more technically savvy, but they’re not emotionally or mentally mature enough to deal with some online situations,” says Cocker.
For YouTube, it’s also about education: “We work closely with organisations such as charities, others in our industry and government bodies dedicated to protecting young people. YouTube has a variety of educational materials and tools such as safety mode which parents can turn on to stop age-restricted and inappropriate videos from coming up,” Brusewitz told me.
But there’s the problem. In isolation, most of these videos seem utterly harmless – chances are they’ll never be flagged by the YouTube community as violating standards. But when you consider that in all likelihood they’re created for the sexual enjoyment of an adult, posing online as one of their peers, they’re anything but.
For information on helping children stay safe online, visit netsafe.org.nz.