Courtesy of Markus Spiske Via Unsplash

Until Children Are Protected, Family Youtube Channels Should Not Exist

Imagine gazing back at the reflection of your 13-year-old self and turning your face to the side as you examine your once silky smooth prepubescent skin now a mountain range of bulbous acne. Overcome by waves of insecurity, you turn to your mom for advice. As you try and flip your hair to cover the blemishes, your mom whips out her Canon PowerShot and starts vlogging about your journey into adolescence while poking at your pimples, and plans to post this new video to the family vlog by next Tuesday 8 AM EST.

While this scenario sounds like a hypothetical nightmare, it is, unfortunately, a reality for children who are part of Youtube family vlog channels. Vlogging is described as “the frequent recording and uploading of personal videos, usually on Youtube.”

Family vlogging is a subdivision within this industry where families allow viewers to have access to their domestic life by posting videos about everything from their morning routines to announcing exciting life changes, such as buying a new home or revealing a pregnancy.

The popularity of this industry has skyrocketed upwards of 90% in 2017, according to Youtube. There’s clearly a market to be quenched in regards to domestic antics, and it’s fair to say that on paper, family channels provide harmless entertainment easily consumed by both parents and kids alike. The main reason for their success appears to be their “realness” on camera.

Offering a platform for this candidness where viewers can talk in-depth about the characteristics and tribulations of each family member keeps viewers attached and coming back for more. However, in an effort to keep churning out videos primed for viral distribution, some parents have resorted to extremely questionable and borderline exploitative content.

The first crop of these videos took the form of ‘pranks,’ where children would unknowingly be at the receiving end of jokes. It’s easy to want to dismiss this perceived silliness, yet keep in mind children are particularly sensitive and gullible. It’s one thing to prank your kids Jimmy Kimmel style by telling them you ate all their candy. It’s another to smash their electronics and curse them out for “bad behavior” as the child cries out, red-faced and confused.

The latter example used was not a hypothetical scenario: this “prank” happened and was posted on Youtube, courtesy of family vlog channel DaddyOFive. Having a total of nearly 750,000 subscribers at their peak, the channel became the center of public scrutiny regarding their loosely executed “pranks” which were geared towards their youngest adopted son, Cody.

Under the spotlight, viewers combed through the channel’s content and found additional disturbing content, including Cody being shoved into a dresser by his guardian, Michael Martin. As Cody struggles to get back up, Martin eggs on Cody’s older siblings to shove, kick and slap one another across the face.

Two days after a video exposé was created by Youtuber Philip DeFranco highlighting DaddyOFive’s blatant abuse, the story ballooned and Youtube, at first, only removed ads from the channel citing it’s Youtube Community Guidelines were violated. Eventually, the channel was suspended, and Cody’s guardians were indicted with state child neglect charges and received five years of supervised probation.

While a severe case, there’s no shortage of these “pranks” being conducted on children on popular family vlogs. A less-extreme version of this occurred on The LaBrant Fam channel, where parents Cole and Savannah Brant tricked their 6-year-old daughter, Everleigh, on April Fool’s Day into thinking that they were giving up her dog for adoption. A distressed Everleigh can be seen clinging onto her pomeranian as tears stream down her face. All the while, the camera is kept up close and focused.

While Cole and Savannah apologized following the expected backlash of their April Fool’s prank gone awry, videos of this type of nature are still sprinkled throughout their channel. In another instance, the parents switch out Everleigh’s shampoo with purple dye. Shortly after her parents make the switch, Everleigh can be heard shrieking for her Mom as she emerges from the shower slathered in deep purple dye, wide-eyed and confused. As her parents cackle trying to explain the prank, the camera, of course, records every second of monetizable content.

Even if the pranks are deemed physically harmless, this type of emotional content is constantly being churned out on The LaBrant Fam channel. Titles such as, “OUR FIRST PET DIED :(,” “We think Everleigh is getting the flu…,” and “Breaking The Bad News To Everleigh” run rampant.

Pressing ‘record’ while filming pranks on children is one thing, yet having a child’s life continuously documented during their vulnerable moments, such as being sick with the flu, seems grossly unnecessary. Children cannot consent to their faces being plastered to the internet for eternity. Their documented temper tantrums, sickness, or acne breakouts may follow them well into adulthood, carving out an identity that the children have no ability to claim as their own.

Via Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Ask most of these children about their willingness to participate in the family vlog and the majority might reply that they are enthusiastic about participating in the channel. However, “all children want to please their parents,” says Harold Koplewicz, a psychiatrist and head of the Child Mind Institute. Not to mention, children have not developed the brain capacity to understand what they agree with — which is why parents serve as guardians for their children under the age of 18.

One Youtube family vlog in particular, The Stauffer Life, made this business model abundantly clear. Vlogger Myka Stauffer had a relatively successful Youtube channel until she began posting videos in 2017 detailing the adoption process she was undergoing to obtain an autistic boy from China.

Over the documentation of the adoption process, Myka’s channel exploded with new subscribers eagerly following the story. She produced 27 videos detailing the adoption process, including a 13-part series of “adoption updates.” In October 2017, Myka posted the grand finale to the series with the long-awaited content: adoption day. The video was titled, “Huxley’s EMOTIONAL Adoption VIDEO!! GOTCHA DAY China Adoption.” A huge hit for Myka, the video was viewed over five million times on the monetized channel.

Once Huxley had been flown back to America, it wasn’t long until the Stauffer’s understood what they were up against. Huxley’s disability, paired with the language barrier, made a seamless transition to the family nearly impossible. Myka would record Huxley’s daily meltdowns, where he was often found in the corner of a walk-in closet completely overwhelmed from external stimuli.

