Exploiting childhood for clicks
By: Jenna Bartkovsky
In the age of oversharing, family vlogging content has exploded across online platforms, turning temper tantrums into clickbait and bedtime stories into scripted performances. It is one thing to post a video of your child at their soccer game for family to see and an entirely different thing to document every moment of your child’s life for the enjoyment of strangers online, all while turning a profit. With every lost tooth and sibling squabble broadcasted to the world, families are inadvertently turning their homes into reality TV sets. This comes with potentially disastrous consequences. As likes, subscribers and money surge from this genre of content, some parents fail to realize that their children exist for more than content generation– they are people with just as much of a right to privacy as any adult.
The Allure of Family Vlogging
I, myself, have never been an avid consumer of family vlogging content. Truthfully, I had only heard about this genre through headlines regarding the misdeeds of such content creators. However, given that family vlogs continually amass millions of views across online platforms, there must be some sort of reasoning behind its popularity.
As it turns out, people enjoy watching family vlogging content for a variety of reasons. Firstly, these channels can provide parenting tips and offer a sense of support for viewers undergoing similar struggles or circumstances. Additionally, family vlogs offer a glimpse into the lives of (seemingly) relatable families, allowing viewers to connect with the vicissitudes of everyday life. With the interactive nature of these vlogs, viewers can witness a family’s growth and development over time, creating a strong sense of attachment. Oftentimes, viewers end up feeling like they’re a part of these families, creating strong parasocial relationships. Only time will tell whether this feature is ultimately beneficial to the children of these creators.
The Exploitation of Children
The participation of children in vlogs, or any publicly broadcasted content, raises a host of ethical issues. One overarching issue surrounding the visibility of children on the internet is the concept of informed consent. Given that children, especially those of a very young age, cannot fully comprehend the implications of their participation in vlogs they are therefore unable to give proper consent. These children are often uninformed of the permanence of the content they are involved in or the long-term consequences of living under the public’s eye. Such content can range from average family moments to experiences that are wildly sensitive or personal.
Some parents may prioritize their own interests, or the interests of their viewers, over those of their children. This can manifest in situations where parents stage or manipulate scenarios to make them more compelling to the audience. There have been instances, even across some of the most popular channels of this genre, where the natural emotions and reactions of children have been exploited for views.
This behavior turns what was supposed to be authentic content into a form of reckless sensationalism.
One family vlogger based in Utah, Ruby Franke, is guilty of not only such exploitation but also of child abuse and neglect. On August 30th, 2023, Franke was arrested on six counts of aggravated child abuse. Franke launched her YouTube channel, “8 Passengers,” in 2016 and quickly amassed over 2.5 million subscribers. Her videos featured herself, her husband and their six children. Franke would often showcase extremely intimate moments of her children’s lives, ranging from waking them up in the morning and sleeping at night to even the first time one of her daughters shaved her legs. Every mistake her children made or argument they had gotten into was broadcasted to the world. Her children were never entitled to any form of privacy.
Franke had an extreme and individualistic “parenting” style that she’d advocate her viewers to adopt. She’d so casually reveal that she’d refused to drop lunch off at school because her young children had forgotten it or that she’d take away her children’s bedrooms for bad behavior and force them to sleep on bean bags for weeks. Over the years, viewers noticed how harshly she treated her kids and started a petition to get CPS involved. The “8 Passengers” channel was deleted soon after; however, CPS failed to intervene at the time. A year later– this past August– one of Franke’s sons escaped from their home by freeing himself from duct tape restraints to ask neighbors for food and water. Police flooded the home and found another one of Franke’s children malnourished and covered with bruises and open wounds from being bound. Franke was quickly arrested and currently awaits trial.
Although this is an extreme and heartbreaking example of the harm inflicted by family vloggers onto their children, it showcases just how easy it is to get away with the exploitation and mistreatment of children on the internet. Franke profited off of the obliteration of any form of privacy her children were entitled to and showcased her abusive nature for years without legal consequences. It took the abuse becoming noticeably extreme and the decisive action of her young son to finally convince law enforcement to intervene.
The Hunt for Fame and Fortune
I’m sure that nearly all family vlogging channels start with pure intentions, as most things do. However, as the views, likes, followers and money start rolling in as a result of a constant outpour of content or the use of clickbait titles and graphics, the intentions change and the hunt for fame and fortune persists. This comes at the expense of the emotional well-being of vulnerable children.
Former child stars often speak later in life about the immense amount of pressure put on them in their youth to perform– to behave perfectly and to fit the role assigned to them. This came at the cost of their emotional development. I believe it to be no different for child influencers who are propped up by their parents. Both child influencers and child stars work to entertain the masses in order to turn a profit and support their families.
Yet, child influencers lose their right to privacy in the process as their everyday lives are made a spectacle.
Another difference between child actors and child influencers does not happen to be the amount of money they can make. Some of the most popular family vloggers on YouTube have subscriber counts well into the millions, creating content nearly as lucrative as those in Hollywood. Instead, the difference lies in the fact that child influencers are not yet legally entitled to the money they generate. There are concrete labor laws in place for child actors on TV but not for those on the internet. Given that most family accounts are owned and operated by the parents, it is not very likely that they are drawing up contracts for their children to sign. Child influencers can only hope that they will see the money they generate on the internet. It is solely up to the goodwill of the parents, as there are no legal consequences (as of yet) if they do not set aside the profits that their children have earned.
Future Legal Protections
As mentioned, there is currently a lack of legal protections for child influencers. The National Fair Labor Standards Act does not address children who perform on the internet, nor does the infamous California’s Coogan Act which passed in 1939 to protect the earnings of child performers.
Thankfully, the climate looks to be changing and new legal protections are underway. Illinois’ new law, which is set to take effect in July of 2024, demands that content creators in Illinois set aside a portion of earnings from videos including the “likeness, name, or photograph of the minor” in a trust for them to access upon adulthood. The percentage of earnings allocated is based upon how heavily that minor (defined as 16 years or younger) is featured in the content, even in stories told about them without showing their image. Creators who neglect to do so can eventually be sued for damages by their children.
Illinois’ law is a step in the right direction for ensuring that the labor of children on the internet is not only recognized but also protected. There is hope that other states, as well as the federal government, will follow suit in the near future given the obvious popularity of family vlogs and the ever-present exploitation of children on the internet.
Jenna is a third-year media production student with a focus in business and a minor in history. She is passionate about all things entertainment and hopes to one day enter the field of media law.