In addition to existing rules banning content that will “incite violence or encourage dangerous or illegal activities,” YouTube clarified this week that its rules will also “prohibit challenges presenting a risk of serious danger or death, and pranks that make victims believe they’re in serious physical danger, or cause children to experience severe emotional distress.”
This clarification comes right after Paul, and a handful of other high-profile YouTubers, participated in the “Bird Box” challenge. Said challenge is essentially about trying to do something blindfolded that you would normally do while being able to see, pegged to the viral success of Netflix’s movie “Bird Box.”
YouTube told Engadget, which first reported on the news, that the changes weren’t directly in response to the “Bird Box” challenge.
There are plenty of safe “Bird Box” challenge videos out there. Others, like Paul’s, appeared to depict participants engaging in dangerous behavior.
Prank videos — particularly prank videos that might cross the line into dangerous situations or abuse — have long been a problem on the platform. And the newly clarified guidelines recall some of the worst ones.
In 2017, the Martin family’s YouTube channel had 750,000 subscribers. The channel, called DaddyOFive, billed itself as a family prank channel, but the “pranks” contained disturbing moments to watch. In some videos, for minutes, parents Heather and Mike Martin would scream at their kids, falsely accusing them of, for instance, spilling ink on a carpet. The screaming was justified by their repeated punchline, “It’s just a prank, bruh.”
The new clarifications to YouTube’s rules include a prohibition on pranks that “cause children to experience severe emotional distress, meaning something so bad that it could leave the child traumatized for life.” In a 2017 interview with The Washington Post, John Caffaro, a distinguished professor at the California School of Professional Psychology and an expert on sibling abuse, viewed the videos and offered his take: “There is little question in my mind that the three videos depict abusive behavior between parents and children as well as between siblings. The parents’ constant and intense ridicule, involving both words and actions that express contempt, and degradation, deprive the child victim of a sense of self worth.”
The Martins say the videos were staged and created with their kids' consent. Nevertheless, YouTube banned their channel, they were convicted of child neglect, and they lost custody of two of the five kids in the family. They never admitted wrongdoing, however, and a judge has since reduced their probation sentence. Also, they’ve apparently tried to return to YouTube.
The DaddyOFive saga became a flash point for those who were concerned about prank channels going too far on YouTube. But it was hardly the first controversy to stem from this popular genre.
More than 100,000 people signed a petition in 2015 to get YouTube to ban Sam Pepper after he posted a prank video in which he tricked someone into thinking his best friend had been killed in front of him. Before that, popular prank YouTuber Roman Atwood pretended to kill his young child, twice, for prank content.
Extreme prank and challenge videos have remained popular on YouTube, even as the platform increases its efforts to moderate dangerous content. The Martins' justification — it’s just a prank! — has been repeated to explain away all sorts of extreme “jokes.” The Martin, Pepper and Atwood videos are part of an ecosystem on YouTube: Prank videos do well, so aspiring creators imitate other successful video ideas. And when those ideas fail, prank YouTubers can go more extreme to attempt to one-up everyone else.
YouTube historically has addressed prank videos like these on a case-by-case basis, often after media attention. After one YouTuber staged a water-throwing prank that some interpreted as a reference to acid attacks in Britain, the video was taken down. Hours later, YouTube removed a nearly identical prank video from the same creator, posted months earlier. Until the second video caused an outrage, nobody had noticed it.