If you watch one of Lindsay Amer’s YouTube videos and you love it, you can’t leave a comment. If you watch one of Lindsay Amer’s YouTube videos and you hate it, you also can’t leave a comment. And if you don’t bother to actually watch one of Lindsay Amer’s videos but decide, based solely on the channel name “Queer Kids Stuff,” that you’re morally opposed to it, you still can’t leave a comment. That’s because Amer, a YouTuber whose channel is devoted to teaching LGBTQ+ and social justice lessons to kids ages 3 and up, turned off comments on their videos a year ago to ensure that the minors and parents watching could have a truly safe space to view and learn. (Amer uses they/them pronouns.) In other words, the sort of safe space for kids that it has become clear, particularly in recent weeks, that YouTube is often not.
“My content is pretty controversial. It’s, you know, age-appropriate and I’m not talking about anything that shouldn’t be told to kids, but it’s sometimes seen as controversial when you’re talking about queerness in front of young people,” Amer told Intelligencer. “My comment section was pretty much a cesspool from day one. Nazis, MAGA, you name it, I’ve had it commented on my channel. For a long time I was trying to moderate it and it was just so much work. I had a mile-long list of words that were blocked. I had to have the word ‘truck’ blocked because someone once told me I should get run over by a truck.”
Earlier in March, YouTube announced it was making changes to its commenting policies for videos involving children. The announcement came after weeks of headlines about the platform’s child predation problem — a known issue for years — which involved coded messages hidden in the comments on innocuous videos, directing people to sexually exploitative clips of kids. YouTube has since deleted hundreds of channels and millions of comments. It also announced that in the coming weeks it will take a further step and fully “suspend comments on videos featuring young minors and videos featuring older minors that could be at risk of attracting predatory behavior.”
“A small number of creators will be able to keep comments enabled on these types of videos,” YouTube said in a release. “These channels will be required to actively moderate their comments, beyond just using our moderation tools, and demonstrate a low risk of predatory behavior.” (Amer’s videos don’t always feature minors, but if you scroll through them you’ll find things like an interview with Desmond Is Amazing, a 11-year-old drag artist.)
Amer says they initially tried to keep up with the kind of moderation YouTube is describing, but that it wasn’t feasible. Amer’s channel is, in the world of YouTube, smallish. They’ve been posting videos since 2015 and have racked up nearly 2,000,000 views. That’s nothing to balk at, when you consider that truly small YouTube channels — ones started and forgotten or created purely for posting videos of, say, your kid’s middle school chorus concerts — never reach numbers anywhere near that. But even those numbers meant the comments section was too much to handle. “It was not something that was possible to moderate, on my own or even with a couple friends who had agreed to help me out. I would just have to wait for, like, a wave; usually [the comments] come in waves,” Amer explained. “And I would see a wave come in and then have to go through every comment. It was just super tedious and I just kind of made the executive decision that I wanted my channel to be a safe space and for families.”
It’s a choice, as a creator, to opt out of having viewers engage with content. For Amer, the peace of mind has been worth it. For Mindy and Shaun McKnight, the parents behind “Cute Girls Hairstyles,” a channel with 5.6 million subscribers and over a billion views, on which they demonstrate hairstyles using their kids as models, comments are integral to their business. (The McKnights also manage channels for their teenage daughters, twins Brooklyn and Bailey and Kamri Noel. Combined, the girls have over 7 million subscribers.) But moderating them can be a challenge. “YouTube turned off her entire channel and I understand it,” Shaun said of comments on Kamri’s channel. “I get it. My main concern was that I didn’t want it to hurt our channel based upon the weight that’s attributed to commenting in the algorithm.”
The couple said YouTube told them the lack of comments wouldn’t impact the likelihood of their videos surfacing for viewers, but Mindy said they are concerned this change still might drive fans away. (YouTube told the Verge that “comments being disabled on a video does not harm that video or channel’s search and discovery, and … the company has no plans to demonetize videos just for featuring kids.”) Kamri traditionally responds to her fans’ comments for the first hour after she posts a new video each week.
The McKnights have turned comments back on for all their videos, but, like Amer, they know keeping up with the required moderation is going to be a challenge. “We have to physically approve every one of them,” Shaun said. The couple said that in addition to the effects on comments, the advertising options for content involving kids have become limited. They mentioned a swimsuit haul video starring Kamri — haul videos involve a YouTuber going shopping and then trying everything on for the camera once home — on which YouTube limited the available ads, “so an advertiser wouldn’t run the risk of putting their ad on that video and having a predator going in and commenting.” (Earlier this year, advertisers including Nestlé, Disney, and McDonald’s pulled ads to avoid being linked to predatory comments.) Ads are, of course, how YouTube and YouTubers make money. So having to limit them isn’t ideal for creators or for the platform.
As far as YouTube family vloggers go, the McKnights are in a good position. They run large channels and have open communications with YouTube. They’ve been identified by YouTube as quality creators who are allowed to keep moderated comments on their videos containing minors. Not all creators are so lucky. Jon and Danielle Murray, parents who run a family channel whose 72,000 subscribers keep up with the lives of their six daughters, told the Verge that the comments sections on all their videos have been removed with no direct word from the platform. “We’ve never had any issues with our comments,” Danielle told the Verge. “Even when we have ones that get flagged for review, they’re never extreme.” The Murrays fear the loss of comments will ruin the community they’ve built — and the business. YouTube is still in the process of rolling out comment blocks to family and kids channels, so it’s likely that a number of new creators will face similar fates in the coming weeks.
No matter how good YouTube gets at moderating comments and content — the McKnights noted several times that they feel YouTube’s AI is good but “not perfect, and not going to catch everything” — there’s no substitute for monitoring what your kids are watching yourself. “If you have a kid online, you have to be a parent online,” as Mindy put it. “Period.” (See: Momo.) But the McKnights are also in the YouTube biz. It’s to their benefit, ultimately, to to do everything in their power to make sure what your kids are seeing, at least on their channels, is safe. “If the YouTube kids app only had our family’s videos in it, then that would be just great,” Mindy joked, talking about the significant amount of time and effort the family has put into moderation ever since launching their first channel.
But that safety also comes at an expense for creators. “Comment moderating is something that I want to have a continued dialogue with YouTube on,” Sean said. “If they move [in] this direction, it becomes an actual increased cost for those of us that do it for a business and have large scale with our videos.” Another family content creator told the Verge that asking YouTubers to moderate every comment themselves “isn’t realistic unless you can afford a bunch of assistance.” Creators like the McKnights, with their millions of followers and commensurately substantial ad revenue, might be able to shoulder this cost, possibly by staffing out comment moderation. But smaller-scale creators, like Linsday Amer or the Murray family, who don’t have those resources? Not so much. YouTube’s announcement that it’s finally cracking down on comments in the name of safety could ultimately hurt creators who only ever did what YouTube wanted them to do in the first place: create popular, G-rated content. “It causes creators to feel like we’re at fault,” Shaun said.