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Smile Sweetie, You’re on Camera!

The Ethics of Family YouTube Channels

By Durga Sharma

Image: Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels

YouTube is a rabbit hole. Quite literally, there is something for everyone, from travel vlogs to ASMR videos to TikTok style shorts, it has become a streaming service in its own right.

One particular corner of the platform that has gained traction over the last fifteen years are family YouTube channels, where parents document all aspects of their lives. Whether it's parenting advice, day in the life snapshots or pregnancy and birth vlogs, these channels have it all.

The original family channel seems to be the Shaytards and, though they do not upload as frequently anymore, they have been on YouTube since the 1st October 2008, with their official line on their information page being “if life’s worth living then it’s worth recording!!!” Clearly they must have been onto something, as they now have over two thousand videos to their name, and a loyal following of 4.76 million.

Family YouTube channels are extremely popular and diverse; there are people from all over the world and from different cultures creating their niche. But no matter what they choose to focus on, these channels all have one thing in common - kids. The children of the internet, who are undoubtedly very cute and always ready with a smile.

However, this raises two important questions - did these children choose to be online? Did they - and indeed can they - consent to sharing their lives across the internet from such a young age? 

This is not a new debate: concerns have been there since YouTube as a service took off, however I first became acutely aware of the dangers of children being online after stumbling across Mom Uncharted, a Canadian Youtuber who has been discussing minor safety since 2021. Though she has a relatively small following of 53.4 thousand, she is openly speaking about issues of privacy, safety and potential child exploitation in the name of content. Additionally, Mom Uncharted highlights the lack of laws surrounding online child content creators, a stark parallel to the film and TV industry (though there are several conversations that need to be had about how this industry can do better for child actors as a whole).

It is concerning that there are no specific laws governing content creation in this context. Though the concept of family YouTube channels and child creators has been recognised in a recent report appropriately entitled ‘Lights, Camera, Inaction?’, it has also been acknowledged that children working under their parents and guardians are not protected under UK child labour laws. This leads to a situation where work is completely unregulated, and leaves these children wide open to capitalisation, exploitation and potential abuse, both physically and psychologically. Particularly in terms of psychological effects, the long-term impacts of life on the internet are as yet unknown, especially where children are concerned. However, the report made it clear that their privacy can become damaged irreparably, as seen in the Ruby Franke controversy.

In case you missed it, Ruby Franke was the creator behind 8 Passengers, a now defunct YouTube channel that previously had a following of over two million. In August of last year, one of her children escaped from the family home, and was later taken to hospital to be treated for malnourishment and other physical injuries. It later emerged that severe child abuse had been taking place over an extended period.

Image: Nicole Michalou via Pexels

Why does this matter? In the official articles published by major news sites, including the BBC, the children’s faces have been blurred out of any photographs used. However, I question the efficacy of such an action when these children are already known far and wide across the internet due to their featuring on 8 Passengers before it was deleted. Their privacy had already been compromised, and therefore could not be effectively preserved when it mattered.

Even outside of extreme and unfortunate situations such as the Ruby Franke controversy, if children are being used as a vehicle for content, how can they be adequately protected from the wider world?

There are very much two sides to this argument (and the law student in me thinks it is very much an Article 8 versus Article 10 debate). Some YouTubers such as the Sacoone-Jolys take the view that their children can choose to leave the channel if they later decide they do not want to be a part of content creation. YouTube is a form of expression which they are completely entitled to, and their children can opt out as they wish. This is the Article 10 view - people are entitled to free expression, including but not limited to forms of media such as YouTube.

The other side hinges on Article 8: the right to private and family life. It seems that family channels overlook this somewhat; children are not given the choice to remain offline, as is their right. As YouTube has grown in popularity, more and more people are striving to preserve Article 8 for their children, with familiar faces such as Hannah Witton and Jessica Kellgren-Fozard making the conscious decision not to show their child’s face.

Other channels such as Julie and Camilla and Jar of Fireflies go further, and do not share their child’s names. They recognise that although they themselves have decided to be content creators, their children have not, and are not able to give informed consent to being online at such a young age.

So are family YouTube channels an ethical enterprise, or simply a gateway to privacy issues?

With the right controls, they can actually be very beneficial for parenting advice or just some wholesome content at the end of the day. Having said that, I do think that it’s important for children to be kept away from the camera, not only for their own safety but also for their mental health. We do not know the long term effects of being online, and it seems an undue burden to place on young children who did not choose to be content creators in the first place.

In short? Do better.


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