YouTube’s now-banned dangerous pranks were a problem long before the ‘Bird Box’ challenge

JAKE Paul was likely already violating YouTube’s community guidelines when he filmed himself driving blindfolded and doing the Bird Box challenge in a busy Los Angeles street earlier this month. But just in case, YouTube has now clarified its policies on what is – and is not – allowed when it comes to dangerous pranks on the platform.

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 unlikely viral success of Netflix’s movie Bird Box.

YouTube told Engadget, which first reported on the news, that the changes were not 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 behaviour.

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 some 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 traumatised for life”.

In a 2017 interview with The Washington Post, distinguished professor at the California School of Professional Psychology and an expert on sibling abuse John Caffaro viewed the videos and offered his take, “There is little question in my mind that the three videos depict abusive behaviour 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.”

Extreme prank and challenge videos have remained popular on YouTube, even as the platform increases its efforts to moderate of 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 the United Kingdom, 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. – The Washington Post