On YouTube, he’s the patriarch of a happy, oh-so-cute clan. But claims that popular “family YouTuber” Chris Ingham sent inappropriate messages to a fan half his age have reignited debate about predatory, sexualized behavior from creators towards their often-young fans on the video-sharing platform.
Earlier this month a 16-year-old British girl posted screenshots she claimed showed the 33-year-old YouTuber with more than a million subscribers trying to encourage her to sneak out of her hotel room to meet him and go skinny dipping.
Chris Ingham was alleged to have sent the Twitter direct messages in October 2017, when both his family and that of the accuser, Jess, were staying at the same hotel in Orlando’s Walt Disney World. Separate screenshots of Twitter direct messages from Ingham indicate he was staying in Florida from October 17th to November 3rd, while videos posted to the Ingham Family YouTube channel show the Ingram family were in Orlando between those dates.
Ingham is alleged to have sent messages encouraging the accuser to visit him alone for a nude swim. The purported recipient of the messages told YouTube gossip channel DramaAlert that “He would also message me saying he couldn’t believe I didn’t have loads of boyfriends at home because I’m so beautiful and pretty and that kind of stuff.” At the time, Jess had “only just turned 16,” she said. (Jess did not respond to requests to comment for this story made via her Twitter and Instagram accounts. The Ingham Family’s agent did not respond to a request for comment made via Twitter, while Ingham himself did not respond to a Twitter direct message asking for comment.)
There is no suggestion that Ingham met with Jess, initiated any sort of physical sexual contact, or has broken the law. But the wide age gap—and the in-built disparity between the powerful YouTuber and the young fan he is alleged to have targeted for grooming—raises questions about the morality of the purported sexually charged invitation to meet. Sadly, it’s just one of many examples of YouTubers who have seemingly tried to exploit the regard in which their fans hold them for sexual gain. At least a dozen big-name creators have been accused of sexual assault by fans.
The Ingham family—father Chris, mother Sarah, and daughters Isabelle, Esme and Isla—first started posting videos in December 2015. Their vlogs contain insights into their lives as the parents take their children to the movies, to McDonald’s, and to swimming pools. Sarah does most of the hosting, while the Ingham’s three daughters are the stars. Chris makes cameo appearances in many videos. A little over two weeks ago, and just before the allegations of impropriety broke, they passed the million subscriber mark on YouTube.
The scandal caused the family to break a two-year run of posting daily videos, though the only acknowledgement that something was awry came in a 106-second video where the family’s matriarch, Sarah, said: “We had a super-duper busy day yesterday dealing with family matters and it was absolutely impossible for us to do any vlogging of any kind.” Sarah did not specify what the “family matters” were, while comments were disabled on the video.
Chris and his wife Sarah have been mostly silent on social media for nearly a week. Barring the recent inclusion of a screenshot of positive YouTube comments at the end of their videos calling them “one of the few places on Youtube where you are uploaded with pure positivity every single video post” and “a credit to YouTube,” the family largely chosen to ignore the issue.
On July 3rd Chris Ingham did post a statement on his Twitter account denying the accusations.
“We are aware that certain untrue stories have been posted on social media platforms in the last 24 hours regarding Chris,” the statement read. “These stories are not true and the accusations made are entirely without foundation.
“We are all very hurt and deeply upset by these cynical attempts to damage Chris’ reputation and will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve Chris’ good name. We are taking action and can’t comment further at this time.”
The accuser, Jess, told DramaAlert: “They keep talking about taking it further but honestly I don’t mind because I’ve got the proof. It’s going to end up coming back in his face. I can prove that he’s done it.”
After the scandal broke, the family announced they would not be appearing at Summer in the City, a YouTuber industry and fan convention held in London in August. Tom Burns, the founder of Summer in the City, did not respond to a request for comment made via WhatsApp.
The allegations made against Chris Ingham show just how much the relationships between YouTube stars and their fans can be exploited by bad actors.
The site’s fans are often young—55% of British five-to-16-year-olds visit YouTube daily, according to a February report by U.K. charity Childwise—while the creators can be significantly older. In the early days of YouTube, the video-sharing platform was a democratic place where everyone was equal. But as the site becomes larger, the power disparity between viewers and creators increases.
“Many large creators have loyal followings of teenage girls and as they become increasingly famous some seek to exploit this fame through sexual misconduct,” said Zoe Glatt, a PhD researcher conducting a digital ethnography of YouTube creators at the London School of Economics.
YouTubers’ fanbases are more likely to be young girls than boys; according to Childwise data, 62% of girls aged 11-14 watch vlogs, while 54% of boys the same age do.
“It goes without saying that YouTube creators can exploit their celebrity status and loyal fanbase,” Glatt added. “This is exacerbated by the fact that YouTube creators have a uniquely intimate relationship to their audiences, with regular (if not daily) interactions and an emphasis on sharing their ‘real’ life.”
The new YouTube celebrities combine the enticing, alluring power of the old school celebrity with the openness and accessibility of a friend—a bewitching and beneficial relationship if handled well, and something more sinister if chosen correctly.
“You can just look at their YouTube videos and get a direct link with them,” Alice Marwick, assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me last year. “I think that if you imagine a young girl sitting late at night with her laptop, watching these videos… they certainly do engender that feeling of closeness.”
Ingham is not the first YouTuber to face allegations that he used his status with young fans for questionable means. Mike Lombardo, a New York musician who found fame on YouTube, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2014 for receiving sexually explicit images of 11 of his young fans.
After his sentencing for receiving child pornography, assistant U.S. attorney Tamara Thomson said that “Lombardo took advantage of his position as an internet star, and took advantage of his following of female teenage fans on YouTube.”
Predatory behavior is nothing new; celebrities have taken advantage of their youngest fans for years. However, social media and YouTube’s power of connecting people creators with their fans closer than traditional celebrities have ever been able to means that it’s easier than ever for malicious actors to connect with their youngest, most impressionable supporters.
Anthony D’Angelo, the executive director of the Internet Creators Guild, a collective of online creators, declined to comment on the Ingham case because he didn’t know enough about the specifics of the situation—but did point to a video he published in 2014 about the dangers of YouTube celebrity.
“We need to be critical of the institution of celebrity in all media,” D’Angelo said in that video, “but especially YouTube which by its connective egalitarian nature, puts celebrities closer to fans than ever before. Though we don’t like to acknowledge it, that proximity facilitates predatory behavior. We all need to be wary here.”