Three years ago, a nine-year-old girl decided to make a twerking video with her two cousins. In the video, one of the girls wears a Hannah Montana t-shirt, another is wearing a pink tutu, and the third is in pink and white pajamas. "Let's get this started," says one of the girls into the webcam before putting on a fast-paced song, heavy on the bass.
In the July 2013 video, the little girls dance around the room, sometimes waving their arms in the air and sometimes putting their hands against the wall and twerking—which involves shaking one's butt up and down rhythmically, a dance style made infamous by the woman on the girl's shirt.
Titled "9 year olds doing toot dat," the video has since garnered over 74,000 views. Many of those who watched it didn't just think it was cute.
"The girl in the pink & the girl in the white pants just made my dick hard. Dem some sweet little fat asses," wrote one commenter. (People can be permanently banned from YouTube for predatory behavior, but YouTube says users would need to flag these comments for them to be taken down.)
The girl who published the video, now using a new account, called the men "pervs" in the comments, and said she regretted posting it. I couldn't get in touch with her via email, Facebook or a private messaging system (which may be a good thing as it means the men likely can't either). Instead, I asked her via the public comments section why, if she regrets it, she hadn't taken the video down.
"Someone hacked my old account and changed the password so yeah can't take it down," she replied.
I discovered the video in a dataset compiled by Baruch College-CUNY professor Kyra Gaunt. Along with research assistants, she spent the last year combing YouTube for twerking videos made by black girls under the age of 18 and now has a database of over 600 videos, each one annotated with information, including the apparent age of the girl, whether she's in crotch-baring shorts, the number of times viewed, whether there are sexual comments, and the estimated profit made on the video, assuming it was monetized and made $2.09 per 1000 views. The over 600 videos collectively have over 26 million views.
(Only a small percentage of the videos actually have ads. Users must join the YouTube partner program to monetize their videos. But quite a few have Content ID.)
Gaunt, who wrote the book The Games Black Girls Play, studies the intersection of music, race, and gameplay. She is trying to figure out how we keep young, marginalized girls from being exploited. With this ethnographic study, she is looking at how black girls' bodies are sexualized online and the unintended consequences of girls posting videos without knowing how strangers will consume them. That includes the possibility that the videos will be linked to the girls' identities later in life, by name or with facial recognition technology, when they're applying to college or for jobs.
"These girls are in their bedrooms playing, it’s not sexual to them. They’re just imitating what they’re seeing online," said Gaunt. "But imagine that there are 600 people peering into your 8-year-old’s bedroom. The cognitive, social and emotional impact may be real in terms of what those people say to her."
Gaunt's dataset includes videos of girls alone in their bedrooms, or with friends, or groups of girls in living rooms or backyards. Gaunt says twerking, based on an African dance, began in New Orleans and spread thanks both to the dispersal of people from that region after Hurricane Katrina and the launch of YouTube, which happened the same year (2005). It became a trend to upload twerking videos.
Gaunt's dataset of videos, which were mostly uploaded from 2012 through 2014, are nearly all filmed with smartphones. They are sometimes shot from far away and sometimes zoomed in close on a shaking ass. In one video, a teen twerking in a tight space between her bed and the wall suddenly throws herself on her bed and knocks her phone over, so her mom, who just walked in, won't realize what she was doing.
"We need to scare parents into thinking about what kids do with their mobile phones," Gaunt said. "I think kids under 13 shouldn’t have a mobile web cam. But that battle may be lost already."
In its guidance for teens, YouTube advises against filming "sexually suggestive" videos. It tells teens to use the "Grandma rule" and avoid posting something they wouldn't want their "grandmother, boss, future employer, parents, or future in-laws to see." YouTube rules also forbid children under 13 years old from setting up a YouTube account. Tech companies aren't supposed to collect data from kids under the age of 13 without permission from their parents, per the Child Online Privacy Protection Act, so most just ban kids that young from their platforms—and then pretend they don't use it. Technically, the 9-year-old's YouTube account shouldn't even exist. But as every tech platform knows by now, children under the age of 13 know how to lie about their age.
