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5 April 2024

The child entertainment reckoning

From family vlogging to kids TV, former child performers are speaking out about toxic workplaces, exploitation and abuse.

By Sarah Manavis

The most chilling element of American mom-vlogger Ruby Franke’s prison sentencing in February was not the condition her children were found in when she was placed under arrest – starved, dehydrated and covered in wounds from being bound with rope. It wasn’t the harrowing revelations that emerged during her trial, such as how Franke had forced her children to perform hard labour without adequate protection, resulting in serious sunburns, or allowing her manager to make her children jump on a cactus as a punishment. It was the fact that Franke had spent most of the previous decade creating YouTube videos about her punitive parenting philosophy, in which she advocated punishments such as withholding meals, making her children sleep on beanbags, and threatening to behead their toys – then filming their distress and obedience as proof that her approach to discipline worked. While she received backlash for her videos, it was precisely this cruelty that drew in hundreds of thousands of viewers. By 2020 she had more than two million subscribers and had surpassed one billion views on her YouTube channel. Despite the cruelty of her actions, they made Franke rich and famous.

Franke’s conviction is part of a sudden, widespread reckoning with the ethical issues of children working in entertainment – from stars of family vlogs to those who work on kids TV. In late 2022, the ex-Nickelodeon star Jennette McCurdy released her superb and disturbing memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died, which detailed the abuse she suffered from her obsessive stage mother, alongside the inappropriate attention she received from TV executives while still a teenager. Only a few weeks later, Insider published an exposé in which former child stars claimed the Nickelodeon producer and screenwriter Dan Schneider created a “traumatising” environment on sets. (Schneider has apologised for making female staff feel uncomfortable, but denies his TV shows sexualised children.) HBO’s new documentary series Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV reveals the toxic and abusive environment at Nickelodeon as well as other popular kids’ channels in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Ex-stars make allegations about being overworked, emotionally abused and even sexually assaulted by the adults they worked with, and who were often in charge of their welfare.

Similar stories are coming to light about children working on social media, an industry that has existed for less than two decades. Children manipulated to produce social media content are reaching adulthood and speaking out about their exploitation. They have described the humiliation and exhaustion of having intimate parts of their lives broadcast to an insatiable online audience, often at the insistence of their own parents. In a March feature in Cosmopolitan, one now-adult child of a 2010s parent influencer spoke of the pressure put on her by her mother: “[If] my smile wasn’t as bright as it should be – that would usually devolve into accusing me of not caring about our family. I was told by my mom, ‘Do you want us to starve? Do you want us to not be able to make our payment next month on the mortgage?’” Many claim they never received any financial compensation for the years of full-time work they did for their parents’ social media channels.

Why is this reckoning happening now? It is partly because these children have become adults and are sharing the realities of their experiences in front of the camera. But it is also due to our growing awareness of the limited (and circumventable) protections in place for child entertainers, particularly on social media, at a time when scrutiny of the harms caused by social media are at an all-time high. We now know posting content of children – no matter how apparently “cute”, candid or benign – opens them up to danger from fans and predators (this is before considering the harm they may be facing from parents).

This leads us to a serious question: how did any of this happen in such plain sight? It’s easy to look back at content from Ruby Franke and wonder how her videos escaped the attention of child protection bodies, let alone generate fans. While there are some laws around working conditions for child actors, young influencers have no rights via traditional child labour laws in the US. These laws are desperately needed, and creating strict rules for child influencers would certainly be a start.

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But even with rules, regulations and supposedly trustworthy adults in the room, abuse can still be rife. Since Quiet on Set began airing, old kids TV clips have gone viral on TikTok and Twitter featuring lewd double entendres performed by oblivious young actors. Some ex-screenwriters claimed on Quiet on Set that these jokes – clearly inappropriate for a child audience – were deliberately included. They added that, when they protested, they were overruled by more senior writers and producers.

Drastic changes must be introduced to protect the children appearing in videos today. And yet we are already seeing those with power providing only vague mentions of increased safeguarding, mea culpas without accountability, or clever sidestepping, such as parents pitching themselves as “ethical” family vloggers (while continuing to film their children for financial gain). There’s little that could make up for the trauma and lost childhoods suffered by former child stars. But we could spare the next generation a similar fate.

[See also: What I talk about when I talk about netball]

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