Family vlogging is not the squeaky clean and wholesome content it appears to be. Family vlogs are extremely popular on YouTube and its viewership has shot up by 90% in recent years. Children are the stars of the show, but being a ‘kid influencer’ comes at a hefty price. Their parents and social media platforms like YouTube have failed to protect them and current laws in America are not enough to shield them from exploitation.
Child performers in traditional media work under strict regulations which regulate their working hours and ensure that they are safeguarded, have sufficient breaks, are not exposed to age-inappropriate things, and are assigned work that would not interfere with their education. Having no regulations on the internet has meant that family vloggers, like 8 Passengers, can shove a camera in front of their children’s faces even after they say that they do not want to be recorded.
This has allowed YouTubers to post videos with sexual undertones involving children, like The Ace Family’s ‘Rating Mommy’s Outfits’ and Austin McBroom’s own video joking about and buying a phallic lollipop for an unidentified girl, all in the name of entertainment and views.
The DaddyOFive child abuse case highlights just how disturbing a lack of regulations is. Only after prolonged public outcry did YouTube finally remove the family channel.
Imagine all of the other exploitative channels slipping under YouTube’s radar because they are hidden under the platform’s vast and bottomless pit. YouTube at least has some regulations to protect children using their platform, but seem to be ignoring the children actually featured on their platform.
Child labour laws
The Coogan Law was enacted in 1939 after Jackie Coogan, famously known for his role in The Addams Family, sued his parents for spending the money he made as a child actor. The law requires at least 15% of a child’s earnings to be deposited in a blocked trust (Coogan account) for the child when they are old enough to use it.
This was a huge turning point in the protection of minors involved in traditional performance and continues to protect children today. However, the law has not managed to keep up with the borderless digital age, leaving many social media child stars vulnerable to exploitation.
In 2018, the ‘kid influencer‘ bill was introduced by California lawmakers in an attempt to keep up with the digital world by incorporating social media advertising into the definition of employment in child labour law. It also proposed that minors working online would have to obtain a work permit and follow similar rules outlined in the Coogan Law.
California law requires child stars under 18 to obtain a child performer service permit in order to work in traditional media. However, it was concluded that child influencers do not need work permits if their performance is unpaid and shorter than an hour. This means that parents can essentially get away with exploiting their children.
If parents do not need to apply for a work permit for their child, then they have no incentive, nor a legal obligation, to open a Coogan account. Scrapping this requirement also means that we are relying on entertainment companies and sponsors to make ethical decisions. Some companies such as Settebello Entertainment require parents to save their children’s earnings in order to receive their services. However, relying on others is leaving things to chance.
Most family channels, like The Ace Family, do not disclose how much they are saving for their children, if at all. Given the lavish lifestyle that these vloggers have, and that this lifestyle is part of the content focused around “we bought a new car”, or “we bought a new mansion”, one can only wonder how much the children are getting.
Who does the money actually belong to?
Although child performers own the remaining 85% of the money, parents can still use it to care for the child. The definition of caring for the child needs to be much more specific. At the moment it is very broad and goes as far as to include buying a house and even paying themselves a salary to manage their child’s career (many parents even quit their jobs to do so).
Blurring the boundaries between the child’s money and the parents’ use of it only confuses situations and opens the door to embezzlement. Of course, not every parent is out to steal their child’s money or to use it inappropriately, but unfortunately the attitudes displayed by most parents within the industry are worrying.
Children who make money on the internet are their parent’s employees, but a lot of parents do not see it that way. Child Instagram stars’ parents and YouTube family vloggers often retort when people raise concerns about over-working their children “my child is having fun” or even “my child isn’t working, I am”. These kinds of statements echo the words of Coogan’s stepfather who told the press that “every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents”.
This issue found in Hollywood clearly crosses over into the digital world and yet children are not afforded the same protections as traditional child stars.
Whose responsibility is it to protect children on the internet?
The internet is undoubtedly a difficult space to regulate but that does not mean that people should abandon trying to make it a safer place.
The responsibility should be shared amongst parents, the law and social media platforms, as well as social media channel representatives and brands who reach out to family vloggers for advertisements.
YouTube and other social media platforms should not limit their responsibility to just informing parents of kid influencers that labour laws exist. They need to play a much more proactive role in protecting children and should be obliged to because kid influencers are making money on their platform. The platform dictates what kind of things are permitted and prohibited in videos involving children and controls their revenue thus making them somewhat of an employer of the child, as well as the child’s parents.
Brands and social media channel representatives have a responsibility not to endorse and reward channels that exploit children and upload morally questionable content. They have access to the videos family vloggers put out and so there is no excuse for not researching the channels they wish to work with. If every company had these kind of checks it would help to reduce the spread of toxic channels.
This is where the law comes in. If there is no legal requirement for brands, entertainment companies, and parents to protect a child’s income, or the law fails to regulate online content using a clear set of rules and punish those who do not comply, all three parties will most likely put business profits above the child’s mental health, investment in their future and their overall well-being.
If nothing is done about content involving children on the internet, we will have a lot of child stars growing up and telling the world how they did not want their privacy to be breached and how the spotlight has affected their mental health. We have seen this happen with mainstream media child stars like Macaulay Culkin, Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus even when they had legal protections that social media child stars do not. We must work to protect children’s futures and preserve their right to choose and their dignity.