Everyone’s talking about child exploitation in the media. From the explosive documentary Shiny Happy People to former child-star Jeanette McCurdy’s best-selling memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died. But another epidemic of child exploitation is happening before our eyes. And chances are, you’re contributing to it.
Family vloggers have been some of the most popular creators since the dawn of social media. As well as entertaining the masses with cute and wholesome clips of family life, they inspire parents and offer support in the difficult, and often lonely, process of raising children.
But recently concerns about the ethics of using children as content have led to calls for stricter social media regulations. Here are some of the key criticisms lobbied against these creators.
Children Are Entitled to Privacy
Imagine this: you’ve wandered into Times Square, New York, and you see a large stage in the middle of the space with children on it. On each side, you can see their parents snapping and gesturing towards them, telling them exactly what to do. Strangers in the crowd walk up to the adults and press money into their hands, which is quickly pocketed. They then shout another stream of directions at the entertainers.
“This is wrong”, you’d think. “Wrong and immoral”.
And yet every day across social media, parents upload videos of their children from the comfort of their own homes. These parents are doing the exact same thing as those at the side of the hypothetical stage.
But at the end of the day the strangers watching this stage will move on, the children and their parents will head home, and only the memory of the performance will be left behind them.
The internet, however, doesn’t pack up and go home at the end of the day. The videos of these children will haunt them through their adult lives and could remain in circulation for generations to come.
Family Vloggers And Their (Problematic) Streams of Income
There is little legislation beyond social media community guidelines about what content adults can post of their children. Likewise, there are no rules about compensating the children in full-time vlogging families for their hours of work. Vlogging parents can legally keep all of the money which their family has earned, leaving their children with only a string of embarrassing videos when they grow up.
Beyond ad deals, sponsorships and Patreons, the adults surrounding these children can also profit off exposing them in inappropriate ways.
Sarah Adams, one of the most vocal critics of family vlogging and ‘mommy-run’ accounts, outlines some of the creepy and dangerous ways parents generate income off their young children on her TikTok and Instagram @mom.unchartered.
She exposes parents who create cameos of their underage children, allowing strangers to pay a small fee for a personalised video of their child saying hello, or happy birthday to them. Many of the fans who purchase these short videos are adult men.
Other creators create Amazon wish lists with inappropriate items for children, such a silky nightgowns and high heels, for fans to send to them. These fans sometimes even get to watch the children try them on in gratitude.
Some also encourage followers to subscribe to external platforms to receive exclusive content of their children, reminiscent of what OnlyFans creators do.
These parents deliberately place their children in harms way, allowing online predators to sexualise them. And yet social media deems it acceptable, a sacrifice in the name of likes and clicks.
What About Their Education?
Often content-creating families choose to homeschool. Although many families outline their rigorous teaching schedules, others take a worryingly lax approach.
Emma Hosfeld, found on her Instagram reels account @emma.hosfeld, advertises her approach to home-educating her children as “De-Schooling”. She admits to not using a curriculum to teach her children, preferring instead to “explore the world and focus on our Genuine Interests.”
This has led to worries that her children, like many others being home-schooled, are not receiving the level of education which they ought to.
There are also concerns about these children being able to make friends. Although many content-creating families are keen to show their kids socialising with other homeschooling families, the extent of the isolation of these children can be worrying.
No Life Outside of Vlogging
Karissa Collins is the martriarch of the Collins family, seen on TikTok as @thecollinskids. She mentions in the one of her videos that her ten home schooled children look different from their traditionally-educated peers.
In the caption, beneath her ten smiling children skipping cheerfully towards the camera in matching outfits, she writes
“I noticed our children were just different. They don’t dress the same. They don’t wear crop tops and booty shorts. They talk different. They don’t cuss or talk about their expensive shoes and clothes. They don’t bully other kids or walk around with phones blasting music.”Karissa Collins
With a mother who views the perfectly common and normal behaviour of non-homeschool teenagers in this way, how are her children ever going to feel comfortable around others who haven’t lived the life which they have? How will they handle meeting such people when they leave home?
And how can they know that what their parents do to create content is not normal and could be abuse?
ThIs the biggest concern about the prevalence of homeschooling among full-time content creators. When children don’t go to school, they miss out on teachers trained to look for signs that something is wrong. They miss out on support networks outside the home and numerous academic opportunities.
They miss out on a safe space. A space where there aren’t any iPhone cameras lying in wait, ready to film every moment as content.
Adopted Children Are Not Content Farms
When channels involve adopted children, a plethora of new issues abound. Whilst creators defend themselves posting children online to raise awareness for the process of adoption, they are often criticised.
A lot of these creators are white parents adopting ethnically non-white children. When this happens, viewers are quick to point out the undertones of white saviour complexes. There are also accusations of white supremacy, as these parents are profiting off non-white children.
No-one can forget the infamous 2018 Nikki Phillipi video in which the YouTube star announced that she would no longer be adopting from Thailand. The reason? Because a law in Thailand prevented them from posting the child on social media for the first year following adoption.
The video has reliably resurfaced on social media every couple of years, with commenters quick to express their disgust and horror that a family would decide to cancel an adoption solely because they would be unable to profit off of their baby for a year.
Disabled Children Are Not Content Farms Either
Even worse, in 2020 Myka Stauffer announced that she had rehomed her adopted and disabled son, leading to an outcry. Her child, a toddler called Huxley, was central in her channel long before his adoption in 2017.
Myka and her husband, James, documented the process of adopting from China. They received numerous financial donations for loyal fans committed to helping them on their adoption journey.
The agency informed them that their baby had a brain tumour and special needs. They continued with the adoption anyway. However after three years of Huxley being continuously in the family’s content, Myka told fans that she had decided to rehome him with another family more equipped to deal with his “special needs”.
This has led to accusations that she viewed her child as disposable. Others argue that she was ableist in refusing to provide for his special needs despite knowing he would be disabled.
And although Huxley will be too young remember his time in the Stauffer family, the damage has already been done. Not only will he grown up knowing that his adopted parents have abandoned him, but also will be able to see for himself, in detail, the first three years of his life on his ex-mother’s YouTube Channel.
What Can You Do?
The shiny, wholesome veneer of family vlogging has been irrevocably cracked, revealing the exploitation of children who are too young, or too sheltered to understand the true implications of their parents’ actions. And now, they are starting to speak out about their childhoods.
But whilst reality TV kids were filmed by strangers with big, hulking cameras, these children are faced with a far more insidious reality. Their parents not only allowed them to be exploited, but enacted the cruel process of child content production themselves.
Unfollow your favourite family vloggers and ‘mommy-run’ accounts. Boycott them until they lose their popularity. Join the fight to make social media companies finally realise that the abuse they have tolerated is no longer acceptable.