YouTube star’s anti-Semitic posts a wake-up call for parents

February 15, 2017

The news that Disney axed its deal with YouTube superstar PewDiePie over anti-Semitic content in his videos rocked his millions of fans this week — as well as the millions of parents who’ve long assumed his social media posts were moronic but relatively harmless.

After all, 27-year-old PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, claims more than 50 million followers and reportedly made $15 million last year, a good chunk of that through Maker Studios, which is owned by Disney. And if pop culture has taught us anything, it’s that 50 million fans can’t be wrong.

Except when they are. A recent video by the Swedish performer included footage of two men holding up a sign that read “Death to all Jews.” Other videos reportedly include images of swastikas and show him doing a Nazi salute. Though Kjellberg initially apologized in the wake of the scandal, saying he was “just trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online,” he also railed against the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story.

The news is just the latest reminder that parents, many of whom valiantly try to keep an eye on their kids’ Internet habits, can’t police every YouTube video or social media celebrity. For years, parents and Internet safety advocates have grappled with the best ways to protect kids from inappropriate content online, as well as what to do when they do come across it on the web.

The approach more parents are taking to Internet safety? Open communication. That is, parents sitting down and talking to their kids about the importance of making responsible decisions online.

After C.C. Chapman of Milford saw the anti-Semitic video that Kjellberg posted, he took the opportunity to talk to his two high-school-age kids about how everything that a person posts online has consequences. It wasn’t an unusual topic, he said, since they’ve had talks about online content and behavior since the children were little.

“Even though we have the freedom of speech, people need to realize there are consequences,” said Chapman, who made clear during the conversation that “there is no room for any hate speech, not even if it’s a little bit.”

“From day one we’ve always taught our kids to say something if they see something they don’t like,” he said. “We’ve had open discussions about who you love, what race you are, or what god you worship doesn’t mean anything because it’s all about your actions and words.”

The offensive videos posted by Kjellberg were viewed over 20 million times before being taken down, according to The Wall Street Journal.

YouTube has canceled a second season of PewDiePie’s YouTube series and dropped him from Google Preferred, which gives advertisers access to the most popular YouTube channels.

Stephen Balkam, the founder and CEO of Family Online Safety Institute, says he applauds the companies for drawing the line and saying it’s “totally unacceptable to promote even in a jokey way” anti-Semitic and hateful messages.

Christine Koh, founder and editor of the Boston Mamas parenting website, said there’s really no way to keep kids off the Internet completely because it’s so often a requirement in school and for homework. Furthermore, helicopter parenting isn’t an effective way to address Internet safety concerns.

All of which means that dialogue with kids about what they’re doing online is perhaps the only way to help them make sense of the web. The other key: not getting rattled if they do find something inappropriate.

“Where kids shut down is if parents overreact,” Koh said. “If something does happen, have a conversation. In the [PewDiePie] case, talk about equality, acceptance, and how things like that are not OK. Talk about consequences of his actions.”

Donna Rice Hughes of Enough is Enough, a nonprofit that provides materials to help families understand how to make smart decisions online, says the most important thing for parents to know is that no child is completely safe from inappropriate or harmful material online.

“Worst thing for parents to say is ‘not my child’ because my child is savvy, smart, and good. Any kid can get into trouble online because there’s all the good and all the bad online,” she said. “But don’t shame your child, you want to be the safe place for your kids. That is one of the best front-line defenses for your kid.”