"As corporate controlled spaces become seamlessly integrated into the social worlds of youth, they are increasingly important places of interaction and self-expression," said Amanda Lenhart, the co-author of a massive Pew report on teens and technology, via email.
Some of the videos in Gaunt's database have been removed from YouTube, usually for violating community guidelines (YouTube forbids "sexually suggestive" content though allows it if it is artistic or educational). Many of the videos that remain up have been discovered by predatory audiences. Men leave their numbers, encourage the girls to take off more clothing, or ask the girls to contact them on messaging app Kik.
While it's not surprising that men flock to twerking videos seeking sexual gratification, this is the creepy underbelly of corporate platforms that function both as children's playgrounds and adult entertainment zones. For teen girls, twerking is a cultural meme. For many of their video watchers, it's purely a sex act. It's what privacy thinker Helen Nissenbaum calls context collapse.
The 9-year-old is not the only one who has lost control of her video. As Doreen St. Felix argued recently in the Fader, after dispersion on tech platforms, black teens' culture is appropriated without credit by corporations. Here the theft is more direct. Gaunt says 35% of the videos she collected have been stolen and re-posted by men who are monetizing the content or using it to build their own YouTube following.
"It's the sex trafficking of the images of girls," Gaunt told me. "He makes the money and the girls get the stigma."
Some of the videos have warnings saying you need to be over 18 to watch them, even though the girls featured in the video are younger than that. YouTube's approach seems dated in that it protects young people from seeing inappropriate things, rather than protecting them when they create inappropriate things. YouTube needs a different setting for teens to share their content: a "you can only watch this if you're under 18" setting. One researcher suggested that, alternatively, YouTube consider a mechanism by which teens could specify that only people under 18 be allowed to comment.
"While YouTube might not want to prohibit comments entirely for teens and children (because it would remove with it all the community and interactivity that they promise, and that teens are often seeking), they could design it so that teen users would only receive comments from users who are also under 18," said Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and associate professor at Cornell University, via email. "This might acknowledge them as a vulnerable class of users who should be shielded from unwanted sexual attention and harassment from adults. However, I'm sure that experts on cyberbullying would remind us that some of the worst stuff teens get is from other teens."
The harder question, said Gillespie, is how we let teens express their burgeoning sexuality. "I'm not optimistic that the right technical filter is the magic bullet answer," he said. "I do think it requires re-emphasizing - to teens, commenters, and platforms - that being online is a public act, a contribution to the public, and should be thought about as such."
YouTube says that teens who want more control of their videos can use the "private" or "unlisted" option when posting videos, so that they're only viewable by someone with a link or so that they don't show up in search, respectively. But like adults, lots of kids are looking for fame and exposure online. Justin Bieber's career wouldn't have blown up if he'd been posting private YouTube videos.
I tried reaching out, via YouTube's messaging system, to girls who posted the videos and men who re-posted them, but only the young girl who wore the Hannah Montana t-shirt, who would now by closer to age 12, was responsive. She seemed distraught.
"From my perspective, there’s no magical age at which people can negotiate cruel comments from strangers," said danah boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, who studies the way young people use the internet.
Boyd doesn't think the companies should shield kids until they're 18, but rather try to build resilience and empathy at an early age. Parents certainly need to teach their kids digital media literacy. The responsibility for YouTube to do so is less clear. It's a huge platform used by more than 100 million people each month; like many social media platforms, it mostly leaves the policing of inappropriate behavior to its users.
Gaunt doesn't necessarily have a solution. She recognizes that it's the girls' free speech right to upload their videos. But she would like YouTube to think harder about how it handles sexualized videos involving children.
"With 300 hours of video uploaded a minute, most people won’t see these patterns," she told me. "One little girl that’s traumatized by this isn’t making the news."
In this case at least, a little girl was helped. Fusion alerted YouTube about the 9-year-old's video and it was deleted almost immediately, with a message saying it was "removed for violating YouTube's community guidelines."