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Fame over family: The dark world of family vlogging

With the camcorder making its way into residences across the world in 1983, a surge in home videos and family-filled footage showed the value in collecting memories and sharing special moments within the safe confines of your own home. Sony had allowed movie-making to be available to the masses. However, another revolution in more recent years broke down many barriers within the world of communication: The social media revolution. So too did it break down the barriers of people’s own homes. Family footage of children opening Christmas presents or losing their first tooth is no longer limited to the privacy and viewership of close relatives, but to everyone that has access to an internet connection. This is family vlogging.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that babies in bow-ties and seemingly average parents sharing aspects of their everyday life is as innocent and authentically wholesome as it sounds— but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that that’s not the case. As often is the instance with social media, not everything is what it tends to present itself as. This sickly sweet and rapid-growing YouTube genre (which has shot up in viewership by 90% in recent years according to Time Magazine) is nothing short of disturbing no matter how one tries to dress it. Even more unsettling is the realisation that the negative effects of family vlogging on these ‘influencer kids’ are still little understood. The whole genre raises a multitude of ethical questions that are in desperate need of answers. 

The most effective way to understand the ‘unique’ world of family vlogging is through examples of what are considered huge names in the category. RomanAtwoodVlogs, The Ace Family and The Labrant Family all have subscribers upwards of 10 million on the world’s favourite video sharing platform,YouTube. The latter of the three families was described by The List as ‘social media royalty’ and have been the subject of both great controversy and intense media worship. The same magazine has estimated that the Labrant family are making anywhere in the region of $15,000 per day or $5.5 million per year. With the channel’s yearly hike in subscribers, this is likely to be far exceeded as of now.

So, how do they become ‘social media royalty’?

Let’s begin with what is at the core of family channels— the children. According to a study in 2019, Pew Research Center found that YouTube Videos that feature children under the age of 13 receive more than three times as many views as videos without children. ‘Creators have seen it as a way to guarantee ad revenue due to the videos’ popularity,’ The Verge wrote in a 2019 article discussing the new study’s findings. More children means more views and in turn, means more money.

Parents and owners of family vlog channels seem to neglect the more genuine aspect of home movie-making that existed before the social media revolution. The aim is not to have valuable private documentation of the good, the bad and the ugly to pull out at celebrations to reminisce. It is now for the pursuit of celebrityhood and six-figures. When parents then establish themselves as channel owners involving their children for monetary gain, the lines between parenting and business become blurred.

The daughter of The Labrant Family’s founders, Everleigh, was illustrated in The List’s 2020 article as a ‘pint-sized social media hit in her own right’ before stating that she, as of 2019, was in the top 3 richest YouTube children in the world, determined by the U.K website Childcare. Comparing an 8 year-old child to a common measurement for beer or cider can be seen to be verging on objectifying. Children are often portrayed as money-making props not just by the media but by those that they are supposed to trust the most — their parents.

Now, allow yourself to be introduced to the infamous tactics of ‘clickbait’. According to dictionary.com, clickbait is ‘a sensationalised headline or piece of text on the internet designed to entice people to follow a link to an article on another web page.’ This can absolutely be applied to video content, too. It is essentially anything that entices a viewer and makes them want to ‘click’. From Pew Research Center’s study— that even includes children.

In mid-September of this year, a Los Angeles mum known as Jordan Cheyenne was caught, through an editing error, forcing her son to ‘fake cry’ for a YouTube thumbnail on a video titled ‘we are heartbroken’. What is more disturbing is that her son was genuinely and authentically crying because of the prospect of their unwell puppy not surviving. The appearance of empathy and nurture that we associate with not only good parenting but good morals, had vanquished in the pursuit of a clickbait, staged thumbnail. In the pursuit of fame and fortune. 

Los Angeles mum telling her son to pose for the camera to get a clickbait thumbnail, Credit: Supplied

Unfortunately, Jordan Cheyenne’s case is one of the few incidences of inauthenticity that is publicly highlighted and doesn’t slip easily under the viewer’s eye. Some family vlog channels are far more subtle and their manipulative tricks go unobserved— especially when targeted at a younger and less experienced demographic.

These type of YouTubers include The Ohana Adventure: A family vlogging channel that is centred around Jason and Rachel Bennett, along with their 6 children. In 2020, Jason Bennett was featured in a podcast interview with another YouTuber known as TheTechieGuy (Liron Segev), discussing how he gained his 2.7 million subscribers at the time. Bennett and Segev’s discussion was incredibly insightful but at times awfully uncomfortable.

Several notable points were raised where Bennett explained that the reason he began the channel was to get him and his wife out of debt, where as a family they are always thinking about the next piece of content and even that he has business meetings with his children almost weekly.

