WARNING: This story contains content that may be inappropriate for children.
Jennifer Sutton has busy mornings.
As a busy mom who works outside the home, just getting that first cup of coffee brewed can be a challenge. Still, she tries to keep a close eye on what her kids are up to.
One of their favorite activities, especially during the summer months, is to watch YouTube videos.
"I like to watch a lot of YouTube," 12-year-old Dee Sutton explained, after rattling off a list of his favorite channels without pausing for a breath, before adding that he's "really, really into" Minecraft-related content.
His sister, 9-year-old sister Gracie, is equally enamored, but with cooking channels like Nerdy Nummies.
When asked how many hours a day the children spend watching these clips, they both laughed and answered, "All day."
That's why mom Jennifer was so disturbed to hear about #Elsagate.
The hashtag #Elsagate has gained popularity online in recent weeks, as concerned web users sound the alarm about some highly disturbing YouTube videos. These clips depict popular childrens' characters including Elsa from Frozen, Spiderman and My Little Ponies, engaged in sexualized activity, violence or even drug use.
"I just can't believe that it's so accessible," Sutton said.
After spotting discussions about #Elsagate on Reddit and Twitter, WHNT News 19 took action to investigate and discovered the concerning videos do indeed exist. They're also relatively easy to stumble upon, which should concern parents with children seeking innocent entertainment.
For example, when we typed just "Elsa and Anna" into YouTube's search tool, the suggested video results initially seemed fine. However, after clicking on a few of them, we started to see suggested videos that were anything but OK.
Many of the videos we found had titles suggesting nudity or violence. Even more had thumbnail images featuring scantily clad characters. Other clips showed characters removing another's clothing, holding guns or engaging in bizarre behaviors involving urination and defecation. Some videos we found featured drawings of My Little Ponies engaging in sexual acts and still others depicted children receiving shots in the buttocks.
According to Chris Newlin of Huntsville's National Children's Advocacy Center, these videos cannot simply be dismissed as adult art or crass entertainment.
"It's a way to engage youth," Newlin explained. The non-profit's Executive Director believes the creators of these videos are targeting children; using approachable characters to "normalize" deviant behavior and potentially groom children for abuse.
"[They're putting it out there to say,] 'This is normal, this is what Elsa does. Disney didn't include this in their movie, but this is what Elsa likes to do in her free time. Don't you want to be like Elsa?'"
We contacted Google, which owns YouTube, to get answers. A company spokesperson sent us the following statement:
"We're always looking to improve the YouTube experience for all our users and we ask our community to flag any video that they believe may violate our Community Guidelines. Additionally, we recently updated our advertising policy to clearly indicate that videos depicting family entertainment characters engaged in inappropriate behavior are not eligible for advertising on YouTube."
Google can move quickly if it has identified a problematic video. For example, some disturbing videos we spotted and sent to the company were removed within days. YouTube users can also flag any video they find concerning, marking it for review under the company's Community Guidelines.
Newlin though, thinks policing content will always be a battle. "It's like whack a mole. As soon as any company starts to do something, another mole is popping up," he said.
So parents, if you want to protect your children, stay vigilant. Newlin urges us to get informed and have honest, age-appropriate conversations about what children might find online.
"This is part of an important dialogue that parents need to be having with kids from the youngest ages," Newlin stressed.
YouTube's Terms of Service clearly state the platform is for ages 13 and up. The account sign-up process also requires people to enter a date of birth.
Additionally, there's a Restricted Mode that parents can use to create a more controlled experience. There's also this handy guide for parents. For young children, there's also the official YouTube Kids app.
Unfortunately, many parents don't know about any of that. All they know, is that their kids love YouTube, and would hate to have it taken away.
For her part, Jennifer Sutton couldn't imagine forcing her children to part with all those beloved cooking shows and Minecraft tutorials. So, she's heeding Newlin's advice.
She plans to start learning more herself and having some tough conversations with her kids; just as soon as she figures out what's for dinner.