Children on the Internet are not just one-time funny 20-second clips; they’re sensations. Just look at popular family-oriented social media channels like Family Fun Pack, Tannerites, The Norris Nuts, ACE Family, and The LeBrant Fam. These channels effortlessly rack up over a million views per video, accumulating 55 million followers on YouTube and a jaw-dropping 32 billion views combined! But that’s not all; children on the internet aren’t just getting views and likes. They’re also earning millions through sponsors and partnerships.
Before jumping to conclusions, it’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with sharing a short montage to celebrate a child’s birthday or graduation. It’s a cute and enjoyable way to keep distant relatives in the loop and remember milestones. However, some family channels have taken the documentation of their family lives and milestones to another level. They’ve turned it into a spectacle, sensationalising and monetising aspects of not only their own lives as parents but also their children’s lives (see article). This trend has become so popular it has even earned its own catchy buzzword – “sharenting.”
But what happens when these family vloggers go beyond the adorable and venture into a darker territory? The LeBrant Fam, for example, decided to film their son’s first surgery. Because nothing says “family fun” like capturing your child’s potentially life-altering medical procedure–But they didn’t stop there–. They found it hilarious to prank their six-year-old daughter until she cried. And just to top it off, they pulled their eldest daughter out of school so she can homeschool and take care of her three younger siblings and spend more time with the family. Who needs a social life or an education when your families entire lives depend on the Internet and creating content?
This kind of footage raises serious concerns about the emotional toll it may take on these children. Instead of receiving support and comfort, they can become pawns in their parents’ quest for popularity. And these are not outrageous concerns; just a few weeks ago, Ruby Franke from the YouTube Channel “8 Passengers” got arrested for child abuse.It’s incidents like these that put child protection laws and the internet back into the spotlight of a much-needed conversation.
But let’s pause and contemplate the concerns associated with this phenomenon. How young is too young for a child to consent to being on the internet? I mean, we have age restrictions in place for creating personal Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook profiles– that age being 13–, which arguably is still too young to be exposed to all the internet has to offer because we understand that young kids might not fully comprehend the potential harms or consequences lurking on these platforms. So, shouldn’t we apply similar restrictions to featuring children on the internet? Even though thishis is not to say there should be no children on the internet at all, limitations should be considered.
To address these growing concerns, some countries have started taking action. Take France, for example. In October 2020, the government passed a bill that limited the hours a child under 16 can work online. The bill also stipulates that the earnings of these child influencers must be set aside in savings, and upon turning 16, they have the right to request their content be removed. As of right now, France is the only European country to pass an explicit law addressing child influencers.
In the United States, where a vast majority of these “family vloggers” are based, before 2023, there weren’t any specific laws protecting children from the possibility of “exploitation of child influencers.” There have been laws to protect child actors since 1936 with the Jackie Coogan Lawbecause it’s much easier to monitor media productions and the hours a child works. Things get more complicated when all the filming takes place in the family home where there is a discrepancy in the amount of hours a child spends filming each video.
This lack of protection is, thankfully, changing. Illinois has become the first state to pass a law requiring parents to squirrel away 50% of their child’s earnings from July 2024 into a blocked child’s trust fund. This amount will be based on the proportion of time the child features in the videos. And in February, Washington State introduced House Bill 1627, which aims to protect minors in for-profit family vlogs. The idea is that heavily featured children would be entitled to financial compensation. When they come of age, they’ll have the power to demand the removal of any embarrassing videos (which is fantastic since some videos are titled “Elle Calls from School Crying **Sad Moment**” and Holiday Ruined Because our Family is Falling Apart”)
Diving into some extreme cases that highlight exactly why regulations are needed, some may remember in 2018, YouTube star Nikki Phillippi and her husband, with a fan base of 1.2 million, attempted to adopt a child from Thailand but withdrew at the last minute because Thai adoption laws forbid any online sharing of information or content about the child for a year. Then, in 2020, popular YouTubers Myka and James Stauffer (channel now deleted) adopted an autistic son from China, documenting the three-year process. However, they ultimately “relocated” the adopted son because his needs surpassed their ability to provide. Laws like Thailand’s aim to prevent children from being adopted solely for online fame and grant both the child and family the privacy they deserve during such a life-altering transition.
Privacy is one of the missing pieces in this digital frenzy, and laws are desperately trying to find the right balance. How can we ensure children’s safety while preserving online autonomy? What about those who can’t give informed consent? And what are the psychological effects of living your life online? These questions don’t have easy answers and we still don’t know the full effects of being exposed online in such an intimate manner.
But amidst the chaos, let’s not forget the influencers who are genuinely trying to create a supportive community. Take Billy Vsco on TikTok, for example, who spreads awareness and acknowledges the wild and lonely journey of parenting. He offers solace and advice for confused parents worldwide. There are many who simply want to document their times as parents online and that’s great. I love seeing a mum or dad share a triumph, or discuss the struggles of night time routines. But, as we navigate the uncharted waters of child influencers and sharenting, we must recognize the importance of finding a middle ground between privacy and online engagement. It’s a challenging task, but if we truly care about our children’s well-being, we need to have this conversation.
Cover: MART PRODUCTION/Pexels
Edited by Adriana Cid