Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for August, 2021 is Digital Realities. We invite submissions on the many layers of experiences from the virtual world throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
“Hey guys! Welcome to our 6 million celebration”, I hear a shrill voice say that can’t quite enunciate different phonemes. The hand isn’t strong enough to hold the camera upright and the camera shakes before hitting the ground. I wonder ruefully if the child is ready. The father holds the camera in one hand and gingerly holds the infant in the other, who doesn’t seem too impressed and is preparing to start bawling. The parents link the independent social media handles of their children in the description box of the video. As I question the viability of this business model, a video of Alyson Stoner meticulously detailing the trauma resulting from childhood stardom is recommended to me.
As YouTube (that happens to be the most popular short video creation and consumption platform) presents itself as a feasible, full-time career option, family vlogging is becoming increasingly popular, both as a form of content that is avidly created, and wolfed down with equal enthusiasm. A noticeable pattern in these family vlogs is that what starts out as two consenting adults documenting their lives, eventually paves the way for “Surprise Pregnancy Announcement Vlog”, “First Ultrasound Vlog”, “Baby Kicking Captured on Film”, “Raw and Real Birth Vlog”, “Baby’s First Day Out”, “Potty Training Vlog” and a string of such videos involving the child. The camera is quite literally shoved into the child’s face from the moment they are born, and consequently, catapults them into fame and a responsibility that they never chose.
Funnily enough, although YouTube restricts the age of children to create and control individual channels, there is no such limit on the age at which they can be exposed to the camera on their parents’ channels. The very blatant privacy invasion, including a child’s online safety is scary if one was to think about it. YouTube is notorious for not having strong child protection regulations in place, and the sheer lack of control over who consumes content involving young children is a heavy price to pay.
Security breaches are an obvious outcome of sharing a child’s personal information and details for millions of viewers. Parents are known to have captured and posted their children’s most vulnerable moments, including breakdowns on social media, which can often serve as leverage for cyber-bullying, and/or bullying by peers in future. The children become impassive characters in their parents’ act. Do children lose their right to refuse filming because they’ve been an integral part of their parents’ channels? Will their needs be tweaked according to what fits the aesthetic of the brand the channel represents? Often, these children are cornered, and hence unable to recognize abuse, and exploitation for what they are. When the children become the cynosure of a YouTube vlogging channel, it is a recipe for disaster, as the relationship changes from parent-child to employer-employee.
It can be argued that abuse is isolated and that children actually ‘consent’ to being filmed, but is it really possible for children to completely fathom a concept that is so widely misconstrued? For all we know, children possibly ‘consent’ because they know that ‘talking to the camera’ gets their parents’ approval or they might think that they are actually talking to someone (an imaginary friend), not a few million people. Their (lack of agency) is misinterpreted as consent.
The long-term psychological impact of the instant fame and validation culture that family vlogging brings about on the children is immeasurable and could be potentially devastating. The mental health struggles and trauma of child actors were also unanticipated and unfortunate outcomes of young fame, and work commitments. YouTube has conferred instant stardom and celebration on several people, and particularly children. Leaving the YouTube bubble and transitioning into reality will be a humongous change for these children. The inherent nature of the vlogging genre is to blame for this, as it is precariously perched between reality and realistic entertainment.
As the first generation of children to be so heavily exposed to social media, the unknown ramifications are truly terrifying. These ‘kidfluencers’, some of whom boast of personal social media handles with millions of followers, are exposed to social media well before they can establish their identity. It is unarguable that a childhood without the interference of social media is fuller, as it is spent being in the present experiences, and allows more scope to falter, be vulnerable, and unleash the bitter and ugly. Family vlogging primarily strip the children of any semblance of control over which part of their life is edited and uploaded. The concept of privacy and consent that is largely discussed in the context of adults, must be extended to children, as their existence exclusive of parents or guardians must be acknowledged. This would also mean acknowledging the children’s presence in family vlogging videos as work and providing them pecuniary benefit for the same through a trust fund.
Vlogs that are catered specifically to children are beguiling to watch, but often manipulative and even unethical. Often, family vlogging also promotes aspirational lifestyles, and consumerism (hoarding) that distort and promote only a certain kind of success- (not so) humble flexing of wealth.
“Children are neither the possessions of parents nor of the state, nor are they mere people-in-the-making; they have equal status as members of the human family.” – UNICEF
Featured image source: Study Breaks