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 242 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.
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.
Professional child actors working for major production companies are covered by strict legal safeguards.
Laws vary by state, but minors are almost always given some form of legal protection over the number of hours they work, where their earnings go and a guarantee that their job will not interfere with their ability to get an education.
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That might mean, for example, that a child can be on set for eight hours a day, but can only work five of those hours, while the rest of the time is spent resting, eating meals and receiving their education from a tutor. As for payment, many states require 15 percent of a minor actor's earnings to be placed into a trust account, reserved for their use when they reach adulthood, so the money cannot be touched by other family members.
"If we had a social worker or health care professional attending every home that puts out YouTube videos, that would be a pretty large task."
In some states, parents must be on set at all times to ensure a child's safety. In others, a child's on-set tutor serves as their welfare worker, doubling as an educator and an enforcer of the laws meant to protect the child.
Nothing of that sort exists for children who star in popular YouTube videos. And some child safety experts say it would be an impossible request of YouTube to expect them to monitor abuse or neglect happening off-camera.
"If we had a social worker or health care professional attending every home that puts out YouTube videos, that would be a pretty large task," said Callahan Walsh, a child advocate with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "When the abuse isn't as blatant, it's much more difficult for authorities to step in because no boundaries have been crossed."
But, Walsh added, child abuse is "rampant" — nearly 700,000 children in America are abused every year, according to the National Children's Alliance — and this case is an example of how important it is to look for red flags, such as bruises or children acting withdrawn, particularly around a particular adult.
Hackney, the Arizona mother, is accused of withholding food and water and bathroom access from her children when they failed to follow directions for their videos, according to the Maricopa Police Department. She is also accused of beating and pepper-spraying them from head to toe, and taking them out of school to make videos.
Police did not provide the age of her seven adopted children. The Arizona Department of Child Safety said all potential foster and adoptive parents "undergo a thorough vetting process," including quarterly home visits from licensing agencies in addition to monthly visits from the Department of Child Safety, before adoptions are finalized, and said it had removed the children from the home upon learning about the allegations.
Ryan Hanlon, vice president for the Washington-based National Council for Adoption and a former practitioner who used to vet adoptive families, said the screening process is so rigorous that it's uncommon for children to be placed into unsafe homes.
He said that parents with any sort of criminal history or background with child protective services are disqualified, and a thorough home study is done beforehand. Psychological assessments are sometimes conducted on every member of the family. References are also checked.
"When this happens, it is surprising. Was there something in their past that was missed, or something that started later?" Hanlon said.
Carrie Goldman, a social media expert who used her own experience as an adoptive mom to also become an adoption advocate, said she feared that the complex emotions that come with being adopted may have made an already terrible situation even worse for the Arizona children.
"Adoptive children, in particular, are already more vulnerable to feeling like they have to earn their keep or to feeling like if they don't perform, that they'll be given back or given away," Goldman said. "I think with any kid who is a social media presence or star, it's healthy to regularly check back in with the child to make sure that they don't feel that their world and love is conditional on their performance."
The allegations stunned other YouTube stars. Tawny and Zeb Schnorr, who have a channel called "Extreme Toys TV," briefly collaborated with a couple of Hackney's children and noticed nothing suspicious.
"That's what hurts me the most is that I didn't see it," Zeb Schnorr said.
Signs of abuse are not always obvious. But oftentimes, trained professionals can spot red flags that would have gone unnoticed by the general public.
"YouTube is not in a position where they can anticipate what happens, so that's what an advisory committee could do."
"A Band-aid solution would be to tell YouTube, 'you need to hire people with expertise in child abuse,' because I think someone would be able to flag this early on," she said. "But I think the larger issue is YouTube is not in a position where they can anticipate what happens, so that's what an advisory committee could do. They could think about the type of people who could be violated and will be violated in the future, and advise YouTube on who should be hired or what should be monitored."
The video platform has become a lucrative source of income for some users known as "influencers," who promote brands to a massive amount of followers in exchange for free products or money.
Stephanie Stabulis, senior strategy director for HireInfluence, an influencer marketing agency for Fortune 1000 brands that has never worked with the "Fantastic Adventures" family, said the amount of money a channel makes is typically based off of channel reach, engagement and views.
With the "Fantastic Adventures" videos averaging 1 million to 2 million or more views each and some reaching more than 6 million in recent months, "brands could be paying at least $10,000 to $20,000 per sponsored video based on fair market rates for this kind of video performance," Stabulis said, adding that family channels tend to price toward the higher end of that range due to demand from brands.
Henry, of BizParents Foundation, said social media has made it all too easy for people to skirt traditional production rules for protecting children — as their less costlier videos earn views and profits.
"If you have no money, but you have a cellphone, you can be monetizing from your home," she said. "And who's to say what you're doing in your house?"
CORRECTION (Nov. 13, 2019, 9:30 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of views the family’s YouTube channel had amassed. It is more than 242 million, not 2 million.