As fictional horror characters keep ascending to viral internet fame among children, a subset of widely-followed YouTube channels have been producing cartoons depicting these figures in even more disturbing settings.
Much to the dismay of parents, educators and law enforcement, children’s fondness for various characters from horror games and shows is nothing new. A prominent example of this phenomenon is Slender Manthe meme of a thin, faceless creature that went viral to the point of inspiring two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls to find their friend in 2014.
Other figures that have gained notoriety among minors since then include the murderous animal animatronics from horror game franchise Five Nights At Freddy’sthe giant doll from hit Korean television show Squid Gameand—most recently—Huggy Wuggythe sharp-toothed furry blue monster from indie survival horror game Poppy Playtime.
“There is a very long line of research on how children like seeing horror and being scared, and yet at the same time, it can be too much for them,” said Sonia Livingstone, professor at the London School of Economics and expert on children’s digital safety.
“Children know that there are horrors in the world, and they know that things can go wrong and they are scared of things. There is a reason why they seek it out.”
In addition to inspiring fan creations like costumes and art, the famous characters have also influenced real-life games among children. There have been reports of kids emulating Squid Game’s violence on playgrounds.
This month, police departments in the US and the UK have warned parents to monitor their children’s internet activities due to behaviors associated with Poppy Playtime‘s Huggy Wuggy.
UK news outlets reported that the character led to children singing songs about killing, and that one child attempted to jump out of a window because of it.
While parents on social media have claimed Huggy Wuggy sings songs about murder, it does not actually sing at all in Poppy Playtime. Snopes found the popular songs attached to the character come from fan-made online content.
YouTube is one platform to have hosted fandoms for the viral horror sensations, though some of the unofficial content exhibits concerning traits.
A number of channels with sizeable subscriber counts have taken to producing colorful cartoons featuring the cult characters in storylines with telenovela-esque twists and turns. They have innocent names, like GameToons, Game My, and 888 Animations—though their content is far from being kid-friendly.
With over 531,000 subscribers, one channel called Bunny Games features characters shooting and stabbing each other, as well as dying by suicide.
Another, named Slime Channel and boasting at least 122,000 subscribers, depicts murder, adult characters being violent towards children, and male characters physically attacking female characters. One of its videos shows Mommy Long Legs, a Poppy Playtime character, chugging a bottle of tequila and getting drugged while intoxicated.
In a video by a channel with over 464,000 subscribers called SamToons, Kissy Missy—Huggy Wuggy’s female counterpart in Poppy Playtime—is offered a glass of water that is spiked. Once she is passed out, Five Nights At Freddy‘s titular character Freddy Fazbear jumps into bed with her.
Freddy takes photos of them together to send to Huggy Wuggy—depicted as Kissy Missy’s partner in the video—who then races home and slaps her in the face.
Many of the YouTube channels also used suggestive thumbnails for their videos. One that goes by Buzz Gems had baby-like characters with their nude buttocks prominently featured in some images, as well as female characters redesigned to appear more shapely.
In a couple of videos, another channel named Slime Cat—which has almost 2.5 million subscribers—displays thumbnails depicting characters with their pants down, either getting injected with a needle to the buttocks or about to get injected.
Some of the animation channels also reintroduce a character better known to Gen Xers and millennials: Pico, the protagonist of the 1999 Flash game Pico’s School. The game, released months after the Columbine High School massacre, depicts a school shooting.
A YouTube spokesperson told Newsweek: “The content shared has not been found in the YouTube Kids app which is our recommended experience for children under 13.”
“We built YouTube Kids to create a safer environment for kids to explore their interests and curiosity, while giving parents the tools to customize the experience for their kids. We have a higher bar for which videos can be a part of the app and also empower parents to control what content their child can and cannot see,” they continued.
Livingstone said the company touting YouTube Kids is “just insufficient” when content that attracts children to the main app remains.
“So they’ve kind of created YouTube Kids as an offer for parents who are ready to be restrictive, but they haven’t taken the kids’ content off YouTube,” she told Newsweek. “And so the kids are on YouTube, and that’s where the moderation, labeling, age-gating is clearly insufficient.”
“And clearly they have the funds to do more.”
On YouTube’s main platform, some of these channels place a disclaimer in video descriptions stating that their content is geared towards an audience that is above 13 years old.
Curiously, in doing so, they explicitly refer to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)which prohibits websites from collecting data from children under the age of 13.
YouTube’s child safety policy does not allow “misleading family content” that “targets young minors and families” while exhibiting sexual themes, violence, or other mature content. This includes “family-friendly cartoons that target young minors and contain adult or age-inappropriate themes such as violence, sex, death, drugs and more.”
If the content posted is intended for older users, YouTube encourages creators to age-restrict their content and ensure their video titles, descriptions and tags reflect the targeted audience.
Cartoons meant for adults that “contain adult themes such as violence, sex or death” are among the content YouTube would typically add an age restriction to, as it “could easily be confused with family content.”
The videos viewed and described by Newsweek were not age-restricted as of Tuesday.
Five Nights At Freddy’s and Poppy Playtime are both rated 12+ on iOS. netflix rated Squid Game a TV-MA, meaning it’s intended for mature audiences.
Update 04/12/22, 6:01 am ET: This article was updated to add comments by Sonia Livingstone, professor at the London School of Economics.