SAN FRANCISCO — Not safe for kids. That's the label that some parents are slapping on YouTube after vlogger Logan Paul blasted out a video of a suicide victim in the Aokigahara — the Japanese forest where dozens of bodies are discovered every year — to millions of his young followers.
"There is no filter when it comes to YouTube stars," says Jill Murphy, editor in chief of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization focused on education and advocacy for kids. "It’s not until something tragic is shown via a video, and viewers react, that the content is removed or dealt with by the platform."
For years dark corners of YouTube were declared off limits by concerned parents. Now it's mainstream YouTube that's setting off alarm bells, with Google's hands-off approach to the billions of videos that flow through the streaming service and the growing influence of self-made YouTube stars on teens and tweens — even younger kids.
Paul, 22, has built a mini digital empire out of his ability to hook young people on his onscreen antics. His daily videos, filled with pranks and stunts, routinely fetch more than 5 million views. And last year, thanks to his legions of "Logang" fans, he pocketed $12.5 million from advertising spots, merchandise sales and other sources of revenue, according to Forbes magazine.
The suicide video that Paul posted Sunday night attracted more than six million views and tens of thousands of likes before he took it down. Even his apology video trended on YouTube, ranking number one on YouTube's trending videos page for much of Tuesday and racking up millions of views.
"Parents need to be aware and the industry has to step up and do a better job of managing content being uploaded that people of all ages can see within seconds," Murphy says.
Nicole Herman, a 43-year-old mom from Torrington, Connecticut, says the video was a wake-up call for her.
"My 15-year-old son came to me about this video. I was so disturbed and have not realized that I need to monitor what my son watches on YouTube," she said. "My son was smart enough to tell me about it, which I’m extremely thankful for. I can’t believe YouTube even allowed this upload."
YouTubers, who chase clicks with outlandish behavior, aren't just catnip for kids. They're the lifeblood of YouTube, paying off in billions of views and billions of advertising dollars. But some of YouTube's biggest stars have also produced some of its worst moments.
Last year, Felix Kjellberg, a Swedish vlogger (video blogger) known as PewDiePie who has nearly 59 million followers and is very popular with young people, had his original YouTube Red series canceled after the Wall Street Journal reported on videos with racist language and anti-semitic imagery. YouTube also removed him from Google Preferred, which connects YouTube's most popular stars with advertisers.
YouTube isn't just having problems with content and its creators on YouTube. Its kids app, with more than 11 million weekly viewers, has been called out for videos containing disturbing themes and imagery that slip past the service's algorithms and moderators. YouTube has vowed to crack down on bad actors and to impose tighter filters for content.
So far there's been no commercial fallout for YouTube with big brands eager to reach young viewers and analysts don't expect any, though they say marketers are being more careful these days about where their ads run. In fact, YouTube is raising the rates it charges advertisers.
And controversy hasn't reined in homegrown YouTube stars who angle for attention and advertising with videos that push boundaries, flout social norms and sensationalize tragedy.
Logan Paul and his brother Jake gained a following by making six-second videos for the now-defunct service Vine until they became so Internet famous, they dropped out of college and high school and moved to Los Angeles.
Both ranked as top earners among YouTube stars in 2017, according to Forbes. Next to his younger bad boy brother, who also vlogs daily on his own YouTube channel, Logan Paul was the golden boy, cutting deals with big brands like Doritos, Nike, Hanes, Pepsi and Dunkin' Donuts.
That changed with the flood of criticism that greeted Sunday's publication of the 15-minute suicide video as people fumed over Paul’s decision to show the body hanging from a tree and his comments after discovering it.
"This definitely marks a moment in YouTube history," Paul bragged in the video. "Because I’m pretty sure that this has never hopefully happened to anyone on YouTube ever."
He later apologized, saying he was trying to raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention. "For my fans who are defending my actions, please don't," Paul said. "They do not deserve to be defended."
YouTube says it's trying to keep inappropriate content away from kids by cracking down on creators who violate its terms of service and putting age restrictions on some videos. YouTube didn't say whether Paul faced any consequences for the suicide video. In a statement, YouTube says it prohibits "violent or gory content posted in a shocking, sensational or disrespectful manner."
It's unclear if the backlash from the suicide video will put a dent in Paul's popularity or his earnings. While much of the Internet turned on Paul, many of his fans took to social media to defend him.
Andrew Keen says the real problem lies with YouTube, a platform without gatekeepers. The rules on the content that's allowed on television, particularly children’s television, should extend to YouTube, which is soaking up more and more of young people's screen time, says Keen, author of the upcoming book How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age.
"It’s the same old story. No curation, no mediation, no taste, no boundaries. All clicks," says Keen. "How many times does this need to happen?"
USA Today reporter Brett Molina contributed to this report.