Makenna Kelly, a 13-year-old YouTuber who has attracted over 1.5 million subscribers to her “Life With MaK” ASMR channel, is vowing to quit the platform in protest against what she and her mother say are overly strict content guidelines that have resulted in several of her videos being removed.
Kelly, who has become a popular meme online thanks to videos of her sipping from a can and rattling it with her fingernails or chewing absentmindedly on a box of sticky honeycomb, told BuzzFeed News that 12 of her ASMR videos have been taken down in the past three months alone by YouTube. The honeycomb video attracted over 13.9 million views before it was removed amid concerns that eating the “sticky” food could be perceived as sexual.
“I shouldn’t be discriminated against or punished for something that I enjoy doing,” Kelly told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview Friday from her home state of Colorado.
Other videos removed from Kelly’s ASMR channel include sequences in which she eats Rice Krispies or explains how she spends her money. Kelly said she recently stopped eating certain foods and wearing certain clothes in her videos because she feared that they would be removed by YouTube.
Kelly said she feels she is being discriminated against by YouTube because of her age. “They should treat everybody fair,” she said. “If you have a rule, that rule should apply to everyone, and not discriminate against certain people.”
YouTube declined to comment for this story.
Kelly is part of a growing number of young people uploading videos designed to stimulate ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, which is a tingling feeling some people experience in the head and down their spine when hearing certain noises. Videos like Kelly’s incorporate whispering, tapping, or eating noisy foods directly into a microphone in order to cause the sensation for viewers.
But the trend has left YouTube’s moderators struggling to determine where to draw a line as the content is being viewed by some people for sexual gratification. In 2017, YouTube first tried blocking inappropriate comments on videos of children. This February, the company disabled comments on virtually all channels featuring minors in an effort to eliminate predatory behavior.
The company’s guidelines, which were recently updated in a bid to become clearer and more consistent, expressly prohibit content that “endangers the emotional and physical well-being of minors” as well as content that “sexually exploits minors.”
But young ASMR artists have not been given an explicit list of do’s and don’ts by the company. Instead, the moderators deal with each video on a case-by-case basis and must determine if the content could be perceived as sexual. This means videos involving sticky or phallic foods, or content that draws attention to certain body parts, such as the mouth, are more likely to be removed if they involve a minor.
“I don’t need YouTube to parent my child or protect my child for me. They are not the government,” Nichole Lacy, Makenna’s mom, who manages her channel, told BuzzFeed News. “Punish the pedophiles and punish the online cyberbullies — not the creator.”
Some copies of Kelly’s deleted videos, including the honeycomb video, have been reuploaded by fans to other YouTube accounts where they have amassed scores of views. But Kelly receives no profit from these channels. (She has been estimated to earn roughly $1,000 per day in advertising revenue.)
Not all of Kelly’s videos were removed for being inappropriate for sexualized reasons. Some have been flagged and taken down for supposedly promoting harmful or dangerous acts. One video was removed because it showed Kelly consuming edible items that were made to look like dish soap and sponges; another showed her biting into a makeup palette made out of fondant and candy. Kelly had added language to these video’s titles and descriptions to let viewers know the products were safe to consume. According to Lacy, the makeup palette video was initially restricted to an 18-plus audience, removing monetization capabilities, but was then eventually removed altogether.
This comes in a week in which YouTube has struggled publicly with the enforcement of its community guidelines, following allegations from Vox writer Carlos Maza that the company was not doing enough to protect him and the LGBT community from racist and anti-gay harassment from conservative commentator Steven Crowder.
The moderating of content involving children has proved particularly fraught for YouTube, a site where tens of thousands of hours of content are uploaded each day. In 2017, BuzzFeed News unearthed a number of videos that featured young children, often wearing revealing clothing, placed in vulnerable situations. Some of the children had been restrained with ropes. After the story, YouTube began purging accounts that showed child endangerment.
In February, YouTube faced another crisis when a viral video exposed how pedophiles were using the site’s comments section to find and share videos with one another involving children. The company soon banned comments on all videos involving minors.
But Kelly and her mother maintained their content should not be affected, and said they were now looking into using other platforms and “slowly moving” her audience there.
“We’re going to use a platform that treats everybody fairly,” said Lacy, “where she can make money and do her thing ... and not be worried about somebody’s fetish.”