Among the more potent things being discussed was the family’s demographic where Bennett admitted that he had to age down his target audience because he realised that teens lose interest once they have a driving license. ‘If you can get eight year olds, they’re very engaged, they’re very active, the algorithm loves it,’ Bennett said. This didn’t so much unsettle as it did fascinate until his final statement as the podcast arrived at a close.

Segev asks if there is one message Bennet could put on a tweet or a video that everybody could watch, what would his message be. Bennett responds with: ‘I’m all just about be real. Honestly, just be real. I respect people that are real so much because real isn’t popular.’

That may seem like a lot of ‘honesty’ and ‘real’ talk for a man who titled a video ‘Mom gets Cancer removed! scary facial surgery’ which was nothing short of a lie. In actuality, there was no cancer removal in the video at all. It was just the removal of benign moles from Rachel, his wife’s, face. Not even 10 minutes into the video, the nurse had told Rachel: ‘This doesn’t look like anything precancerous. This looks healthy.’ 

Credit: The Ohana Adventure

Yet still, this was seen as an opportunity for sensationalism, clickbait and content. When the results arrive, they gather all their children in a room to film their reaction to the fairly predictable results. The children’s reaction was the money bag in not just this video, but in most family vloggers’ videos. This was catastrophising for the sake of ‘content’. Not only a lie, but can also viewed as an insult to all those that have genuinely had to have cancer removed. Unfortunately, their audience does not have the capacity to hold them accountable for actions like this because, like Bennett admitted, they are children themselves. Most can’t understand this; they can only fall victim to it.

It was clear after listening to this podcast that for Jason Bennett, family vlogging wasn’t about getting out of debt anymore, not even about living comfortably— it was about living luxuriously. This leads us to what happens when you finally combine all three: children, sensationalised thumbnails and titles. You get a distasteful viral video with 12 million views and a huge sum of cash in return for your lack of humanity and morals. This is exactly what happened when a channel called Best Trends uploaded a video of a young girl in obvious physical and emotional distress titled ‘Little Girl Goes To Heaven While Her Parents Watching (emotional)’. Undress that title and you essentially have ‘a little girl dies while her parents watch’ and what is deeply saddening is more so that the majority response is so positive to this upload. The girl, thankfully, does not die but Best Trends have essentially created two victims in this instance — the little girl and the viewer.

What are the consequences?

‘For the first time in history children are having their entire lives documented online for the whole world to view,’ says a 2020 Humboldt State University paper on the dangers of parenting in the public eye. The largely understood yet just as dangerous aspect of family vlogging is the competition.

Jason Bennett mentioned in the podcast feeling in competition because a lot of family vlogging is becoming very ‘me too’. Now, they haveto make their family stand out and are willing to go to extreme lengths to do this. When you have a whole category of families trying to outdo one another with ‘pranks’ and ‘dares’—somebody is going to get hurt. It constantly evolves, propelling into never-ending disasters of psychological abuse with nobody to put the breaks on.

We seen this with the family vloggers, DaddyOFive. A dad and step-mother who lost custody of two of their children because of psychological child abuse that was used as online content. They carried out ‘pranks’ on their children where they would break their valuables for a negative response, and then tell their child it was a ‘prank’ and replace the valuables for a positive one.

That’s the thing with this category of YouTubers. What is this teaching not only their children but what many family vloggers claim is the majority of their demographic — other people’s children? That if you first tolerate the extreme discomfort of watching your valuables being destroyed, then you will be materialistically rewarded. 

On a far darker scale, Nisha Talukdar in a paper researching the effects of family vlogging in children for Christ University last year, found that a well known YouTuber had to delete all the traces of her children from her channel when she discovered that her videos were being used on paedophile websites.

“Anything can be turned vulgar and these parents don’t really realise what kind of people are embedded in their subscribers’ and views’ list,” Talukdar writes. To most family vloggers, as we have gathered, their subscribers are just figures. Their demographics are just statistics thus when monstrous people are brought to reality, this is something that parents cannot seem to fathom. That number is no longer just a number, it’s a real person. It’s a bizarre naïvety, that one can argue, doesn’t really feel justified.

It isn’t like there aren’t stories nearly everyday about the use of the internet in harmful ways. Or even an exposure of a child sex crime. It appears that parents essentially decide that the perks of celebrityhood outweighs the protection of their child, and that will inevitably be a hard thing for some children to come to terms with as they age.

So as of now, it can be hard to provide any evidence of concrete consequences while this new media phenomenon soars in popularity. Essentially, the only real thing we can do is speculate with given events and circumstances. However, it’s almost inevitable that time will reveal all. And by then, it is only natural to fear that it might be too late.

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