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13 September 2023

We must do more to protect the children of YouTube

Family vloggers profit from invading their offspring’s privacy, and there is barely any regulation of what is shared online.

By Amelia Tait

On 1 September, Ruby Franke, a mother-of-six living in Utah was charged with six counts of child abuse. Since 2015 Franke had shared videos of her family’s life with millions of followers via her YouTube channel called 8 Passengers. A few days prior to Franke being charged, her 12-year-old son reportedly climbed out of a window and begged for food and water from a neighbour, who described the child as “emaciated” with duct tape marks on his ankles and wrists. Shortly afterwards, officials said they found Franke’s 10-year-old daughter in a malnourished condition.

To write, “to the outside world, they looked like a nice, normal family” would be a lie. By 2022 thousands of people had signed a petition asking for US Child Protective Services to investigate 41-year-old Franke. In her videos, Franke said she withheld meals and beds as a way to punish her children for poor behaviour. One of Franke’s adult children posted on Instagram in 2022 that she was “not in contact” with her family.

This is not the first time a family vlogger has been arrested. In 2017 Mike and Heather Martin were convicted on two counts of child neglect. The Maryland couple filmed themselves pranking their children – pranks which became gradually more extreme – and posted the videos to almost 750,000 followers on their YouTube channel called DaddyOFive. Investigators said that “mental abuse” had occurred and the couple lost custody of two of their children.

In Arizona in 2019, Machelle Hobson, who ran a YouTube channel called Fantastic Adventures, was accused of beating and starving her seven adopted children, and was later arrested on child abuse charges. She allegedly disciplined her children if they forgot scripted lines when filming videos for her channel, which had 800,000 subscribers. Shortly after her arrest, Hobson died from a brain injury.

The question at the heart of these cases is not, “How did thousands of subscribers fail to notice anything was wrong?” They did. The question is why don’t viewers have any recourse to raise concerns, beyond petitions and gossip forums? You can complain to Ofcom in the UK and the Federal Communications Commission in the US if you fear for a child on reality TV – but there is no equivalent body that protects children featured on YouTube.

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[See also: Don’t let TikTok tell you how to dress]

I have been writing about the dangers of family vlogging for almost a decade. I am worried about the invasion of privacy and safety of children whose parents have facilitated them amassing millions of subscribers, often without consent. I met children who have been filmed since birth. I interviewed a dad who received a card from someone threatening to gouge his children’s eyes out. I spoke with a mum who stopped filming her children after she learned that paedophilic websites directed viewers to family vlog channels.

Yet all too often it’s the parents that concern me, not the viewers. Some YouTube parents have admitted to posting footage of their children online, even after finding out their videos were on paedophilic sites. They have filmed toddlers eating fast food for “mukbang” videos. They have sold replica dolls of their newborn baby. They have asked their teenage daughters to tell the camera about their first period. They have filmed a toddler licking a penis-shaped lollipop. They have video live-streamed children moments after their mother died.

I can’t believe there is no independent regulatory body that safeguards these children – that ensures they consent to being filmed, are paid fairly, and are not exploited. In September 2022, parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published an investigation that recommended the government create new legislation to protect child influencers. In response, the government said it was “open to exploring what legislative options may provide children with greater protection”.

In August Illinois became the first US state to protect online child stars, passing a bill that ensures minors are financially compensated for appearing in videos. It’s a start, and yet I find it hard to understand why more isn’t being done – family vlogging took off on YouTube 15 years ago. How many more children are going to suffer while we do nothing?

I became interested in writing about family vlogging because I used to enjoy it. As a teen, I watched videos of one American family playing on the beach, opening birthday presents, going to Disneyland – I envied their lives. The father later admitted to being an alcoholic who cheated on his children’s mother. 

Any lives broadcasted on social media are rarely as perfect as they seem. But even transparently troubling content can be widely viewed, and no action taken. Since Franke’s arrest, TikTokers have shared clips from her old videos – in one, Franke refused to take her six-year-old daughter’s lunch to school for her, after the child accidentally left it at home. Franke said: “Hopefully nobody gives her food.”

Family vloggers often film and post incriminating evidence themselves. Many of the troubling scenes I’ve listed in this article are not subject to any investigation, but were freely posted online. I imagine police officers don’t have time to trawl through hundreds of videos and collect evidence without first having an official complaint of illegality. This is why we need a regulatory body now, before more children are harmed.

[See also: Lucy Letby true crime content should worry us all]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites