[CW: mention of abuse and implied CP]
In our social media-reliant world, it’s hardly a surprise that young children have begun to dominate certain pockets of the Internet. But while many are simply enjoying themselves by engaging in pop culture on Instagram or TikTok, others are being exploited and deprived of their rights under the gaze of millions. What is masked as a family-friendly form of digital entertainment creates a psychologically damaging childhood that forces children into toxic “influencer culture” before they are even given the choice to partake in it: family vlogging.
Family vlogging is a specific subgenre of the wider vlogging (“video blogging”) trend that dominates today’s online video content, specifically on YouTube. As the name implies, family life is the main focus of day-to-day videos that record the various activities of parents and their children, ranging from household chores to Disney World vacations. The children take center frame, and their early lives are constructed around making content for their channel's subscribers—which can range from thousands to millions.
The culture of family vlogging as it is today has evolved dramatically in the past decade from YouTube’s first wave of vloggers. The vlogging trend began as a way for online personalities to showcase their lives to their followers in order to make them feel more connected, as if their fans were simply hanging out with a friend throughout the day (which was certainly one of the first instances of parasocial relationships on YouTube). This kind of content was also intended to be aspirational. With the vlogger showing off their seemingly perfect daily life, from working out to eating at nice restaurants to making memories with friends, their viewers undoubtedly felt a pressure to have the same perfect lifestyle as their online icon. However, these viewers couldn’t possibly be aware of the footage that was being edited out of the final video they watched, blinding them to the imperfect aspects of the vlogger’s life.
This element of aspirational content remained at the forefront of the transition from early, personal vlogging culture into the large-scale phenomenon it is today. As years passed, the daily activities of everyday individuals weren't cutting it—content creators had to go bigger and better. With the increasing amount of revenue that was coming to YouTubers in the mid-2010’s, they began showing off more extravagant lifestyles. Vlogging content became a matter of “you wish you had what I did” with a much more arrogant air, and creators began using daily videos as a platform to show off their mansions, luxury cars, shopping sprees, and, increasingly so, their families.
Family-based vlogging emerged from one of two situations: either already successful vloggers expanded their content to show off their children, or everyday families looking for wealth embraced the “aspirational” vision and tried to exhibit their happy, seemingly perfect family. In either case, a family vlogging channel cannot be successful without the central presence of children. With cameras shoved in their face from sunrise to sunset, these children have every element of their life recorded and uploaded to the Internet for anyone to see.
Because of the day-to-day nature of vlogging, children have no set amount of hours that they are allowed to be recorded. The content relies on the children keeping up their energy and performing activities for the sake of entertainment, and their services are directly required for the success of the channel. All the money that the video makes must first pass through the parents’ bank account; there are no requirements in place for a portion of that money to be allocated to the children. These factors therefore make family vlogging a modern, uncontrolled form of child labor.
The nature of child labor in family vlogging mirrors the fight for children's rights that took place in early Hollywood. Unions and parents alike fought for a limit on the amount of hours child actors could work each day, acting permits, and financial protections that guaranteed the child would receive a portion of their earnings in the future. Even today in Hollywood, the struggle continues for protections to be enforced. Similar to adults being the main individuals who control the amount of work child stars can do, family vlogging parents are in direct control of how much their children are on screen, which opens the door for potential exploitation by their parents. These children make content primarily in their homes, meaning that none of the regulations that exist in a typical workplace are present in their private residences. By being the main focus of the videos, children subsequently become the faces of their family’s own brand, and their likeness is promoted and distributed in such a way that turns these young children into the breadwinners of their families.
Illustrative of the children's work culture that exists on YouTube, one of the top-paid social media stars in the world, Ryan Kaji, is an eleven-year-old boy who reviews toys on a channel named Ryan’s World and is estimated to have a net worth of $32 million. He appears in videos that are uploaded nearly every day, showing off toys to his audience of children, often with undisclosed advertisements. His face has turned into a global franchise, with his own merchandise, Hulu show, and arsenal of Ryan-inspired toys—even appearing as a balloon in Macy’s 2021 Thanksgiving Day Parade. Before the age of 18, his parents have catapulted him into celebrity status without the opportunity for a normal childhood, since his channel began when he was three years old.
“When you think about it, it’s kinda weird that [companies] are creating this image of Ryan that is completely out of his control as a child,” remarks Eddy Burback, a YouTube commentary creator, in response to the commercialization of Ryan's image. “There’s so much Ryan content that this kid works a full-time job.”
Ryan’s case illustrates both the lack of protection young social media stars have and the absence of consent offered to children online. Since most of the children in family vlogs are under the age of 18, they have no legal grounds to refuse being on camera—the only people who could offer that protection are their parents, and the parents are the ones shoving that camera in their face in the first place. Without their children on camera, these channels would lack any unique videos, since the majority of their viewers come for the child-centered content, not the parents themselves—if viewers wanted to watch vlogs of adults only, there is an entirely separate genre of vlogging on YouTube dedicated to such. Family vlogging is structured on the basis that children cannot say no.
Whether or not these family vlogging children have their rights enforced comes at the discretion of their parents; more often than not, the parents will choose to make money over providing basic human decency to their offspring. “When parents are being paid millions of dollars to record their children and put them on the Internet, it is not a surprise that a lot of parents do not act in the best interest of the child, and instead, act in the best interest of themselves,” says Smokey Glow, another YouTube commentary creator who especially criticizes the dangers of family vlogging.
Outside of the lack of legal protections in the family vlogging world, the genre also comes with several risks that endanger a child’s overall well-being. For example, if a child does not fit into the picture-perfect image that the parents want to project on their channel, they may be ostracized from the rest of their family on the basis of not being “good enough.” In extreme cases, the child may be removed from the family altogether. Such was the case in which family vlogger Myka Stauffer "rehomed" her adopted, neurodivergent son from China only a few years after adopting him. The Stauffer family received immense backlash on the basis that, by taking into consideration their family circumstances shown in previous videos, it certainly seemed as though the child was rehomed because he was causing more disturbances to their family image than was worth the parents’ trouble. (It is also worth mentioning that the rest of the family was caucasian and neurotypical.)
Additionally, there is the extreme risk of the wrong audiences visiting family vlogging channels. Because these videos are public, any person with Internet access can view them—including those with malicious and predatory intentions. Several vlogging channels have chosen to remove their children from the Internet when their channel analytics revealed that a massive portion of viewers were adult men, and their YouTube videos were being embedded on the websites of pedophiles. One creator saw her percentage of male viewers drop from 40 to 17 percent of her audience when she disabled the ability for her videos to be downloaded (The New Statesman). This horrifying reality directly puts children in danger of being further tracked down by these viewers, as well as risks an extreme detriment to their mental health and self-perception if, in the future, they were to ever find out about their exposure to pedophiles. Being a victim of child pornography introduces life-altering effects such as PTSD, addiction, and mental disorders, which makes the young age at which these problems can be introduced to children of family channels even more alarming. Despite YouTube's efforts to reduce ill-intentioned adult behavior on family channels via the aforementioned disabling of comments and limiting the scope of recommended videos to viewers of child-based content, the platform has yet to take drastic enough measures to reduce predatory behavior towards children, since issues with pedophiles are still continuously happening on the website.
Some videos also include uncomfortable situations to present children in, such as the recording of temper tantrums, accidents, getting in trouble at school, or going through the awkward stages of puberty. This creates an imbalanced crossroads where content is directed towards adults who have the hindsight of what it means to grow up; yet, most channels’ demographics show that a majority of their audiences are under eighteen. Therefore, there is an increased likelihood that these children are being exposed to adult scenarios before they are mature enough to comprehend them. Parents are willing to record moments that would be best suited to remaining private, such as “the talk” or family meetings about personal subjects. The line between what stays private and what is shown to millions is increasingly blurred.
With all of these issues and more, why is it that audiences don’t see the problem with this content? Today, family vlogs are only increasing in popularity, and YouTube has announced no plans to introduce safety measures for children—the most the platform has done is disable comments on family vlogging channels, which barely addresses the root problems of the genre. The most likely reason that there have been no strides in protecting the rights of children exists in the aforementioned fact that the majority of these channels’ viewer bases are children themselves. The children who watch this content feel as if they are a part of the family they watch, further contributing to the development of a parasocial relationship. When the best aspects of family life are being broadcasted, it’s difficult for such young children to take a step back and think critically about the circumstances that may exist around the content they consume. Viewers believe that the perfect lives they see is what reality should be, even though that is often far from the case.
On the business side, YouTube turns a blind eye to the core problems of family vlogging because they only see dollar signs when looking at those channels. The company is highly unlikely to restrict content that brings them an immense amount of views due to the fact that YouTube keeps 45% of ad revenue per 1,000 ad views. YouTube favors “family-friendly” videos to display advertisements on—and what’s more family-friendly than family vlogging?
While family vlogging should absolutely be condemned for its exploitation of young children, it can also serve some good. Some channels take the care to craft guides on parenting and give other families insight on successful ways to raise a family, especially for young, struggling, first-time parents.
Sometimes, broadcasting the daily events of a family can also help audiences detect suspicious or dangerous practices of the parents. For example, when a now-defunct family vlogging channel known as Daddy O’Five was put on blast for making prank videos that psychologically abused their children, child protective authorities were alerted and the parents lost custody of their five children. Similarly, the channel Eight Passengers received immense backlash when viewers detected neglectful and borderline abusive practices from the parents.
Despite many family vlogging creators’ best intentions to showcase family life to curious other parents, the risks that such content poses in children's personal development and public exposure are far too significant to justify the continuation of this genre as it stands now. Family vlogging has undeniably become an Internet giant in the past decade, and new measures to protect the children must be introduced as the genre continues in its upwards trajectory. The general viewing public must pressure YouTube to introduce regulations on family channels in order to address the three core problems in relation to children: income, working hours, and privacy.
YouTube needs to keep a list of all of the family-focused channels that are registered under its partner program (which is how channels receive money from making videos on YouTube), and ensure that an account created for the children themselves is entirely separate from the parents’ income. Doing so would allocate a certain portion of income for the children to access as soon as they turn eighteen, similarly to Hollywood’s Coogan Law. These children deserve to possess the money that they are earning, not their parents.
To ensure that children are not being filmed constantly throughout the day, there should also be regulations on what percentage of a video can include footage of them. This percentage can be proportional to the video’s length—for example, only a quarter of the video can have children present in it, which would mean that a 10 minute video only features children for 2.5 minutes. With children less prominent in the overall video, there is an increased likelihood that they will not constantly be in front of a camera every day, or at the very least, hopefully to a much lesser degree.
Tackling the issue of privacy is far more complicated, as it is impossible to completely respect a child’s privacy if they are the face of a family vlogging channel. As the culture of family vlogging stands now, the only ways to avoid child exploitation is to put public pressure on family channels to stray from content including personal and invasive subjects, and to truly evaluate if they believe putting their non-consenting child on the Internet is more important than providing them with a safe and normal childhood.
Family vlogging is not just the modern form of home movies. It is an exploitative child labor practice that needs to be controlled, or perhaps even stopped altogether, in the immediate future. Otherwise, we will be faced with a new generation of worn-out child celebrities who know the lens of a camera better than their parents’ faces.