Piper Rockelle’s mother faces abuse allegations in court case
The mother of a teenage YouTube star will face allegations of emotional, physical and sexual abuse from 11 teen content creators who were featured on her daughter’s channel in a trial that begins Monday .
The legal proceedings will offer a rare glimpse into the lucrative and largely unregulated world of child stardom on YouTube.
All of the teenage complainants allege in the lawsuit, filed in January 2022, that Tiffany Smith, mother of YouTube star Piper Rockelle, intentionally inflicted emotional distress while in a position of ‘custody and control’ over them in producing content for The Rockelle YouTube Channel. The teen creators allege they suffered physical and emotional harm from “harassment, molestation and abuse,” according to the complaint.
Additionally, some of the plaintiffs say they weren’t paid for using their likenesses to promote Rockelle content, and all say they weren’t paid for their work and appearances, though. that they say they have not been promised payment.
Some of the allegations against Smith have repeatedly sparked the interest of concerned outsiders, offering a glimpse into the “Wild West” world of child stardom on YouTube.
YouTube itself takes no responsibility for its creators’ off-screen conduct, and there are surprisingly few regulations regarding the creation of social media content involving children. Instead, the teens are each seeking around $2 million in damages, totaling at least $22 million, from Smith and her boyfriend, Hunter Hill, whom the complaint identifies as the director and editor of Rockelle’s YouTube channel.
The plaintiffs were all once part of 15-year-old Piper Rockelle’s “Piper Squad” and featured on her YouTube channel, which has more than 10 million subscribers. Children and young teens make up the cast of “The Squad,” and their relationships and antics are broadcast to millions of viewers. Despite their age, the plaintiffs said they were asked to stage romantic “crushes” on each other, intended to deceive young audiences.
According to the complaint and the mothers of former ‘Squad’ members, six of whom spoke to NBC News, ‘Squad’ dynamics and romantic stories have led to issues such as online bullying and harassment of their children. The complaint and the mothers say Smith left their children reeling from trauma.
“I just want peace to come back to my kids,” said Ashley Anne-Rock Smith, whose two daughters, both complainants, are cousins to Rockelle and have appeared in 94 videos on her channel.
“I want all predators who hurt young children brought to justice,” she said. “I also hope we move the needle on those platforms that allow that.”
YouTube did not immediately return a request for comment.
In July, Smith countersued for $30 million and accused the plaintiffs’ mothers of conspiring to extort money by making false allegations of sexual abuse. Smith voluntarily dropped the lawsuit before the mothers responded, and Matthew Sarelson, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, called the lawsuit “without merit”.
A lawyer for Smith did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published in December, Smith said she did not consider herself the plaintiffs’ employer at the time the videos were filmed with Rockelle. Smith has since obtained a permit to work with minors, she told The Times.
Smith is charged with child abuse and retaliation
In the 147-page complaint, plaintiffs described Smith as a ‘petty control freak’ and alleged that she made comments about children’s genitals, shouted lewd and sexually explicit remarks at them, encouraged them to be “sexy” and “sexually aggressive”. in videos, and touched children inappropriately on the legs, thighs and buttocks. A complainant said Smith told her she was sending Rochelle’s underwear to a man who liked to “sniff” them.
“As kids they don’t understand it, sometimes it goes over their heads,” said Steevy Areeco, the mother of another complainant. “But now they’re older and they’re starting to understand the trauma that was caused, the things they were told, those fake crushes.”
Areeco and some of the other parents and plaintiffs had experience in mainstream media before joining the “Squad”. Sarelson, the attorney, told NBC News that the guidelines for child actors on TV and movie sets don’t apply to non-traditional filming environments, like YouTube. Areeco said the ‘Squad’ were not acting because Smith wanted ‘real reactions’ from the children and would ‘force them into these adult situations they shouldn’t have been put in’.
“We all love YouTube and it’s a great place, but when someone uses it as a business and attracts other kids, those people should live up to a certain standard,” Areeco said. “We want there to be protections for children.”
YouTube demonetized Rockelle’s channel in February 2022, after Insider sent the platform a request for comment on the lawsuit filed against Smith. This means that the channel no longer earns money from advertisements. Rockelle makes money selling merchandise and is currently touring the United States performing music and meeting fans.
According to the lawsuit, in addition to not being paid, nine of the plaintiffs alleged that Smith and Hill “sabotaged” their YouTube channels after leaving “Squad” by falsely flagging their content as inappropriate and embedding their content on social media posts. pornographic websites so that they would be “considered ‘restricted’” by YouTube. The nine plaintiffs said Smith and Hill owed them at least $2 million in lost profits from YouTube.
“They lost their childhood,” Sarelson said of her clients. “Several of my clients have pulled out of the social media world because they had this bad experience.”
How social media stars avoid legal liability
Even before the lawsuit was filed, Smith and the parents of the former “Squad” members filed a lawsuit against each other, and Rockelle became a part of tabloid headlines.
In September 2021, YouTube removed three of Rockelle’s thumbnail images for violating its Child Safety Policy shortly after the P!nk singer tweeted that Rockelle was “exploited” by her mother. At the time, Rockelle and Smith replied that there was nothing wrong with the photos, with Smith telling outlets through a rep that she wanted to “protect” and support her daughter.
In April 2020, Smith sued a “Squad” relative who is not a party to the pending defamation lawsuit. The case was later settled, but in an August 2020 court filing, a content creator named Raegan Fingles signed a statement accusing Smith of giving him alcohol and aggressively kissing him during of live broadcasting at the age of 17. An attachment contained a screenshot of the moment on the live stream. Fingles told the Los Angeles Times that the FBI questioned him about the incident in June. Responding to The Times, Smith acknowledged the kiss happened, but said the incident was “grossly out of proportion”.
The FBI did not immediately return a request for comment.
As the dispute between Smith and the parents of former “Squad” members winds up in court, the kind of YouTube content involving child influencers has only grown in popularity.
Catalina Goanta, an associate professor of law and technology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, has researched influential kids around the world and said the industry has exploded as more and more Forms of monetization were becoming available, such as ad revenue, merchandising, live events, and sponsorships. Yet there are few forms of protection for child YouTube stars.
“You can have the Disney Channel production, starring your child, in your home,” Goanta said. “We have rules for child labor, especially entertainment work. Now we need to expand this to apply to children’s activities in the privacy of their homes.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they hoped above all that their clients would be compensated for their work and for the turmoil they experienced as teenagers after joining the “Squad”. But as to whether this case will cause a ripple effect in the kids influencer industry leading to bigger changes? They are not sure.
One outcome some advocates would like to see is for California to re-examine child performer legislation, such as the Coogan Act, which asserts that the earnings of minors in the entertainment industry are the property of the minor, not their parents, according to the industrial union SAG-AFTRA. The law also requires parents to place 15% of a child’s earnings in an escrow account, often called a Coogan account. If the law were to be reviewed, experts and plaintiffs hope it would be adjusted to include children who create social media content, whether they are under contract or belong to a guild like SAG.
The problem, Sarelson said, is that a Coogan account wouldn’t apply to his clients because his clients weren’t being paid for their time in “Piper Squad.”
“It’s a very wild and unregulated environment. There is potential for misconduct and abuse across the industry,” Sarelson said. “You would hope that the California legislature would investigate and take action to make changes, amendments to the law.”
In the meantime, the plaintiffs hope that Smith will suffer the consequences of his actions. Jennifer Bryant, mother of one of the plaintiffs, made it clear: “My goal is for Tiffany Smith to never work with a child again.”
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