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30 November 2023

Family vlogging exploits children

Parenting influencers are now more self-aware, claiming to “respect” their children’s “boundaries”. But this type of content can never be ethical.

By Sarah Manavis

Is it ever okay to post pictures and videos of children online? The question has troubled most people online – from influencers with Instagrammable babies to the average parent posting on a private account – since the dawn of social media. But it’s never more contentious than in the world of family vlogging.

Family vlogs – videos documenting the everyday lives of real families and young children, mostly posted to YouTube – boomed in the 2010s. In recent years they have come under greater scrutiny, as viewers increasingly question the ethics of documenting intimate details about children’s lives for the entertainment of millions. In some cases, the children of family vloggers have grown up and spoken out about the psychological effect of having their childhoods broadcast online.

Many family accounts have since vanished. One disappeared following accusations that a parent was texting with teenage fans; another after a parent was charged with child abuse. A family with millions of followers shut down their account after making videos encouraging their children to physically abuse one another, while another account was shut down after two parents told their viewers they would be putting their adopted child, who had special needs, back up for adoption, despite making videos about the child for years.

This reckoning has meant that audiences are more aware of how children might be put at risk by family “content” and are more sensitive than ever to parenting influencers. But this hasn’t markedly decreased the appetite for family vlogs. Instead, it has merely created a demand for something slightly different – content which assuages the concerns and guilt of the viewer but still provides what they want to watch.

We have entered the era of the “ethical” family vlogger. These parents promote a message of “transparency” to their followers – telling them, in detail, about how often their kids “work” on “creating content” and how they honour their child’s wishes when making videos. They “respect” their children’s “boundaries” and promise audiences that they would never force their kids to shoot something they didn’t want to. Their children’s faces are hidden, or their names and ages are obscured; they may be out of shot, with only their voices audible, or filmed entirely from behind. These parent influencers will criticise other family vloggers, declaring that they know they’ll lose viewers by following these more ethical practices. Some will dramatically leave social media to “protect” their children, only to slowly return to posting videos of them. They argue that, rather than making content out of their kids, they are bravely documenting the reality of modern family life.

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Despite such loud proclamations of morality, the reality of this new version of family vlogging leaves many viewers asking the same ethical questions. Their identities may be more hidden, but these children are still filmed obsessively – often, it would appear, without their knowledge: from a distance, zoomed in, as they’re playing, or in the car when they’re partially hidden in the backseat. Even with increased transparency, the schedules for filming can still be rigorous. One viral TikTok highlighted just how much some family vloggers expect of their children, resharing a video from a TikTok influencer who told followers she didn’t want her kids “working” on a family holiday and so would “only” shoot “a few videos a day”, before scrolling through a list of 40 different filming concepts. (The influencer responded that these were ideas, not a schedule.)

While the ethical issues with, for example, making sponsored content about a child’s medical appointment are fairly obvious, these rebranded family vlogging channels can enter much greyer territory. Some present filming their kids as an actively moral act or a public service to other families. These accounts, such as some run by stay at home mothers (#SAHM) or parents of kids with special needs, claim to shine a light on the under-discussed struggles of parents today. Videos featuring children with disabilities may reveal the challenges of parenting a child with specific needs, but all too often it is videos showing these children in distress or vulnerable moments that “perform” the best online and attract the most views.

To many people, the ethical issues of filming your child for social media content will still be obvious. However, fans of these accounts argue that these kids are getting a cut of the money, that their parents are acting in their best interest, or that content creation is real “work”, just like child acting. But these children cannot consent to the reality of having their daily lives documented in detail for strangers on the internet – nor is this “work” a role they can leave behind at the end of the day. Plenty of “parenting” content could be made without featuring any children at all. But the uncomfortable truth of family content is that it’s entertainment, and what draws in viewers is not parenting advice but sweet and charming clips of children.

It’s understandable why this content is so popular: for all parents, there’s probably some relief in seeing other people grappling with the ups and downs of modern parenting. But in the world of rebranded, sanitised family vlogging, ethical posturing obscures the reality: that these people are still influencers, ones using their children’s private lives to sell content that will bring them attention, money and opportunity. This may be a gentler, more “transparent” version of family vlogging – but it’s still exploitation.

[See also: Is Gen Z the most conservative generation in history?]

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