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Makenna Kelly is one of the most famous ASMR practitioners on YouTube. She has more than 1.3 million subscribers on her Life With MaK channel who watch her eat candied roses, lightly tap her microphone with a makeup brush, or crunch on honeycomb, all in the name of ASMR—which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and which can soothe people.
Kelly makes plenty of money by entertaining viewers with the soft sounds she makes into her microphone. Business Insider reported she could be earning up to $1,000 per day on YouTube, and her fans have requested that she (and paid for her to) tap her fingers on a TV or gulp down milk and cookies.
But Kelly is 13 years old, and some wonder if she’s potentially being sexually exploited on the social media platform.
ASMR can be a sensual experience for somebody who’s listening and watching the videos. The fact Kelly is underage makes her videos a gray area for YouTube. Technically, it doesn’t appear that Kelly and her family are doing anything wrong, but some of her viewers might be looking at and listening to her in a less-than-wholesome way.
“We’ve been working with experts to update our enforcement guidelines for reviewers to remove ASMR videos featuring minors engaged in more intimate or inappropriate acts. We are working alongside experts to make sure we are protecting young creators while also allowing ASMR content that connects creators and viewers in positive ways,” Claire Lilley, YouTube’s child safety policy manager, told Wired.
Wired this week reported that YouTube took down Kelly’s channel for three days last November, but after talking with the family, the platform put it back online. Wired wrote that it “leaves questions about whether the phenomenon can be adequately monitored. Videos featuring the sexualization of minors are banned by the site, and ASMR ‘mouth sound’ videos now fall within this remit. Yet at the time of writing, a search for ‘child ASMR mouth sounds’ on YouTube brings up hundreds of videos with a disturbing number of views.”
It’s tough to say if Kelly’s videos are “disturbing,” but many of them garner hundreds of thousands of views.
The potential exploitation of children has continued to be a difficult problem for YouTube to solve.
In 2017, a disturbing skit featuring a clown kidnapping a child and stuffing him into a washing machine was revealed. Meanwhile, other videos featuring minors showing off their summer wardrobe or taking a bath with bathing suits on continue to draw lecherous comments from those who are apparently attracted to the children.
YouTube told the Daily Dot in December that it aggressively enforces its community policies against videos and comments that sexualize or exploit children. In the third quarter of 2018, YouTube said it removed hundreds of thousands of individual videos and more than 25,000 channels for violating those child safety policies.
“Any content—including comments—that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube,” a YouTube spokesperson told the Daily Dot. “When we become aware of new and evolving patterns of abuse, we take swift action in line with our policies.”
But not everybody is a fan. Last year, China banned ASMR videos from social media sites after terming them “vulgar and pornographic” content. The ASMR community doesn’t agree with that label.
Yet, at least two of Kelly’s fans have requested her to do something “inappropriate,” according to her mother, Nichole Lacy, who no longer allows her daughter to look at the emailed requests she receives.
There’s also the question of a video from last October titled “ASMR – SASSY Police Officer / Cop” where some viewers believed the minor was being sexual for the camera. YouTube eventually deleted that video.
Kelly responded by telling Wired, “It’s like, you can’t blame me for your mind working that way. It’s not my problem your mind is in the gutter and stuff.”
She’s correct. But even if she feels the behavior and desires of others who watch her aren’t her problem, that doesn’t mean the issue isn’t tricky for YouTube at large. “We’re committed to getting this right and recognize there’s still more to do,” YouTube told the Daily Dot in December.
For YouTube and for ASMR creators like Kelly and her mother, it’s apparently still difficult to determine what’s appropriate for a 13-year-old girl and what’s not.
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Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.