Yet, the family continued to save face. Up until 2020, posts containing Huxley’s progress continued to be active and monetized, with one of Myka’s last posts featuring Huxley reading, “The last couple of days have been hard I don’t want to sugar coat anything…We have hard days, lots of them. I wish autism and adoption trauma had a manual to direct you through it all.

Then on Mother’s Day of 2020, the Stauffer’s released a Youtube video explaining that they had “rehomed” Huxley and placed him with another “perfect match family” which would ultimately benefit Huxley’s “emotional well-being.”

While certain viewers flooded the page with support, others caused an uproar. In an open letter to Myka Stauffer written by Stephanie Drenka, Stephanie writes,

“You told your followers this would never happen. After receiving his autism diagnosis, you said, “He’s our son and that’s that. We’re not gonna trade him in, we’re not gonna return him. He’s our boy.” Behind that false promise, it was clear even then how you truly saw Huxley- as merchandise.

Labeling a child as ‘merchandise’ can be jarring, yet it, unfortunately, makes sense once you look through this scandal from a business stance.

The term “return on investment” (ROI) is the ratio between profit and cost of investment. When your expenses add up to less than what you’re earning, the whole operation is ROI positive.

In Myka’s case, Huxley’s adoption was extremely profitable. As her subscriber count skyrocketed, it allowed her to gain significant monetary gain through multiple sponsorships, ad placements, and Amazon affiliate links. However, when Huxley started becoming a problem by not being able to handle the constant filming and wasn’t in a position to enrich her brand, the whole operation turned ROI negative.

With Huxley being the focal point of Myka’s personal brand, everyone involved suffered. Myka was exposed as profiting from White Saviorism, Huxley was given to a new family and had to rebuild his life from scratch, and the rest of the Stauffer children most likely suffered from the clear favoritism on Huxley’s part when he used to lend a profit.

It’s unclear whether children like Huxley, who make their parents an enormous amount of profit, are protected under the law regarding the finances they’ve made off their exposure. The only well-known bill regarding this notion is the Coogan Act, a law applicable to child performers “which safeguards a portion of their earnings for when they reach the age of majority.”

However, it appears that there is no version of the Coogan Act available for child social media stars. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “digital influencers’ income (unlike children’s earnings from work in traditional media), is not protected by law — raising questions about the possibility of parents exploiting young online talent.”

It seems deeply unfair that children who cannot even properly consent to have their entire lives recorded, followed, and monetized are not even entitled to the fortune that their image amasses for their parents. Children like Huxley, who’s own personal trauma turned profitable for his parents, won’t be guaranteed any money gained from his own exposure and publicity.

Perhaps, for the sake of argument, the lack of monetary protection isn’t enough to convince people that children shouldn’t have the right to appear on Youtube channels. Let’s revisit the claim that once posted, a child's face floats through the abyss of the Internet indefinitely and can be digitally identified through a 0.02 second Google search.

A child could potentially be bullied by their classmates as they poke fun at their parent’s wacky lifestyle and have access to a breadth of inside information and personal details regarding the child’s life. While this is a sad premise, this is not the target demographic one should be concerned regarding who is watching their child on-screen.

Consider “mummy vlogger” Allison Irons, who had been posting videos of her children on Youtube over the course of five years. However once Allison decided to utilize Youtube’s analytics tools, she made the unbelievable discovery that her videos consisting of diaper changes and breastfeeding had been embedded on pedophile websites, and her audience demographics primarily consisted of older men.

After Allison urged other parents to get their children off of Youtube, other high-profile vloggers shortly followed suit. However, little has been changed regarding Youtube’s safety resources. As explained by reporter Amelia Trait,

“This might not sound like much, but it’s a YouTube first. The website’s safety resources for parents extensively discuss how to prevent children from watching certain videos, but say nothing about preventing them from being watched.”

The internet is a vast, dark abyss where no one really knows how their privacy is being protected or who is even watching them. As parents control their children’s online activity, they consequently create digital footprints the child is completely unaware of. With their digital identity floating on the internet, it is easy for people to take advantage.

A considerable amount of the channels place their children in scenarios that are either too “adult” or tend to infantilize them. The Ace Family, a massive Youtube family vlogging channel, uses clickbait titles revolving around their 3-year-old daughter’s ‘dating’ life by releasing content such as “THIS BOY ASKED ELLE OUT ON A DATE!!!” or “ELLE GOES ON HER FIRST DATE!!!”.

On the other side of the spectrum, Youtube channel “Crazy Toys” posts bizarre videos of the family’s daughters partaking in messy, strange, and infantile tasks. In one video, the girls spread slime and cheese balls all over the kitchen counter and feed spoonfuls of pudding to one another while the father calls them “bad babies” in a slow, exaggerated voice. The whole ordeal is incredibly unsettling, and frankly, after uncovering the channel, I’ve reported them and suggest you do too.

Placing children in these strange situations, one must ask themselves exactly who is watching these videos and why this content is being produced. Who are the parents trying to convince to watch their kids placed in these vulnerable and oddly specific scenarios?

As family vlogging continues to mature, it’s repercussions and side effects on children will inevitably emerge.

Parents demand constant attention and exposure from their children in hopes of making monetizable content, consequently creating a tumultuous and emotional setting for children to grow up in. The children are then unable to provide consent, be guaranteed money from their exposure, or be protected by who watches them online.

The downsides of this industry are compelling. As these kids grow up and realize what their parents have exposed them to, it wouldn’t be surprising to see in 5 to 10 years lawsuits crop up targeting these parents for emotional distress and financial compensation. Until then, these children will be plastered on the internet for as long as parents can squeeze every coin out of their formative years.

NYC content writer obsessed with all things consumer tech, digital marketing, and the future of work.

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